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CBD 2017: What Makes Living Things Tick, The Restless Clock

November 8, 2017 -
12:30pm to 1:30pm

Free and open to the public. REGISTER HERE

Ever since the beginnings of modern science in the 17th century, philosophers and scientists have used clockwork as a metaphor to describe the universe and the natural world. Clockwork generally makes one think of something rigid, rote, constrained, something that ticks along without changing. However, hidden within this centuries-old clockwork metaphor is a tradition of people who have understood clocks, and nature, very differently: as restless, responsive, and dynamic. These renegades include the German philosopher Leibniz who first described living things as “organisms,” and who said living organisms resembled clocks in their “restlessness”; the French naturalist Lamarck who was the first to present a theory of what we now call evolution; and the Austrian pioneer in quantum physics, Erwin Schrödinger, whose landmark 1944 manifesto What is Life was foundational to the new field of molecular biology. All three compared living beings to clocks but all three specified that they meant restless clocks. The talk will explore the history of restless clockwork as a model for living things.

Instructor: Professor Jessica Riskin, PhD, teaches European history and the history of science at Stanford University. She was educated at Harvard and UC Berkeley, and has also taught at MIT and Sciences Po, Paris. She is the author most recently of The Restless Clock: A History of the Centuries-Long Argument over What Makes Living Things Tick. Her first book was about science and revolution in France, entitled Science in the Age of Sensibility. Her most notorious piece of writing is “The Defecating Duck” (which has even been mentioned in a novel by Peter Carey). Her most downloaded work by far is “Machines in the Garden” ( She lives with her husband, son, daughter, dog and cat in Berkeley, CA.

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