Today, a janitor helps us fathom time. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
Jay Gould is a geologic
historian. He tells how geologists came to terms
with time that ran far older than the Biblical
begats. 18th and 19th-century scientists, he says,
held opposing views of our ancient past. Some
thought that Earth had taken it's shape
progressively -- over eons. Others held that Earth
is shaped by purely cyclic processes -- that Earth
has no history -- no beginning -- no end.
Earth is both things, says Gould. To underscore the
point he shows us two strange works of art. First,
the frontpiece of Thomas Burnett's 300-year-old
book on cosmology. Burnett showed Earth after each
catastrophic Biblical event, since the beginning.
Then he closed the circle. He showed Earth passing
through a matching set of future events that
finally return it to perfection. He endowed history
with a fearful symmetry.
Burnett was a serious scientist. He labored to fit
observed facts into the Biblical accounts. Earth,
he said, evolves. Yet it also moves in a great
looping cycle. He set the stage for both parts of
the debate that followed him.
Gould ends with a work by James Hampton, a barely
literate black janitor. In a vision, Hampton was
told to build a throne room for the Second Coming.
And for 33 years he did. Each night, after work, he
shaped it from bits and pieces -- old furniture,
light bulbs, beer cans. He captured beauty that we
The world found Hampton's masterpiece when he died
in 1964. It's a glittering array of symbolic
furniture. 177 ornate pieces are all wrought in
perfect bilateral symmetry. He poured enormous
creative energy into his secret room. He transmuted
junk into works of strange grace and balance. Gould
first saw them in the National Museum of American
Art, and he was stunned.
Hampton's throne room was just like Burnett's
frontispiece. Both tell of Earth's progressive,
symmetrical cycle. Hampton's pieces tell of Alpha
and Omega. He arranged them in a circle that begins
the ends at the top. Like Burnett's drawing, they
retell the past on the right. On the left they
prophesy a future that will replay past events in
With eerie clarity, James Hampton saw what
scientists had struggled to see ever since Burnett.
He saw that events cycle in time. Things repeat.
Day follows night. Nature displays symmetry. But he
also saw that time is directional and irreversible.
It takes us from one place to another. If science
tells of reproducible, or cyclic, events, it also
recites our history. It tells the story of our trek
through time. Science tells of things that begin
and that, someday, must also end.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds