How MIThenge Got Its Start

by Nancy DuVergne Smith on June 30, 2011

in Campus Culture, Remember When...

MIThenge photographed in 2009; courtesy Wikipedia.

MIThenge photographed in 2009; courtesy Wikipedia.

As sun worshipers come out in northern climes, Slice is mulling a venerable sun ritual we can look forward to in the cold months—MIThenge. The twice annual event—mid-November and late January—is now a campus tradition, but it was only discovered, calculated, and publicized in 1975-76. And the discovery came from the architecture department.

Want to see MIThenge—the two-minute phenomenon that floods sunlight down 825 feet of the Infinite Corridor? Watch a short video.

A Sky and Telescope article traces the origins of MIThenge to the fall of 1975 when then architecture research affiliate Tom Norton heard comments about how sunlight occasionally flooded the Infinite Corridor. Curious about how far the sunlight could reach, he worked with two colleagues, Timothy E. Johnson and Sean Wellesley-Miller, who made the calculations a project in an architecture class. Several students found that a solar alignment occurred twice a year. Norton decided to publicize the event and created a poster that reported the phenomenon and included the student calculations and photography pioneer/MIT professor Doc Edgerton’s silhouette of Stonehenge. “MIThenge” was born when Norton plastered posters all over campus just before the next sighting in January 1976. Ever since, students have crowded the optimal viewing area—third floor of Building 8, looking west—twice a year.

That was not the end of the calculations, however. When Ken Olum PhD ’97, now a research professor at Tufts Institute of Cosmology, was working in his graduate degree, he saw the poster and noticed a problem with the numbers. He found an error in “rounding the azimuth to the nearest degree and having the corridor slant upward an unrealistic amount,” the article reported. His response was a new calculation that he posted in 1997 with predicted dates through 2100. Although there are caveats about those calculations, you can find the dates in the MIThenge website.

Learn more in the Sky & Telescope article—and mark the date for the next MIThenge.

 

 

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

The Bobs June 30, 2011 at 12:30 pm

This fall one of the dates that it occurs is 11/11/11. Maybe that will be the end of the world?

Reply

Rowland Williams July 29, 2011 at 11:43 am

Is there a corresponding sunrise event or is that blocked by buildings? Hope planners never place a building to block this phenomenon – maybe MIT should obtain a “view easement”!

Reply

Jim D August 2, 2011 at 1:39 pm

Let’s hope MIT doesn’t someday put up a building on the west campus that blocks out the sun, preventing this phenomenon!

Reply

Alan Wexelblat August 4, 2011 at 7:45 pm

Your information is somewhat out of date. I believe you can find more current info at http://futureboy.us/mithenge/

This site has more detailed information on both sun and moon crossings as well as links to software used to make the predictions.

Reply

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