Today I came across a folder in one of the boxes of Van Nice’s research materials that particularly sparked my interest. It was titled simply: “Orientation,” and inside was a collection of notes, articles, and newspaper clippings relating to the physical orientation of buildings and their significance.
From my perspective, two things were especially captivating about this folder: one was the broad sense in which Van Nice was interested in “orientation.” The material in the folder ranges from straightforward and precise notes on Hagia Sophia’s cardinal orientation to newspaper articles on Fung Shui. Second was the focus on astronomy and optics; it was fascinating to peruse Van Nice’s carefully cut out articles on Archimedes’ “heat ray” tactics during the Seige of Syracuse, the craters of Mercury, and the use of myth to preserve astronomical knowledge.
Though I’m no expert, I can imagine there are many reasons why the orientation of a building, especially a spiritual building, might be important. In many cases, the cardinal direction faced during prayer is a significant, integral part of the purpose of the building. In other cases, it can be an added symbolic layer. The orientation of a building combined with the placement of windows, especially in the days before electricity, was also crucial to providing adequate light—whether one was looking to simply optimize the amount of natural light coming in, or to control it in precise ways. (The latter seems to have been the case at Hagia Sophia, judging by the spectacular displays of light that occur at certain times inside the building.)
Of course there may be many other reasons, whether symbolic or practical, why the orientation of a building might be important. Van Nice’s research collection, however, points out that the particular intersection between religious buildings, calendars or time keeping, and astronomy is especially rich and worthy of study. While his assortment of articles and notes only barely scratches the surface of possibilities, it is provocative and open-minded in its breadth.
Van Nice’s notes suggest that he himself took careful measurements of Hagia Sophia’s cardinal orientation (33 degrees south of East), and the position of the sun relative to the building at different times of day. As far as I know, no definite conclusions were reached as to any astronomical significance in the building, but the other articles in this folder suggest that Van Nice was aware it was a possibility.
I also learned from this folder that in the 1973, experiments were undertaken in Greece to demonstrate that the ancient rumor that Archimedes was able to set offending ships on fire at a distance using mirrors is technically possible. Earlier investigators had reasoned that a concave mirror large and well-formed enough to focus the rays of the sun to set a ship hundreds of feet away on fire was beyond the technical abilities of Archimedes’ time. However, experiments were made instead with a large number of relatively small, flat, bronze mirrors, lined up in such a way that they mimicked a large concave mirror, and sure enough, they were able to light ships on fire!
Apparently it is a popular recreational activity: the Wikipedia entry for Archimedes describes many such attempts to bust the myth, with participants including a group of MIT students, hundreds of schoolchildren, and Barack Obama. Who knew?
Another fun fact: The hallway known as the “Infinite Corridor” at MIT is oriented, (accidentally, as far as I know), so that a few days each year, the sun sets in precise alignment with the corridor and shines down its entire length. The phenomenon is known as MIT-henge, and is apparently quite impressive! Having spent so much time at MIT, I wonder if Van Nice was aware of this fact or ever witnessed it.