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MIThenge: Designed by Druids?


CAMBRIDGE, Mass.--Was MIT designed by Druids or did the architects of buildings 7, 3, 10, 4 and 8 just get lucky?

A few afternoons every year, the layout of MIT's Infinite Corridor allows it to capture the setting sun at a particular moment, a phenomenon called "MIThenge" after prehistoric Stonehenge in England, which was once thought to have been built by Druids.

Four MIThenge moments will occur next week, at approximately 4:18 p.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 11; 4:19 p.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 12; 4:21 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 13; and at 4:22 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 14.

When the path of the sun crosses the axis of the Infinite Corridor--a hallway that runs 825 feet and traverses five buildings between Building 7 on Massachusetts Avenue and Building 8 on Eastman Court--a shaft of sunlight is thrown the entire length of the corridor. It will again be visible, barring a cloudy afternoon, on Jan. 28-30, 2004, at approximately 4:49 p.m.

The only problem, besides the fact that a cloudy day can ruin the effect, is that many oblivious pedestrians, unaware that they are blocking an astronomical phenomenon, continue on their way from point A to point B as though they were using just any hallway. The MIT Bulletin suggests that MIThenge is best viewed on the third floor.

Historical data suggests that the solar alignment was not intended by the buildings' architects, who were more concerned with the view of the Charles River. According to a recent article in Sky & Telescope magazine, the phenomenon was noticed and publicized in the 1970s by Thomas K. Norton, a research affiliate in architecture. Students at the time did some calculations as part of a class project, and posters were put up around campus advertising a "sun set celebration."

In the mid-1990s, doctoral student Ken Olum (Ph.D. in physics, 1997) found one of the old posters and re-did the calculations. It turns out the earlier work rounded the azimuth (the angle between the sun's vertical plane and the plane of the meridian) to the nearest degree (apparently a no-no) and slanted the corridor unrealistically upwards.

Much of Olum's information is the basis for the current MIThenge web page now maintained by Gayle C. Willman of Academic Media Production Services, an MIT staff member interested in this piece of MIT folklore.

After all, MIThenge is just another element in the rich mystery of MIT.

Press Mentions

The Boston Globe

Boston Globe reporter Steve Annear spotlights MITHenge – a bi-annual occurrence where the sunset aligns with the Infinite Corridor. “A blast of orange sunlight spills through a window, lighting up the lengthy space with a warming glow,” explains Annear. “The phenomenon, which has amassed ‘a cult-like following,’ has been highly celebrated for years by both members of the school community and the public.”

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