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Sun expected to align with MIT's Infinite Corridor Friday, 11-11-11

Posted by Brock Parker  November 10, 2011 10:18 AM

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MIT graduate Matt Yourst took this photo of MIThenge in the Infinite Corridor on Jan. 28, 2001, from about the halfway point in the 825-foot hallway. Photo by Matt T. Yourst

If there wasn’t something spooky enough already about Friday being 11-11-11, a date that only comes around once every 100 years, along comes the portentous news that the sun is expected to inch into alignment and shine into the Infinite Corridor at MIT Friday afternoon.

The Infinite Corridor is the name given by MIT students – who know from infinity – to an 825-foot hallway in one of the campus buildings. In an event dubbed MIThenge, which has a cult-like following and occurs a couple of times a year, the setting sun aligns with the window of the hall and sends light blazing off the shiny floors.

A light at the end of a long corridor at MIT

A light at the end of a long corridor at MIT

More than 100 people gathered at an MIT building just before 4:20 p.m. on Friday, when enthusiasts had predicted the sun would align with the 825-foot hallway in the building known as the Infinite Corridor, in a phenomenon that has been dubbed “MIThenge." Boston Globe, 11/11/11
If the best predictions are correct and weather doesn’t interfere, the phenomenon will occur (not at 11:11, unfortunately) at 4:20 p.m. on Friday, the 11th day of the 11th month of the 11th year of the 21st century.

Or at least, that’s the best guess.

“It’s actually quite difficult to determine when it’s going to happen,” said Keith Winstein, a graduate student at MIT who has been interested in the phenomenon since his freshmen year at the university. “More often than not, we’re wrong, which is kind of the fun part.”

Students and professors at MIT have been captivated by MIThenge for years, so much so that enthusiasts of the event claim crowds can sometimes interfere with the short-lived view of the sun through the corridor.

Ken Olum, a cosmologist at Tufts University, said he became interested in MIThenge while studying for his doctorate degree in physics in the 1990s. He said his office was about 50 feet from the end of the Infinite Corridor, but at the time there were only very coarse predictions about when the sun would align with the hallway. Olum said he began trying to calculate when sun would be visible from the far end of the hallway, and he posted many of his predictions on the internet.

Despite his best efforts, Olum said he’s not “utterly sure” when MIThenge will occur, however, and he said the predictions of Alan Eliasen, an amateur astronomer in Colorado, seem to be the most accurate.

Reached by email this week, Eliasen said he believes that the alignment will occur at about 4:20 p.m. on Friday when the sun is likely to be at an optimal altitude above horizon obstructions and below the upper limit imposed by doorways and ceilings in the corridor. The weather in Cambridge Friday is expected to be mostly clear and windy, according to the National Weather Service.

Eliasen’s calculations show the alignment could occur Thursday afternoon, but storms are expected. It could also occur around 4:21 p.m. Saturday, but Eliasen said the sun might be obscured by objects on the horizon.

The alignment of the sun with the corridor usually occurs in November and again in January, and it’s because of the alignment that the phenomenon has been named after Stonehenge in England.

But Eliasen said he doesn’t think Friday’s 11-11-11 date adds any significance to the alignment, especially since the sun will align with the corridor on other dates, too.

“All dates are historical accidents, and have no inherent significance” he said.

Eliasen said he became interested in MIThenge after reading about it in a Sky & Telescope magazine article in 2003 entitled “Sun Worship in Cambridge.”

Since then, he said one of the biggest problems he’s had with making predictions of MIThenge is the true azimuth, or angle formed by the corridor with a point on the horizon, is not exactly known. But by using observations provided by Olum and MIT alum Lenny Foner, as well as historical photographs GPS measurements and video records, Eliasen said he’s been able to improve the predictions.

Olum said that even if the predictions are slightly off and viewers are a day early, they still will get an interesting view of the corridor as the sun reflects off of the floor.
Eventually, with the aid of a camera with a high-magnifying telephoto lens, Olum said someone will be able to consistently predict when MIThenge will occur.

“Someday we’ll have some measurement which gets this exactly right,” he said. “It’s easy enough to do. A single picture taken at a precisely known time from a precisely known place showing either the left hand side or the right hand side of the sun would answer all questions.”

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