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     Catching Other Suns

We recently installed a light tunnel in our bath room ceiling - a long reflective cylinder that extends up to a plastic dome on the outside roof and pours sunlight into the room. The light is clear and clean, and on windy days the clouds cast shifting shadows, catching the ridges and valleys of the textured ceramic tile floor, and waves and dances on the sleek surface of the shower tiles walls. After a hot steam shower, the air takes on a mystical quality, floating and falling lazily in the room and when the moon is full, the room is flooded with moonlight.


Our sun tunnel is part of the rapidly expanding world of new, clean energy technology. It’s simple and repeatable on a mass scale. And it costs almost nothing. We barely use the light switch anymore, it seems so old fashioned, like gas street lights or a rotary phone.


But long before light switches or gas street lights or rotary phones, people were using a lighting system remarkably similar to this latest in passive solar design.


Four thousand years ago, in Minoan palaces on the island of Crete, light wells poured sun light three and four stories down into the main chambers of the palace, illuminating brilliant wall frescos of young athletic bull jumpers, beautiful women in regal profile and dolphins leaping over the sea - a perfect joining of form and function, beauty and necessity. Wandering through  the reconstructed palace of Knossos near the northern coast, the most famous palace on the island,  you feel  restful and at the same time uplifted, buoyant  and alive. I’m sure the achingly blue sky, the bright Mediterranean sun  and the clear, warm Cretan light playing off the walls and down the light wells, are a big part of it.


This passive solar approach to lighting is also making it’s mark in the commercial world of today.


An article about a medical facility in Fort Collins Colorado states “There are light wells in the hallways to allow the natural light to filter into the building. A sensor determines whether the natural lighting is sufficient and turns electric lights off when appropriate.”


Tellingly, the title of the article is “Function comes first at new dentist office.” Looking to the future, it would be nice, to add some style.


Imagine a dentist’s or doctor’s office lit from above, with sun light illuminating bright engaging wall paintings of natural scenes, done by local artists. Maybe the drills and assorted tools are powered directly by solar rays. An uplifting, light orderly sense of calm pervades the room.


Is the world of the light bulb and the light switch beginning to fade, to be replaced by these latest adaptations of ancient technology ?


Will our mid-21st century look at lot like the island of Crete in the 21st  century BCE.


Are we done being the descendants  of Thomas Edison’s light bulb and ready to step back into the clear, clean world of Minoan light?



In 213 BCE,  almost two thousand years after the sunlit world of the Minoans, the Greek scientist mathematician Archimedes harnessed the power of the sun for a very different purpose. As part of the defense of  the  city of Syracuse on the island of Sicily, he constructed a massive mirror on the city walls to catch the rays of the sun and set fire to the advancing Roman ships.  Most scholars think he  also  positioned smaller mirrors aimed at the central mirror to provide more fire power, to what has come to be known as The Death Ray. Things got so terrifying for the Romans, they thought the gods were behind the walls.


How it worked and if it exited, is a bit of a mystery.


MIT students built their own death ray on a parking lot roof and aimed it at a replica of  a Roman ship in Boston Harbor with mixed results, but it hardly matters. What does matter is the idea.


We can draw from anything in the past to make new tools to help the  present and  guide us to the future. Sometimes we need only borrow and adapt, like the power of wind mills or  a Minoan sun tunnel, but sometimes it’s  useful to alter things, even radically, turning them around and flipping them this way and that upside down to gain a new different perspective.


Turn the Archimedes  death ray inside out and you get a 21st century solar farm….Instead of the mind of a mathematical and scientific genius, we have artificial intelligence directing sun light, fine tuning an array  of mirrors to one central receptor in real time, to harness the power  and energy of the sun.


Rather than  shooting out death rays to set fire to Roman ships, the farm is gathering limitless clean energy for peaceful purposes, to relieve the blight on the planet. In a strange way, these two technologies, twenty two hundred years apart, mirror each other, if we approach them with imagination and creativity. 


What other useful things are scattered across the vastness of human history in half forgotten stories and the lives and culture of  seemingly obscure people, waiting for some ingenious soul to notice, reclaim, reuse, and repurpose, and help us in the here and now.


Pay attention to the past. It might hold the keys to a brighter future.

Minoan lightwell.jpg
Death ray one.jpg
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