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Catching other Suns

We recently installed a light tunnel in our bath room - a long reflective cylinder that extends from the ceiling 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  on the textured ceramic tile floor, and waves of light on the sleek surface of the shower walls. After a hot steam shower the air floats and falls lazily in the room and takes on a mystical quality. On moonlit nights the room is flooded with light.


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 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 of the island, you have a sense of rest and ease and at the same time feel uplifted, buoyant  and alive. The transparent blue sky, the brilliant Mediterranean sun and the clear, warm Cretan light playing off the walls and down the light wells, must be a part of it.


This easy solar approach to lighting is also marking the commercial world of today.


A news article about a medical facility in Fort Collins, Colorado states “there are light wells in the hallways to allow 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.” It would be nice, to add some style as the Minoans did.


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


Is the world of the light switch ready to be replaced by these retrofitted ancient technologies? Will  mid-21st century look at lot like Minoan Crete in the 21st  century BCE. ?


Are we no longer the descendants of Thomas Edison’s light bulb, ready to step back into the clear, sharp luminous world of Minoan light?


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. In 213 BCE, as part of the defense of  the  Sicilian city of Syracuse, he constructed a massive mirror on the city walls to catch the rays of the sun and set fire to the advancing Roman ships. Things got so terrifying for the Romans, they thought the gods were behind the walls. 


Most scholars think he also positioned smaller mirrors focused on the central mirror to provide more fire power, to what has come to be known as The Death Ray.


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


Several years ago, MIT students built their own death ray on a roof of a parking garage and aimed it at a replica of  a Roman ship in Boston Harbor. The results were mixed results, but it hardly matters. What  matters is the idea.


We can draw on anything from the past to make new tools for the present and  guide us into the future. Sometimes we need only borrow and adapt, like the power of wind mills or a Minoan sun tunnel, but sometimes we can alter things, even radically, turning them around and around and flipping them upside down, to gain a new perspective.


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


These two technologies, twenty two hundred years apart, mirror each other. All we needed to add was imagination and creativity. 


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


Look to the past. It might hold the key to a brighter future.

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