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Campus project to clock sun time.

Byline: Greg Bolt The Register-Guard

The same sun that marked time for the ancient Romans may soon do so again - in much the same way - on the University of Oregon campus.

In what could be a first for an American university, a group of professors and students are trying to create a half-scale replica of the Horologium of Augustus, a soaring tower of stone built by the Egyptians in the 10th century B.C. and taken to Rome in 10 B.C. by troops of Emperor Augustus to serve as a sophisticated sun- dial. At 10 meters - some 33 feet high - the replica obelisk could become a signature monument.

"We think this could become a campus landmark that would embody both scholarship and art," said history professor John Nicols. "It could be something the UO would be identified with."

Often dismissed as cheesy garden ornaments, sundials actually can be useful daytime clocks when properly built. The Romans knew this and built sun clocks of surprising accuracy.

The horologium, also known as a solarium, marks time through the shadow cast by an upright marker, called a gnomon. Lines and marks spread out on the ground on the north side of the marker can show the hour of day, day of the month and season of the year.

But the UO project is not simply an homage to ancient history. It's being embraced not only because of the way it would unite art and science but also because it would be the first work of art on campus to illustrate and embody science.

"There are significant pieces of modern art spread throughout campus, and many of them are significant works, but they don't deal with any scholarly achievement," Nicols said. "This is meant to show that art and science do come together in aesthetically pleasing ways."

The project draws in history, architecture, art, geography, math, classics, literature and physics. In addition to Nicols, architecture professors Virginia Cartwright and James Tice and physics professor Robert Zimmerman are leading the effort with help from graduate and undergraduate students, including physics undergrad Sandra Penny, who worked out the math for the solar clock.

"It's not just science," Tice said. "It deals with European culture and history in a very profound way and points to the future as well as the past."

Historically, the Augustus horologium is significant because it came soon after the adoption of the Julian calendar, which marked a historic change from a moon-based to a sun-based calendar. That laid the foundation for true science by establishing a consistent time system in which a day equaled one rotation of the Earth on its axis and a year was one orbit of the Earth around the sun, a system that remains the basis of modern timekeeping.

"It put us on the track to be able to measure time more accurately," Nicols said.

This past summer, the horologium team laid out a mock-up of the proposed sundial's face in a courtyard facing McKenzie Hall. It includes a noon line and an analemma, a figure-eight shape that marks the position of the sun at the same hour - noon in this case - each day through the year.

The analemma offers a graphic display of one of the lessons a horologium can teach: the difference between clock time and sun time. Because our watches are set according to time zones they don't track with the sun; in other words, "high noon" on our clocks usually falls before or after the time when the sun actually hits its highest point in the sky.

Clocks also don't show the subtle variations in the Earth's speed as it rotates around the sun. Because the orbit is very slightly elliptical, the Earth actually travels faster near the equinoxes and slower near the solstices.

"What it really illustrates from a scientific point of view is that the sun isn't as simple as your watch says it is," Zimmerman said. "Sometimes it speeds up, sometimes it slows down."

That connection to nature is what will make the sun clock more than just another monument or work of art on a campus that already has several.

"We will gain insights into our own relationship to nature by understanding what is happening in the world around us," Nicols said. "All societies developed something like a horologium. You can find similar things in Mayan culture and in Pacific culture. It may well be that Stonehenge is also is a device for measuring time."

The sundial team has figured out all the math needed to lay out the monument and its "dial." Now they need a place to put it and the money to build it.

The location will be worked out with the Campus Planning Committee, and supporters would like someplace prominent where students and faculty can make a daily connection between the sun's movements and how that relates to clock time. The main Memorial Quadrangle north of the library perhaps, or the lawn south of it are suggestions.

As for money, cost estimates fall on either side of $100,000 depending on what it's made of, possibly granite. That likely will require some fundraising and help from private donors, which might not be too hard given that this could be the kind of clock that defies time.

"We want it to be durable," Nicols said. "We really want this to be a lasting, timeless piece on campus."

CAPTION(S):

UO history professor John Nicols (above) casts his shadow across a temporary sundial on pavement. Kevin Clark / The Register-Guard Jim Tice (from left), John Nicols and Bob Zimmerman hold a model of the sundial.
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Title Annotation:Higher Education; A team at the UO designs a replica obelisk of the Horologium of Augustus
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Oct 31, 2005
Words:937
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