Do you ever look around for examples of astronomy in art and architecture? I particularly enjoy finding examples of such things—especially if the astronomy in question is more than something like just generic “stars on a ceiling”. (Click here for other posts on Astronomy in Art & Architecture).
A wonderful example of astronomy in art—indeed, of a sort of functional astronomical art—is the Kentucky Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Frankfort (Kentucky’s capital). The memorial is a giant sundial. Its purpose is to honor Kentuckians who died in the Vietnam War, both collectively and individually. In doing so, it also teaches a little bit about astronomy, and it even draws a connection to the Bible.
Names of veterans are inscribed on the stone surface upon which falls the shadow of the sundial’s gnomon (the large central silver pointer).
As the sun travels across the sky from East to West on a given day, the gnomon’s shadow travels from West to East, touching the names of soldiers who died on that day. Earlier in the day the shadow touches the names of soldiers who died earlier in the war; later in the day the shadow touches the names of those who died later in the war. Thus while the memorial collectively honors all the Kentucky soldiers who died in the Vietnam War, it also honors each soldier individually.
The height of the sun varies with the seasons, so the length of the gnomon’s shadow varies with the seasons. This photo was taken right at the autumnal equinox. Note the shadow’s position (black arrow). Near the summer solstice the shadow at the same time of day will be short (at the position of the green arrow); near the winter solstice it will be long (blue arrow). Thus the names that the shadow touches vary over time—in winter it touches the names of those who died in winter; in summer it touches the names of those who died in summer.
The shadow lines on the memorial also indicate the seasonally changing position of sunset, from winter solstice (left), to equinox (center), to summer solstice (right).
Biblical verses, from the third chapter of the book of Ecclesiastes, also call to mind time and seasons.
If you are anywhere near Frankfort, Kentucky, on a sunny day, make the trip to see the Kentucky Vietnam Veterans Memorial. This piece of astronomical art is worth the effort to see.