Analysis & Comment

Opinion | R.I.P., the Sun Triangle

When you throw a yellow beach ball upward, it slows down, comes to a stop for a moment and then comes back down, gaining speed as it falls. Now imagine that beach ball is the sun, getting higher in the sky each noon from December until June until one day it stops getting higher. That day is the summer solstice — from the Latin “solstitium,” or “point at which the sun seems to stand still.” In the next instant the bright yellow beach ball begins to descend, and we’re on our way to fall and winter.

A scientist named Athelstan Spilhaus recognized that the summer solstice was what educators call a teachable moment — an event that can be used to teach, to excite, to inspire. So he designed a sculpture, 50 feet high, of mirrored steel to teach people about the solstice. It was an obtuse triangle whose steepest side pointed directly at the sun at solar noon — the moment in the day when the sun is highest overhead — on the summer solstice. Its shallowest side pointed at the sun at solar noon on the winter solstice. And the third side, the longest one, pointed at the sun at solar noon on the spring and fall equinoxes, when the days and nights are each 12 hours long all over the planet.

The Sun Triangle, as Spilhaus named it, gave off a Stonehenge vibe to those who knew what it was. Unlike Stonehenge, it stood conveniently in Midtown Manhattan, in a sunken courtyard at 1221 Avenue of the Americas. People would gather beneath the giant triangle — once described by The New York Times as resembling the head of a pterodactyl — and watch the shadow beneath it shrink as solar noon approached. There were no incantations or drums or animal sacrifices, but the ritualistic energy was strong.

This year the Northern Hemisphere’s summer solstice occurred on Wednesday at 10:58 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time. Solar noon in Manhattan came about two hours later, at 12:57 p.m. (Solar noon jumps ahead an hour on the clock during daylight saving time. The time of solar noon is also affected by where a place lies in its time zone, east or west, and by where Earth happens to be in its elliptical orbit around the sun.)

But the Sun Triangle and its attending crowd of astronomy nerds were not there to greet the sun at its northernmost point. The sculpture was removed as part of a remodeling project that was completed this year. I couldn’t find out anything else. A spokesperson for the Rockefeller Group, which owns 1221 Avenue of the Americas, did not respond to phone calls. The company’s website makes no mention of the sculpture’s removal, saying of the remodeling only that “the intent was to transform underused privately owned public space into a more visible and welcoming environment for people to enjoy throughout the day.”

This makes me sad. I have watched a solar eclipse from the Pyramids of the Sun and the Moon in Mexico, and I’ve clambered over the giant astronomical instruments at the Jantar Mantar observatory in Jaipur, India, but the Sun Triangle had a special place in my heart. Maybe because I worked for McGraw-Hill, whose name used to be on the building at 1221 Avenue of the Americas. Befitting McGraw-Hill’s mission as a textbook publisher, the sunken courtyard had other astronomical exhibitions, including metal balls of various sizes representing the planets arranged around a circular pool representing the sun. (Somebody once made off with Earth, which was about the size of a baseball.)

All that is gone now. Out with the old, in with the new. A smaller version of the Sun Triangle still stands in Elmira, N.Y., but that’s almost four hours away by car. I talked this week to a man in Elmira who sees it from his office window but had no idea of its astronomical function.

Spilhaus surely would have raised a ruckus over the removal of the Sun Triangle, but he died in 1998 at age 86. His biographer, Louise O’Connor, described him as part Einstein, part Falstaff. He was a Renaissance man and engineer who, among many achievements, invented the bathythermograph to understand the temperature layers of the ocean and wrote a long-running Sunday comic strip about scientific advances called “Our New Age.”

The Sun Triangle was erected in 1973, when he was already famous. “Spilhaus loved the project and loved even more the way people interacted with it,” Sharon Moen wrote in a 2015 book, “With Tomorrow in Mind: How Athelstan Spilhaus Turned America Toward the Future.”

To interact with the Sun Triangle was to interact with the sun itself, to sense how celestial mechanics produce dawn and dusk, summer and winter. Spilhaus got how special and important that was. I’m guessing every scientist does. Last week I quoted G.K. Chesterton: “The world will never starve for want of wonders; but only for want of wonder.”

The Sun Triangle is gone but not forgotten.

Elsewhere: A Better Forecast of Interest Rates

Fed watchers on Wall Street have had a bad past few months. For a long time, they incorrectly expected the Federal Reserve to pause its interest-rate raising at its May 3 meeting. The Fed raised rates instead. In late May they widely expected the Fed to raise rates at its June 14 meeting. That turned out to be wrong, too. The Fed paused.

Good Judgment Inc., a private forecasting outfit, calculates that its so-called superforecasters — a panel of 177 people including economists and investors but also political scientists, natural scientists, engineers and others — were more accurate in two respects: closer to the mark and with less variability. That’s captured in their Brier score, in which zero is perfect accuracy. The superforecasters’ Brier score over the past four Fed meetings was 0.05, while that of forecasters included in the widely consulted CME FedWatch Tool was 0.14. As of Tuesday, the superforecasters were putting a 73 percent probability on a July hike by the Fed.

Quote of the Day

My worthy friend, gray are all theories,
And green alone Life’s golden tree.

— Wolfgang von Goethe, “Faust, Part 1” (1808), Project Gutenberg translation (2005), updated 2023

Peter Coy has covered business for more than 40 years. Email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter. @petercoy

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