AMHERST, Mass. - Major construction is expected to take place at the UMass Sunwheel, just south of McGuirk Alumni Stadium, beginning Wed. Nov.1. The Sunwheel, constructed under the direction of University of Massachusetts astronomer Judith Young, is an astronomical calendar with stones that align perfectly with the rising and setting sun on the days of solstices and equinoxes.
The first few days of construction will be devoted to setting foundations in the ground for the 14 eight-foot tall, granite monoliths. A crawler-excavator will be used to transport and precisely position the stones, which total 15,000 pounds and were purchased from the Chester Granite Co. in East Otis. The taller stones will allow the circle to be visible in all seasons, regardless of high grasses or accumulated snow. The final circle will be approximately 130 feet in diameter.
Young has made astronomy presentations to the more than 1,500 individuals and 800 schoolchildren that have already visited the preliminary sunwheel, which was constructed of two-foot-tall boulders in May of 1997. Some of the topics she speaks on include the seasons, measurement of time, the phases of the moon, eclipses, and light and shadows.
Young was inspired to create the UMass Sunwheel during a trip to Montana in 1992, where she saw a sunwheel constructed long ago, probably by the Blackfeet Indian tribe. The UMass Sunwheel is the only original sunwheel in the world located at a university, according to Young. The public is welcome to visit the UMass sunwheel at any time, including during construction.
"Students today see technology as such an integral part of the world, it’s hard for them to imagine learning without it. This is not a classroom lesson or even a planetarium, with an artificial sky. This is the real thing, and it’s happening right before our eyes," Young said. "Einstein said, ‘Knowledge is experience; everything else is just information.’ Are you going to learn about astronomy in books, or are you going to go out and watch it happen?"
NOTE: Judith Young will be at the site Nov. 6-8. It may also be possible to reach her at 413/545-4311, or firstname.lastname@example.org.