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Artist's Deception
by Prof. H. Paul Shuch, Executive Director Emeritus

Mensa Bulletin #521 cover

The beautiful image seen above graced the cover of Mensa Bulletin (the magazine of American Mensa) #521, January 2009. It purports to show a "space view of the sun peeking over the pole and a well-lit nighttime North America," but is in fact a spectacular and breathtaking artist's deception. The Sun never rises higher in declination than the Tropic of Cancer, thus cannot be seen behind the Earth at local midnight over anything less than interstellar distances (and in any case, will not appear to be "peeking" over the North Pole).

Try this experiment: place a globe in front of a wall. Directly behind the globe, make a mark on the wall at a height even with the globe's Tropic of Cancer. This mark represents the Sun during the Summer Solstice. Now, step away from the globe, a distance equal to six times its radius, center yourself on the globe, and put your eye level with its equator. Your eye now represents a satellite in geosynchronous (Clarke) orbit, at local midnight. Can you see the mark on the wall? Of course not.

Add to this geometric impossibility the likelihood that all of North America will be cloudless on a given night, and you will see why that beautiful composite image is in fact a mosaic of hundreds of separate satellite images, artfully arranged. The addition of the Sun rising in the North makes it truly creative, but somewhat less scientifically accurate. From the "diamond ring" effect seen in the picture, I would guess that this particular Sun image was actually taken at the very end of a solar eclipse, with the Sun just peeking out from behind our nearest celestial neighbor, the Moon.

The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in our stars but in ourselves.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in editorials are those of the individual authors, and do not necessarily reflect the position of The SETI League, Inc., its Trustees, officers, Advisory Board, members, donors, or commercial sponsors.

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