The Sun

Over the edge of the world. Black hill of water,
Rivers of running gold.   The sun!   The sun!

Edwin Muir wrote of the wonderful transformation from sunlight on the Orkney landscape and this September the Sun is coming to St Magnus Cathedral.

It’s created from time-lapse photography of the surface of the actual sun, taken by NASA spacecraft. Speeded up from weeks to minutes, the filmed sequences show the Sun’s seething fires, its solar storms building and erupting, the surging flow of energy pouring from the nuclear fires of hydrogen.

The images are projected onto a 6-metre-diameter sphere which will be suspended from the Cathedral’s crossing. Visitors to the Cathedral each day through the Festival period will be able to stand below to follow the dramatic changes on the solar surface.

Whether it’s a fine May morning or a slow September sunset, the light from the Sun is always clear and steady. But we’re 93 million miles away, and closer up, the situation is very different. The surface seethes with fire, in a cauldron of solar storms, with great looping flares that could contain up to ten planets like ours in a line.

To picture this, it takes the combined efforts of an artist and solar physicist. Alex Rinsler is known for his large scale and outdoor work and has presented sculptural works in cities around the world. Robert Walsh is professor of solar physics at the University of Central Lancashire (UCLAN), and involved in a wide range of actitivies. He was part of the NASA 2017 eclipse and in 2019 engaged over ten thousand young people in the UK-wide exoplanet naming competition. He has also co-authored a popular science book for teenagers, Unmasked: The Science of Superheroes. He spoke earlier this year about his work in an interview with the Awesome Astronomy website.

The result is a miniature Sun – a 6-metre-diameter sphere with imagery of light and movement from the actual Sun’s surface pouring from it. The imagery comes from NASA spacecraft, with two week’s film speeded up into a 12-minute sequence so that you see the storms and flares in dynamic action.

The Sun will be suspended in the Cathedral crossing, and you’ll see it from a distance when you enter through the west door, and then be able to come right underneath it and see the surface come alive. There’s music as well, and information from either Robert Walsh himself or one of a team of helpers which includes three PhD students from the university and astronomers from Caithness and Orkney.

Wwetaher permitting there may be a solar telescope set up outside, and on Monday 11th there are two workshops with Callum Potter, former president of the British Astronomical Association, one on how to observe the sun safely and the other on how to become an amateur astronomer.

And from the Sun in the Cathedral it’s possible to move out among the planets in the Solar System – located in various Kirkwall business premises. At each one you get a clue to where to find the next one, along with a letter of the alphabet – and when you have all the letter you’ll be able to make them into three words and enter the competition with several prizes. You can find more details here and download information here.

There are two concerts in the Cathedral with the Sun installation as backdrop. One features the ethereal combination of electronic music with voices, instruments and the Cathedral organ – that’s Rivers of Running Gold. The Sun, the Sun! on the evening of Sunday 10th. And on Wednesday 13th, you can join some of Orkney’s musicians, singers, storytellers and poets in rounding off the Sun’s seven-day visit with a warm au revoir in Sundown.

The Cathedral

Founded in 1137, it was called ‘The Light in the North’ and it exemplifies the way in which medieval cathedrals were built to enable light to shine through them, where we enter from west and make our way to the east and the light of the rising sun.

Its bishops were often scholars, among them Robert Reid who had developed the Cistercian abbey of Kinloss into a centre of European scholarship. Reid was in contact with the work of the leading thinkers of the day in Europe, among them the remarkable Pico della Mirandola, who transformed the medieval worldview with a new image of humanity, not condemned by Adam’s sin but able to chose whether to sink into the mud or rise to hear the voices of the angels. That vision opened the way for the Renaissance, and for the reformation that followed and the birth of modern science. A book about Pico’s work had a dedication to Robert Reid, who built in Kirkwall the tower of the Bishop’s Palace and the houses for the clergy on Broad Street that form today’s Tankerness House and Orkney Museum.

After him came Adam Bothwell, a scholar too and a cousin of the Scottish mathematician John Napier, the inventor of logarithms. Then came the Reformation, much more smoothly in Orkney than elsewhere, with sweeping organisational reforms by Reid a notable factor.

After Bothwell there were no bishops for more than half a century, but then came George Graham, who built Skaill House, and who brother-in-law was the young scholar James Crichton, who in his short life blazed like a star with radical scholarship.

And later came Bishop Murdoch Mackenzie from Moray, whose grandson Murdoch Mackenzie, a student at Edinburgh of the great Scottish mathematician Colin MacLaurin, laid the foundations for modern mapmaking.

Nearly nine centuries on from its foundation, the Cathedral this year welcomes the Sun and everyone who comes to see it and take time to absorb the atmosphere of the building.

“Welcome to St Magnus Cathedral, Britain’s most northerly cathedral,” is the message from the minister and congregation. “The Cathedral belongs to the people of Orkney and its doors are open to all.”

This offer has been made possible through generous support from:

“We are proud to support the Orkney International Science Festival (OISF) through our National Events Programme once again. Year on year this festival offers a distinctive programme of events which celebrate science, astronomy and exploration and its 33rd year is no exception.  Its online and in-person events include walks, talks, music, art and film, workshops and exhibitions which will surprise, inform, excite and entertain all ages – not least The Sun installation at the stunning St Magnus Cathedral.   Events such as Orkney International Science Festival play an important role in our communities, enabling us all to connect, enjoy and share memorable experiences, whilst also strengthening Scotland’s position as the perfect stage for events.”

-Robbie Clyde, Head of EventScotland

“Everyone in our team is excited to be part of this year’s science festival. It will be a pleasure for us to attend and experience such an eclectic programme. Our area of expertise is offshore wind (we are developing the 1GW Ayre Offshore Wind Farm to the east of Orkney and the 1GW Bowdun Offshore Wind Farm off the coast of Aberdeen). We are also partnering with the University of Highlands and Islands on an early-years STEM programme in the region. The science festival is yet another fantastic opportunity to introduce young people to the engineering adventure ahead as offshore wind technologies and marine sciences evolve. For our industry to succeed, we need to ensure that they feel confident in choosing a future in technology, engineering and science.”

-Ian Taylor, Project Director, Thistle Wind Partners 

‘The SUN installation is a hugely impactful science-led visual experience and STFC are pleased to be able to help support its presence at the 2023 Orkney International Science Festival. We are delighted that so many young people from schools across the Northern Isles will get to experience the SUN and the rich programme of engagement activities associated with it and as part of the wider festival experience.”

-Dr Jenni Chambers, Head of Public Engagement and Skills, STFC

“At Crown Estate Scotland, we are focused on supporting Scotland achieve net zero emissions by 2045 – and so supporting this exhibition felt like a natural step. The energy to power the SUN exhibition, stored in the form of green hydrogen, will come from renewable energy sources across Orkney – which in turn are largely drawn from the power of the sun. Projects like this one demonstrate, in real terms, the opportunity hydrogen presents as an energy vector to our wider energy system and what the power of local people can achieve. We can’t wait to visit.”

-Caitlin Byers, Crown Estate Scotland

“As a family run business we were very excited to be asked to be a part of bringing the SUN to Orkney, we are looking forward to seeing everyone at the family day and look forward to our first year collaborating with the Orkney International Science Festival.”

-Terri Davie from Solar Dynamix

“As a tech company based in the Orkney Islands, we are delighted to sponsor the Orkney International Science Festival and embrace our place within the local STEM community. We are delighted to be supporting our local schools engaging with the Orkney International Science Festival and inspiring the next generation of scientists and engineers.

At Stagecoach, we work hard to facilitate remote communities’ to access transformative experiences, such as the SUN Installation at St Magnus Cathedral, part of this year’s Festival. By investing in our young people, we are all investing in a sustainable future for our islands and beyond”

– Richard Ryder – Operations Manager for Orkney

“As a tech company based in the Orkney Islands, we are delighted to sponsor the Orkney International Science Festival and embrace our place within the local STEM community.

‘The Sun’ exhibition, powered by Orkney’s wind, waves and tide, draws attention to the opportunities provided by green hydrogen and symbolises our shared pursuit of a sustainable future.

Investing in young people and supporting interest in STEM subjects is important to Kyloe – we look forward to nurturing a brighter tomorrow through events such as the OISF.”

– Lauren Miller, Global Marketing and Communications Manager

“We’re delighted to support the 2023 Orkney International Science Festival and this year’s SUN Installation. Orbital was formed to harvest the tides that naturally occur as a result of the sun and the moon’s movement around the earth, so it’s a really exciting event for us to take part in, especially given our Orcadian roots and our commitment to promoting scientific activities to future generations.”

-Orbital CEO, Andrew Scott 

Sun Gallery

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