Equador Provides Tons Of Astronomical Fun

La Mitad del Mundo is a beauty.

La Mitad del Mundo is a beauty.

Nowadays, a lot of tourists head for the more ballyhooed Equatorial Monument at La Mitad del Mundo outside Quito, where you’ll find a tall, massive obelisk topped by a huge globe. Here, at the heart of a tiny town square lined by whitewashed buildings, you can journey from one hemisphere to the other without the need of a travel agent. But there is a lesser-known monument – a nearby solar museum – that should be of interest to amateurs, archaeoastronomers, and anyone else who might enjoy a day of Sun worship.

The Museo Cientifico Solar (Scientific Solar Museum) is located in the village of San Antonio de Pichincha, 14 miles north of Quito and about 3 miles east of the Equatorial Monument. The small stone building sits on a roughly 1-acre plot among a proliferation of plant life. The unassuming museum (more like a brick-red crypt) has a peculiar T shape, with the long axis aligned with the sunrise-sunset points. Luciano Andrade Marin, the curator of the museum until his death in 1970, conceived and built it in 1950. It is a simple structure that speaks of the serene sensitivity and love Andrade Marin had for solar science and lore. This remarkable Ecuadorian geographer, university professor, and naturalist, who was featured on the cover of Sky & Telescope in October 1961, used the museum as his weekend sanctuary. Here he would entertain visitors with maps, models, and photographs and explain the motions of the Sun, seasonal changes, relations between the celestial and terrestrial equators, and the Sun lore of ancient peoples.

Aside from being a botanical wonder, the museum’s gardens, which contain plants from many parts of the world, demonstrate the seasonal motion of the Sun north and south of the equator quite effectively.

When the Sun is north of the equator, plants on the shaded south side of the building lie dormant for six months while those on the north side burst with blossoms, and vice versa. Visitors with any basic astronomical knowledge cannot be confused as to which side is the Northern or Southern Hemisphere, because on the north arm of the T is a stucco representation of a polar bear with the seven stars of the Big Dipper, over which is the inscription “Chincha” (“North” in the native Quichua language). And on the southern arm are a penguin and the four major stars of the Southern Cross, with “Colla” (“South”). The equator runs right through the center of the building.

If you follow a short stone path on the east side of the museum, you come to an elegant antique brass solar chronometer set on a pedestal. The chronometer was made in 1865 by A. Molteni, an Italian inventor.

Although three were built, it is the only one left in the world. Sunlight entering a tiny lens projects a pinpoint of light on a brass tongue on which an analemma is finely engraved. A careful study of the position of the point of light reveals the month, day, and time with great precision. Interestingly, the analemma’s figure-8 shape mimics the Quitu symbol for the Sun, which predates Incan astronomy by hundreds of years.

The museum’s entrance is on the west side of the T. Inside, the restricted and spartan quarters immediately create a monastic mood – a subtle insight into the nature of the museum’s creator. At the end of each arm is a small, round window peering out toward each pole. In the center of the room a narrow glass roof can be seen running along the length of the building. Hanging underneath this skylight is an old Earth globe lying in the horizontal position. Throughout the day of an equinox, the shadow cast by the globe is centered along the white equatorial stripe painted on the floor. The display effectively demonstrates, from a perspective in space, how the Sun shines down on Ecuador and the rest of the world. Other exhibits offer convincing evidence, by way of legends and artifacts, concerning the Quitus’ knowledge of the equator. There are also simple teaching aids, such as a scale model made from wire and bottle caps, that illustrate the relative positions of the Earth and Sun at the solstices and equinoxes.

A New Lease on Life

Almost everything in the museum is still in its original condition, “including Dr. Andrade Marin’s spirit,” says the new curator, Oswaldo Munoz. In 1967 Munoz was working his way through school as a tour guide when he met Andrade Marin, who later became one of his most important mentors. After Marin’s death the museum would have been closed down if it hadn’t been for Munoz. His interest and perseverance in continuing to spread Andrade Marin’s teachings gave the museum a new lease on life. It boiled down to Munoz’s philosophy, “You love what you know and you protect what you love.”

A lean, bearded man with a neat, erudite look, Munoz directs the Ecuadorian Ecotourism Association. His eco-tour company, Nuevo Mundo, is a leading travel agency in the country. Like his predecessor, Munoz volunteers his time spreading knowledge and increasing interest in the natural sciences among the people of Ecuador and the tourists who visit the equator. Born in Quito in 1949, Munoz is a man of many talents. He is a teacher, consultant, and freelance writer and holds a degree in agronomy from Universidad Central del Ecuador.

“My interest,” he continues, “is not precisely in astronomy, but in what I would call ‘astronomical geography.’ When I was 111/42 my family migrated to the United States, settling in New York City. The climatic difference between Quito and New York captured my attention, especially when my American classmates were asking me if people in Ecuador were roasting to death as the country straddled the equator.”

Between 1951 and 1967 Munoz traveled a half dozen times between New York and Quito before finally returning to his native country for good. During this period he became aware of the seasonal variations at temperate latitudes and the lack of them at the equator. “A seasonless environment such as Ecuador,” he explains, “doesn’t allow Ecuadorians the advantage of keeping track of time as ‘four-season’ countries do. Here we have ringless trees and approximately 12 hours of day and 12 hours of night all year round. However, Ecuador is still pretty much Shangri-la in comparison to countries like the continental United States or most of Europe that have to cope with extreme heat and cold.”

So Munoz considers himself an “Earth native” who is privileged to live in a unique geographical setting. He feels it is important, then, to make more Ecuadorians aware of the advantages most take for granted. “People like Juan de Velasco, Alexander von Humboldt, Antonio de Ulloa, Jorge Juan, Pedro Vicente Maldonado, Luciano Andrade Marin, and other great geographers, naturalists, and humanists must be known by all Ecuadorians, as it is in their discoveries and contributions that part of our heritage lies.”

With some regret, Munoz points out that there is just one astronomy club on the verge of forming in Quito, one that will be affiliated with the country’s Natural History Museum. “Funny enough,” he says, “with the amount of UFO sightings in Quito and other parts of the country, more people are now stargazing. Astronomy is slowly making a comeback, though on shaky ground.”

But Munoz is optimistic about the future. Over the years there has been an increased interest in Ecuadorian heritage, he says, and he is confident that one day the solar museum and its creator will be given the credit and importance they deserve.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *