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The Cloverleaf Chronicles I: Sun Angles

This is a companion piece to 4Most Sport Group's video series The Cloverleaf Chronicles. Read this in conjunction with Episode #1 on Sun Angles. If you are stumbling upon this blog before watching the video, treat it as the prologue to what you will see. If you are arriving here as directed by our little educational segment, consider this the rich backstory for the "star" of that show. Okay, that'll be the only terrible dad joke, I promise. 

In all seriousness, this information is not entirely necessary to extract the thesis out of The Cloverleaf Chronicles' first installment. However, it is the perfect amount of "nerding out" for those, like me, that want to learn everything about everything. It's a medium dive, with plenty of Sun-related things there wasn't time to tuck into the video. Call it the director's cut.

What we aim to do is drop a few anecdotes about our compelling heavenly body. We'll also sprinkle in some cultural history with a smidge of cosmic theology. What we're not going to do is bore you with Kepler's Second Law; or use tough-to-grasp concepts such as the celestial equator or orbital resonance. There's not going to be a quiz on the difference between the geodetic and geocentric latitude or the relationship between eccentricity and obliquity. Furthermore, I'll try my best to make terms like zenith, azimuth, declination, analemma, synodic day, periphelion and aphelion make some sense. I'll swap them out for more understood words where I can. Hopefully they'll be enough pop-culture sugar to help this medicine go down.

My background on the subject: Two of my degrees are officially from Kent State's College of Architecture and Environmental Design. The latter part of that title was always a bit of an eye roll emoji among those in my graduating class. It sure sounded good on a resume, but we knew damn well we weren't saving the planet by redlining Marriott hotels. That being said, we did have an unbelievable curriculum in my six years at Kent. I truly wish I wasn't as sleep deprived back then, so I could have paid more attention to those 7:45 AM lectures. Nevertheless, most of what is written here was originally put in my brain by the fine professors of the Environmental Technology (ET) and Architectural History portion of my schooling. In verifying some of the specifics, the only thing shocking was how much I retained while sleeping on my textbook. 

After that paragraph-long humble brag, I must now back it up with a huge "I'm not qualified say much of this" disclaimer. The science presented here was only ever meant to be supplemental marketing on how to construct better outdoor athletic fields. That's the entirety of the intention. Having my architectural brethren make seismic changes to their approach of this unfamiliar project type would be icing on the cake. Call it a superficial end to the means, but that's my niche area of expertise and how I make my living. If you want to write a more consequential reason for studying the Sun, knock yourself out. And similarly, if you've landed here with the intention of debating Hawking radiation or dark matter, you're not even in the right forest to begin barking up the wrong tree. 

Presenting 4Most proposals to potential clients typically raises eyebrows, and I needed something to explain why it "looks so different." I stopped digging as soon as I found a depth suitable to plant my rationale. Please remember this context as you make your way through the piece. I'm Crown Prince of the Nerd-Jocks — the glasses-wearing "deceptively athletic" type. Ya know, those who are on the college roster as much for raising the team GPA as they are for recording outs or scoring buckets (which they do quite well). But don't twist this. I'm just here for making baseball/softball/soccer/football/cricket fields for self-proclaimed simpletons in Middle America. The degrees don't say Astrophysics, nor Ph.D., nor Harvard. 

Despite my middle-of-the-pack state school stature, I am plenty tired of having to "dumb it down" in my industry. On some level, it is being told there is an educational threshold with a stigma placed upon those who cross. That seems backwards to me; swimming upstream against the goals we were programmed to aspire to as kids. There's nothing wrong people who use big words and never stop researching scholarly interests. Why are those who apply what they've learned labeled as "arrogant" and "pretentious" while those who never even step up to the starting line are granted a pass? Let's try to raise people up to a place they've mentally never ventured, rather than put a gleefully ignorant cap on knowledge. 

With that, I hope you enjoy and possibly learn something.


There's a lot humans have learned about the Sun over the centuries, but designs of outdoor athletic facilities overlook some of the more obvious facts. For starters, we know our particular ball of gas, situated at the center of the solar system, is about 4.6 billion years old. It's 865,370 miles in diameter and roughly 93 million miles from where we currently sit. 

Our continuous journey around our Sun is one of the most regular, irregular processes in the universe. Picture that globe in your elementary school or mahogany-lined study and how the sphere has a substantial lean from pole to pole. Add to that an elliptical path around our central star and it causes some strange phenomena. Despite the abundant abnormalities, everything about the Sun is tremendously consistent and down-right easy to keep tabs on. The Sun, as they say, is single-most certain thing about human existence — that is, after death and taxes. We simply take the wonderment of it all for granted — only ever thinking about it on days where its unable to peak through the clouds.

From a very young age, we “get” what the Sun's deal is — where it goes each night and what it's up there for. There are some good rules of thumb we inherently live by. As members of the Northern hemisphere (along with an astounding 88% of the entire world's population), we know that the Sun can be found in our southern skies. Courtesy of the direction our planet spins on its axis, it rises each day in the East and sets in the West. Lower Sun angles in the Winter than in the Summer. Grade school stuff, right? But much of its relationship with Earth is not fully comprehended, even by adults... at least those in the 2020.

Ancient civilizations were especially astute in charting its daily, monthly, and annual path in our skies. Arguably, the average man knew more about the Sun than we do today. Now, whether they thought it was rotating around Earth or believed the star was a deity is irrelevant for this comparison; the ability to accurately predict where the glowing sphere could be found — in terms of height above the horizon and relation to the cardinal directions — was millennia ahead of its time. 

The reason is an indictment on what humankind has become, but it is somewhat defensible. They couldn't get distracted by a Joe Exotic documentary and we're not farming 13 hours tomorrow like our next 50 meals depend on it.

Equinoxes and solstices were of utmost importance to these earliest agrarian societies. Without a Google calendar handy, these unique celestial moments became a foundation, upon which you build a reliable concept of time. There was no labeling things “June” or “November” — where everyone tacitly understands it represents a small collection of days with similar air temperatures. Instead, you could really only count the number of sunrises and sunsets since the last big solar event. That, and observe the various phases of the moon.

Seasons needed checkpoints to know, with 100% certainty, when you were entering or exiting them. After all, short-term weather patterns have always been deceptive. If dads in the 8th-century could have said “It feels like Fall” every time there was a 50-degree July day, I'm sure they would have. But climate and weather are different, and knowledge of the former governs when to plant crops.

As luck would have it, the world is filled with a seemingly endless number of naturally-existing features that interact with the sunrise and sunset in fascinating ways. Civilizations recognized these vantage points as sacred.

The instant the top arc of that reddish-yellow circle peered over the horizon line signified a god awakening. The earliest freestanding dwellings, and their subsequent city plans, were arranged in a way to best observe this daily rise and/or the fall.

For my money, there's no better/more hallowed example of this, than Haleakala on the Hawaiian island of Maui. The photo at the beginning of this piece was taken by my wife on the summit of said volcano, just after the native sunrise ceremony. Like so many things in life, the picture doesn't do the moment justice. Without a $10,000 camera, you can't capture the unrivaled amount of visible stars on the mountain, all while the Sun gloriously breaks the plane of the crater's eastern rim. I highly recommend taking this excursion as it was one of the Top Ten experiences of my life so far. For you Moana fans out there, this is the site of Maui lassoing the Sun and convincing it to slow down — as sung by Dwayne Johnson in “You're Welcome.”

The story is the perfect blending of mythology and astrology — how indigenous peoples worldwide rationalized (and dramatized) nature's phenomenons within their limited understanding of science. Sorry, been a lot of Disney+ recently with our 19-month old and COVID self-isolation.

The Hawaiians were not alone in believing that the Sun was a god worth worshiping. For, without its presence, there is no warmth, no growing things, no light, no joy, no life. Sunlight equated to good fortune, so it was wise to pay homage. And thus sunrise became the crux of most early religions.

Some cultures took this appreciation of the Sun to a whole 'nother level. They did so while simultaneously flaunting their ability to chart its exact “movements” (and I put this in quotes). Benchmarks were officially created by establishing when the Sun was at its highest or lowest, and how it aligned with fixed objects on Earth. And that was the key. If the Sun is going to, you need something rigid in order to accurately judge its relative position. What ancient civilizations built played a major role in visually signaling to their people that change was coming – either the days were about to get longer or shorter. And these structures definitely displayed a reverence for the Sun. There's nothing accidental about the placement or shape of England's Stonehenge (2400 B.C.), Egypt's Great Pyramids and Sphinx (2550 B.C.), Germany's Goseck Circle (4900 B.C.) and more recent architectural achievements, like Mexico's Mayan temple in Tulum (1400 A.D.). In each case, the vertical structures erected by man were strategically placed to signify the start of Spring.

In more recent times, artists have played with the knowledge of the Sun's position at key dates in the calendar to similarly dazzle and amaze. In 1976, Nancy Holt decided that a remote plot of Box Elder County, Utah would be the best place for her Sun Tunnel exhibit. This X-shaped land-art installation achieves its critical acclaim for using what's known as a time-based medium. 

At 6:04 AM of June 20, 2020 (the Summer solstice), the two concrete and steel pieces that are "curiously" facing 32.56° northeast will show why there's nothing haphazard about their placement. Like a kaleidoscope of sunlight, the disjointed cylinders perfectly center the the sunrise. A similar event will take place again at 7:59 AM on December 21, 2020, the Winter solstice. The other 18-foot tubes — with open ends oriented 31.24° south of due east — align with the shortest day's sunrise. In a world that is ever more difficult to predict future events, it is pretty cool to know something this specific with absolute certainty.  

In 1981, Raiders of the Lost Ark brought an astrological trick, in this same vein, to the big screen. The first Indiana Jones film fictitiously depicted a map room inside of a temple for Amun-Ra. Though made up, it feels right with a location (Tanis) and time period (10th-century B.C.) where ancient Egyptians would have been utilizing the Sun to create a coded security system. This is because the Sun's rays are as unique as a key or combination on a lock.

If the Earth orbited the Sun in a perfect circle, and the Earth's axis didn't currently tilt 23.4° off vertical, the Sun would take the same path across the sky, 365 days a year. Go outside at noon in January and again at noon in June, the Sun would be in an identical place — rising due east and setting due west every day. Instead, thanks to some glorious quirks of our planet, the Sun only hits the same specific point in free space, at the same exact angle, twice a year. By adding an element of "right place, right time," nature possesses the most dramatic plot twist possible in leading protagonists to hidden treasure — better than any cryptic cipher, invisible ink, or ocular device. Looking at you, Nicolas Cage.

At the core of every example I just named there is an underlying "How did they pull that off?!" And as each strays further away from modern technology, the more difficult the answer is to believe. The precision is borderline impossible by humans at the time these projects were finished. In many respects, we have lost this mental prowess we once held over the stars in the sky — primarily the closest in our universe. I suspect that studying the Sun's relationship to our built environment is now reserved for the biggest, most important/expensive, most eco-conscious commissions. Clearly, athletic fields must be too mundane, too trivial, and too far beneath the intelligentsia to orient properly. Not a big revenue generator for the firm? Ctrl-C, Ctrl-V and move on.  

I get angry when the Sun can lay perfectly on the right shoulder of Sphinx in mid-March — like some kind of alien magic trick — and we can't do something simple like move the setting Sun out of the eyes of baseball/softball players, fans, and umpires. It's irrational to get this upset, no doubt, but such is life. When a method to avoid less-than-ideal outcomes has been established forever ago, and stubborn people refuse to make the necessary tweaks, frustration is the human reaction. We must bring a core understanding of the Sun's position back to architecture — in all its forms. It's an easy enough concept to follow. But like assuming we all know the state capitals, plenty of viral videos have proven startling blind spots exist in the minds of everyday citizens. The "everyone knows that" is an illusion; clung to as a defense mechanism that translates to "please don't call on me."

Myth #1: “No Shadow Time.” For some reason, most Americans believe the Sun is “directly overhead” every day at noon. More commonly, it is assumed to be on the Summer solstice. These answers are both wrong. Unless you're standing in Hawaii — or the territories of Guam, Puerto Rico, the Northern Mariana Islands, or the U.S. Virgin Islands — this anomaly doesn't exist in the United States. And even then, you're still only getting a minute or two, two times a year, where the Sun's rays are hitting Earth in a manner that does not produce shadows. FYI, this vertical Sun event is called Lahaina Noon.

Part of the misconception is in how loosely we (mainly Floridians) throw around the term "tropics" and "tropical." Often referenced as a climate typology, the warmer air temperatures are more of a side effect to the true meaning of the label — geographical bands on the Earth. The area between 23.5° North and 23.5° South is the true Tropics. And those degrees of latitude should ring a few bells; they are a callback to the angle in which Santa's Workshop tilts. Treat these prominent rings — the Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn — as the limits for where the Sun's rays can be perfectly perpendicular to Earth's crust. North or south of this region and you're always getting angled sun. 

The most ironic part of this whole thing has to be that we are closest to the Sun on or around January 4 each year. “But that's a cold month in the middle of Winter” you say. Yeah, proof that proximity to the Sun isn't the be-all, end-all to maximizing its warming potential. Angles matter far more. 

Seasons are explained by Earth's "leaning" axis. Northern Hemisphere Winter tilts us away from the Sun while simultaneously bringing the Southern Hemisphere into Summer. Crazily, Antarctica gets six straight months of sunshine during this time. Watch the Australian Open and you quickly grasp that we're freezing our collective butts off while Melbourne is hitting triple digits. The obvious reason is, at that moment, they are closer to the Sun than we are. The less obvious reason is the clustering and dispersion of Solar radiation, i.e. warmth. The Sun's rays are consolidated in a very small area during an Australian Summer, while they are spread across a much larger surface in our Winter. 

Myth #2: The 11 o'clock Sun is in the same place in the sky every day. And this fallacy isn't just specific to that randomly-chosen time of day. It is subtle enough to require professional levels of patience, photography skills, a solid bi-monthly reminder in your phone. When a year's worth of work is complete, the results will show that the Sun isn't always going to be where you might think.

With all these variables, and a scatter plot of possible locations in the sky to find the Sun, it is easy to get confused.

Breaking this down in layman's terms, the analemma gets its shape based off how round the orbit is, paired with how much your planet or moon leans as it spins. In NASA terms, these variables are known as eccentricity and obliquity. For perspective, Pluto has a highly-oblong orbit with a 0.2485 eccentricity value. This means the once-proud planet spends 20 of the 248 Earth years it takes to fully revolve around the Sun in a position that is closer than Neptune. 

The difference between our closest orbital location (perihelion) and farthest (aphelion) is a mind-blowing 3.1 million miles, and yet that's considered "nothing." Not that a more circular path is better or worse, but it is sure necessary for life on this planet. Earth's almost circular path around the Sun equates to a 0.0167 eccentricity value. This astonishingly places Earth fourth among all 961,679 named and unnamed bodies in the solar system — planets, moons, comets, and asteroids. For every 0.02 that eccentricity increases, Earth's surface temperature would add approximately 100°F to the average temperatures each Summer and swing wildly to -100°F below the norm in Winter. That clearly wouldn't work. So, we truly do have our own little slice of habitable heaven here in the cosmos. Now might be a great time to start treating it that way.  

Ultimately, Earth's figure-8 analemma is the product of its axial tilt. We're out here in the universe, spinning like a top. Meanwhile, Jupiter's north and south poles are only 3 degrees off vertical, meaning its analemma is nearly identical to the elliptical shape of its orbit. There's not a point where the Sun “crosses over,” which robs Jupiter of any seasonal change.

Neptune's axial tilt is approximately 30 degrees, which closely resembles that of Earth, tracing a similar figure-8 analemma their sky. But its eccentricity value of 0.0086 is half of Earth's, meaning it's damn-near moving around the Sun in a perfect circle. This makes Neptune's figure-8 more symmetrical than ours, with its tight loop at the top and wide base. 

While we're at it, those analemmas artists depict in photos here on Earth aren't telling an accurate story. A photo collage titled "7:00 Suns Throughout The Year" wouldn't look anything like those uninterrupted figure-8s published. The bottom loop would be disjointed thanks to Daylight Saving Time. One day in March, the Sun is just hanging out up there at a, let's say, 42.0° solar elevation. The citizens of this fine location call such a thing 2:30 PM on their man-made clocks. Well, that next day rolls around and the Sun is now 42.4° up in the air at 3:30 PM. Except the silly humans aren't calling it 3:30 PM anymore; it's now 4:30 PM. The Sun didn't get any memo about this change, but we just broke the analemma. 

Myth #3: The Sun's rays are parallel. This one typically has people going "Aha! I knew it," while pointing to a photo of a partly cloudy day with sunbeams flowing in multiple directions. But it's not a myth for the reason those folks think. It's dumb luck; akin getting the math problem correct despite using an extremely flawed method. Sunbeams are* and aren't parallel and I'll explain how it can be both depending on context.
* Within a tolerable scientific range to treat as such 

The best way to study the rays of the Sun is through shadows. On a sunny day, go look at the balusters of a deck railing. Note how the parallel 2x2 supports cast similarly parallel dark patterns on the deck's surface. Well, for starters, those shadows aren't actually parallel. But you're not wrong for saying they are. While the shadows are diverging back to a single point source, it is at such a small fraction of a degree that it's negligible to the naked eye. 

To better explain this phenomenon, I like to use the classic caricature of larger-than-life skyscrapers placed on an out-of-scale Earth. These drawings are done in such a way that the elements rising off the planet's surface are like spokes of a wheel. Some versions even complete the circle, so structures on opposite sides of the world, known as geographical antipodes, are flipped 180 degrees. It creates the paradox of how both could be going "up."

Now, the playful nature of these types of images are truthful in a sense; they depict each building as perpendicular to its ground plane at that unique moment in Earth's unending curve. This is the most basic definition of what it means to be vertical. People in central Spain are, in fact, "standing on their heads" compared to the universal orientation of those in New Zealand's North Island. Midnight in one place is noon in the other. Sorry to burst your bubble, your childhood digging of a hole to China would haven ended up the middle of the Indian Ocean. But we're not alone in hitting water as our opposite. Only 15% of the land on Earth is antipodal with other land. 

However, the illusion is that, with such a small diameter for the Earth shown, the scientific reality is skewed into disbelief. We're just not used to seeing the whole picture at once, so it doesn't compute. Worse, we're bad a perceiving the roundness of Earth. Sail from pole to pole and the water beneath you will feel like a consistently flat surface the entire trip.

Here's where I'm going to lose/anger my Flat Earthers... not that I haven't already. They look at a skyline and say “all those buildings are parallel. How can that be if the ground below them is curved?” This, again, is humankind's inability to fully comprehend how large our planet is. Every circle can mathematically be composed by a series of similar-length straight lines. The bigger the circle, the more sides it contains, and thus, the more obtuse the angle between vertices becomes. Here I've drawn a circle with 24 sides (165.0 degrees), 100 sides (177.6 degrees), 360 sides (179.0 degrees), and even a software maximum of 999 sides (179.6 degrees) to show you that difference.

So how come shadows cast on the ground are parallel if the Sun's rays radiate outward in all directions? So we've learned to draw the Sun like this since the age we could grasp a crayon. And it is accurate in depicting the motion of light/heat leaving the gaseous sphere. The trouble is we're terrible at depicting, or even wrapping our brains around, the epic scale of what is truly taking place. There's really nothing in our solar system larger, other than the vapid nothingness of space, but that's a little too deep for this discussion.

The Earth is so big that you can go the expanse of a large metropolitan area and have each skyscraper treat the plane . Using plumb lines and levels measure perpendicular gravitational force into this static “flat” plane. We exaggerate its curvature, which is what is the flimsy foundation of the Flat Earth Movement. Their subscribers just don't grasp a small sample size. Can you treat a New York City block as flat? Sure, within fractions of an inch, this is true. Treating all of North America like it's on a table top? Well, that's where you lost your sense of reality.

This can be better shown in bridge design. The largest suspension span on the planet is the Akashi Kaikyo Bridge in Japan. Its two support towers are placed an insane 6,532 feet (or nearly 1 ¼ miles) apart. That width would have you believe the two 982-foot tall pylons — both vertically erected out of the floor of the bay — would have a serious tilt away from one another. Our planet's curvature would surely make it a real-life example of those skyline on Earth cartoons; where the tops are considerably further away than the bottoms. The difference in this Japanese bridge has to be a dozen feet or so, right? Nope. The distance between these two at the top is only 3.15” further apart than they are at the base. 

For all intents and purposes, those towers are as parallel as any two walls in your house – likely more. Take this example and apply it to an aerial/plan view. We just established that the pylons of the bridge, over a mile apart, are all but parallel. Well, now take that diameter of Earth and multiply it 109 times. That makes for a surface of the Sun that is “flat” for thousand-mile stretches. What this means? Every swath that is ten miles wide on Earth is receiving the same perpendicular rays. They are leaving at right angles from a curved surface, so shouldn't be considered parallel, but “are.”

Part of the problem is we don't do a good job of showing accuracy in the size difference. I mean look how awful we are at giving Alaska its due. That's merely one state on this planet and its massive size has never been fully appreciated on a map. The same is true for the Sun. We are forced to exclusively use diagrams since there aren't exactly hundreds of photos with the Sun and Earth in the same shot laying around. And we like to draw the Sun about five to ten times larger than the Earth. But the truth is, it's the difference between a basketball and a pea. It's a far cry from the Styrofoam balls suspended on wires for the 5th Grade Science Fair.

Whether it's Stonehenge, the Mayan temple of Tulum, or even the fictitious Indiana Jones map room, I always think to myself: “What if they built the whole thing and they were off by two degrees?” This isn't Where In The World is Carmen Sandiego? We sadly have to live in a reality where helicopters can't lift up and move the entire Island of Bali or The Strait of Magellan. Here on Earth, there's not a ton of recourse after things are set in figurative and literal stone. But what if it could be more like that cartoon?

Thanks to the computer technology we use at 4Most, building things in a digital medium first provides such forgiveness. Long before items get cemented to the ground, they can be spun and flipped and shifted with relative ease. They are weightless pixels on a computer screen. And our software can place the Sun in the sky exactly where it will be at any given time on any given date. This way you can visually understand the pain points a field, or complex of fields, will experience long before the ribbon-cutting ceremony. 

We could go on and on for hours on this subject. The Sun is chock full of mind-blowing facts and figures. Case in point: Our planet speeds up its daily rotation as we get closer to the Sun in our oblong orbit around it. What is understood as a 24-hour process actually takes as little as 23 hours and 56 minutes. And that is counteracted when we are at our furthest distance away from the Sun and it takes longer than 24 hours. It all averages together to equal one (almost perfectly round) 365.24 days to fully revolve. That pesky 0.24 explains the need for Leap Day.

If you want to feel particularly small or insignificant, just remind yourself that the Sun is one of 100 billion stars in our galaxy and there are approximately two trillion of those in the universe.

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