In this series, The Northern Light investigates the meaning and history of public artworks around campus. To begin the series, both of the Consortium Library’s artworks are featured.
The Foucault Pendulum
French physicist Leon Foucault made a big splash in 1851 when he hung a pendulum with a 221-foot wire and a 62-pound bob from the dome of the Pantheon in Paris. His freely oscillating pendulum swayed in a north-south direction on one hour of the day, and an east-south direction another. The diameter described by the bob’s movement rotated.
Or at least it seemed to. In actuality, a Foucault (foo-koh) pendulum demonstrates the rotation of the earth over which it oscillates.
“When people first look at the Foucault pendulum, they think they see a pendulum going back and forth and changing direction over time,” said Stephen Rollins, dean of the Consortium Library. “Once they realize it’s the building, the earth, and them that’s moving around the pendulum, they have this learning moment. I can’t think of a better piece of art to put into a library than a Foucault pendulum.”
The Foucault pendulum by the circular stairway in the Consortium Library is one of 165 such pendulums on display in the world, including one on display at the South Pole.
The length of time it takes for a Foucault pendulum to describe a full rotation of the earth depends on the latitude where it is located. The closer it is to the poles, the shorter the time period, approaching 24 hours. A Foucault pendulum at the equator describes no rotation at all.
The Consortium Library’s Foucault pendulum is located at 61 degrees latitude and takes 27 hours to demonstrate a full rotation.
“It’s a very significant location,” Rollins said. “We claim we’re the furthest north permanent installation in the world.”
The Beacon of Knowledge
When the first concept sketches for the Consortium Library were presented to the UAA administration in 2000, they loved it.
Except for one thing.
“Everyone was troubled by the roof element,” said Stephen Rollins, dean of the Consortium Library. “It seems like they didn’t know what it was all about.”
The original plan called for a rectangular structure of vertical white beams with three horizontal white triangular planes to sit atop the library. It was supposed to be an abstraction of a bell tower. Had the plan gone through, students might have perceived chimes emanating from the Consortium Library roof instead of a column of green light.
“The chancellor at the time, Lee Gorsuch, wanted something a little more dramatic,” Rollins said. “So the next thing we came up with, which actually looked pretty cool for a while, was to have laser beams aimed up at the pole, which would be made of reflective material. We did tests on a small scale for that _” we had little laser beams, a little pole. Whenever you sent moisture through it, like snow or, what we were doing was spraying it with a spray bottle, it looked like the northern lights.”
The UAA administration settled on the current LED (light-emitting diode) light display on the library roof after they realized their laser dreams would be too expensive and difficult to maintain. The monument that now towers above the library and can be seen from as far as Hillside is not a single light, but rather a string of LED bulbs that can be individually replaced.
Rollins named the piece “Beacon of Knowledge” to reflect the work’s intent. The green light is meant to be a beacon, a symbol of welcome and hope, marking out the library.
Initial public reaction to the Beacon of Knowledge was not all positive. Some came to know it by its alternative moniker, “The Lightsaber.”
“I think it’s typical of a lot of new public art elements,” Rollins said. “People initially react to them; then they become accustomed to them. And actually I think that’s what public art should do. It should generate some interest. It would be worse if you did something and then no one ever had any reaction about it.”
‘To evoke in oneself a feeling one has once experienced, and having evoked it in oneself, then, by means of movements, lines, colors, sounds, or forms expressed in words, so to transmit that feeling that others may experience the same feeling – this is the activity of art.’
-Leo Tolstoy, ”What is Art?” 1896.
‘Art is anything I think is pretty.’
-Sandra Medina, junior in psychology