Tuesday, December 31, 2013

the best “real-life” use of geometry I saw this year

On May 3, 2003, the Old Man of the Mountain—a rock formation that had been known for at least two centuries as one of the natural wonders of New Hampshire—collapsed. No one saw it happen; that morning two park rangers looked up and realized he was gone. It had been expected that this day would arrive. The Old Man’s face was a remnant of ancient glacial movements, and it was not stable, thanks to erosion and freezing; it had already been repaired multiple times since the 1920s. In 2007, a project was begun to memorialize the Old Man, and in 2011 the “Profiler Plaza” was dedicated.

Over fall break this year, my wife and I made a trip to the western edge of the White Mountains, where the Old Man of the Mountain used to reside. We stopped by the memorial to the Old Man that is now located on the edge of “Profile Lake”, where I was astounded by the ingenuity of the project that had been created. Not content with photographs or descriptive plaques, the Old Man of the Mountain Legacy Fund sought to recreate the experience of viewing the famous visage.

This optical illusion is created by looking along any of several different steel structures, called “profilers”.

Each profiler has an array of raised features that, when viewed from an appropriate angle, line up to recreate the face on the mountain from the viewer’s perspective.

The distance from the Profiler Plaza to the Old Man’s former location is about half a mile, but for the profile effect to work requires careful placement of the viewer’s eyes. Thus each steel profiler comes equipped with three spots, marked according to the viewer’s height, so that they will be in the proper alignment. (Below is a picture of my wife looking at one of the profilers.)

I found this application of geometry to a memorial not only ingenious, but also quite stirring. The Old Man of the Mountain inspired several artistic works, including Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story “The Great Stone Face”. When I was in high school, my mom directed a theatrical adaptation of this story, in which I played the role of the visiting poet who appears near the end of the tale. So I felt a special connection to this place as I visited it for the first time.

It seems this could make a useful cross-disciplinary lesson in school, say between English, geometry, and U.S. history. Students could study the stories of the Great Stone Face and the monument’s demise in 2003. Then they might be asked to choose a location and design the memorial, working out the necessary measurements. For instance, here is a link to a map with the face’s former location marked: 44.1606° N, 71.6834° W. The actual location of the profilers is on the north shore of Profile Lake. If anyone carries this out, I’d love to know how it goes!

Thanks for reading, and Happy New Year!

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