MelbHenge: The Rare Alignment of the City and the Sun
MelbHenge: The Rare Alignment of the City and the Sun

MelbHenge: The Rare Alignment of the City and the Sun

Every year in cities around the world there is a perfect alignment of the city streets and a setting sun. ManhattanHenge. TorontoHenge. ChicagoHenge. I wanted to understand this phenomena and experience it for myself. This is Understanding MelbHenge.


You might have seen this photo before. This is the phenomenon known as ManhattanHenge. It's a twice a year event where the sun sets perfectly in line with the New York City streets and in doing so, thousands of people get drawn out and photographers try and get the perfect shot. But I don't live in New York City and with this whole pandemic thing going on, I don't think I'm gonna get there any time soon. So I'm gonna have to swap out New York City street hot dogs with dim sims and the Wall Street Bull for a uOOuOO. Because this is a phenomenon that happens all around the world including right here in my home city of Melbourne, where this is known as MelbHenge.

So I wanted to dive into it to explore what's actually going on, what it all means and more importantly, to get out there and try and capture my own MelbHenge photo. And to do this, the best place to start is with science.

[Sara] My name is Sara Webb, I'm an Astronomer at Swinburne University of Technology and I work on studying stars far, far away from our own.

[Julian] And Sara suggested to understand what was really going on, we needed to go back to the source, Stonehenge itself.

[Sara] The beautiful circular structure made out of giant monolithic stones and what's special about it is it has a structure such that these two, they're called the headstones, are actually lined up with a sunset and a sunrise, both on summer solstice and winter solstice, which to be able to do that, meant that the people who had built this monolithic structure had to have understood the nightly cosmos as a whole.

So where did this interesting ManhattanHenge and other cities around the world come from? Well, it actually goes to physicists and internet hero, Neil deGrasse Tyson.

[NDT] I fear that most people don't know that the sun doesn't set on the same spot on the horizon every day. 'Cause if asked, people say well, the sun rises in the East and sets in the West, but it doesn't. It only rises due East and sets due West on the equinoxes, March 21st and September 21st. All the other days of the year it is rising and setting somewhere else on the horizon. And it's systematic, it's not just random.

And it's aligning this motion which is really where MelbHenge and it's related phenomenons around the world work.

And so basically, any gridded city where you have it aligned from East to West and you have a long diagonal line from the East to the West, most likely at some point, so multiple points in the year, the sun will either rise or set along those two points, and depending where you're positioned, you can get that spectacular henge effect where the sun comes up between the buildings and you see almost the light get focused down.

But I actually really like MIT henge. What they have on campus is a long hallway known as the infinite corridor and it's around 250 meters long, and it too experiences this twice a year and the faculty and staff come out and celebrate, and it just feels so on brand that this is something that they get excited by.

But this was something that I wanted to experience for myself, so armed with my knowledge from Swinburne University, I found a place that would be perfect to view MelbHenge 2021. But there's one spot here where it should work really well.

So, I'm on Bourke Street, or looking down Bourke Street, more correctly and this is supposedly the best spot to line up to capture a shot. There's a tram route that runs all the way down so it's very Melbourne, very classical and should, yeah, hopefully turn out to be something worthwhile. So it's about 7.30 now and there are some photographers behind me who are keen and getting set up. We'll see how big the crowds are, sometimes this area's fully packed, and other times, of course, it's much quieter. During COVID it was a much quieter event.

Look, it does look like there are gonna be a few people joining today, which is great to see. There was a group from Swinburne University who put out a press release earlier in the week, putting all the timings up and encouraging people to get involved. So yeah, it is a bit of a thing. It's gonna be really cool to see.

It is gonna be a bit of a weird thing to say as someone who's making a video right now, but I'm not really that into photography, or least I'm certainly not good at it. When I scroll Instagram, it's certainly not photos I take that I see on there. There's a lot more impressive people than me, but I'm gonna try and get a good shot today. Now, I'll do it with a good camera and I'll try with my iPhone and see which one works out better. And see if I can get any that are worthy of the hashtag MelbHenge Instagram hashtag. Yeah, we'll see how it goes.

And while we wait for the sunset, there's one more thing I wanted to cover off on. In New York City, the streets have been aligned with the Island itself and that's why they're not perfectly North South, and in Melbourne, as you can see, the Hoddle Grid is not perfectly East West. It was designed this way, back in 1837 by Robert Hoddle and the goal here was to try to make it as parallel as possible with the Yarra River.

And Neil had a thought experiment that what happens if archeologists in the future look back at Manhattan and try to explore the meaning behind the shape of this grid.

[NDT] So I thought an apocalyptic Earth. If there's nothing that survives but a street grid, what would they say of us? Surely, future anthropologists would argue that we arranged our grid to align with the sun on purpose on those days and what could they learn about our culture? Well, what's interesting about those dates? May 20th, that's around Memorial Day. Okay, that's interesting. What's the other date? Look this up. That's around baseball's All Star Break. Memorial Day, that's war. July 11th, All Star game, that's baseball. So they would conclude that America was about war and baseball.

And if we apply this thinking in the Melbourne context, we realise that the 3rd of November would be one of the important days on our calendar. That is around the time that Melbourne Cup is. That is a public holiday, Australia's biggest horse race, known as the race that stops the nation. So maybe it's not too far off. But back now to the steps of Parliament during MelbHenge.

So this is sunset at MelbHenge. Now, there's no grand moment, the sun sets at a certain time, 8.30 tonight, but it's not like anything just kinda goes bang, like a firework or an eclipse. Instead, it just kinda gets beautiful and nice. The lovely sunset tonight. Look, there's a bit covered up because it's Melbourne and there's some wonderful trees, but I think the part that's really stuck with me is just a nice reflection on how lovely this city is. The weather's beautiful at this time of year, there were families out, some kids complaining about how boring it all is. There's people eating food across the road, the trams are coming down. So it's been quite a lovely reflection on the city. So that is MelbHenge 2021. It'll be back again in November.

And here's how I went, here's a couple of snaps that I took on the day and for a non photographer, I have to say, I'm pretty happy with these. If you enjoyed this, I urge you to check out another film I've made which is about another photo which is also shaped the city of Melbourne. Otherwise, I'll be back next week. I'm Julian O'Shea, that's it from me.