Is stealing sun in the Norwegian town of Rjuken playing with fire?

A group of almost nervous-looking
Norwegians gather to greet the sun. It
is rising in silver splendour over the
mountains that enfold their little
town, casting a pool of bright light
around them. In this new morning
they cast shadows on the town
square. Real shadows at last!
But that is not the sun. It is a system
of gigantic mirrors set up on the
mountain to give Rjukan a sunlight
boost. This town buried in a deep
valley never gets any direct natural
light in winter, when the northern
sun is too low in the sky to get past its
walls of rock. Until now. The mirrors
are the brainchild of Martin
Andersen, an artist who moved to
Rjukan 10 years ago. His "heliostats"
reflect this pool of sunlight on to the
town square 365 days a year, keeping
the sun in town even in the darkest
winter.
Why is this artwork so fascinating? It
plays with one thing that is generally
deemed beyond human control. The
sun is the raging force that sustains
our solar system, a vast benign
inferno of nuclear reactions and
cosmic flares that dwarfs our orbiting
and utterly dependent rock. We've
done plenty to our planet, but
changing the sun and the ebb and
flow of its light and warmth as the
earth spins will surely always be
beyond us.
Modern life has found ways to avoid
thinking about that fundamental
primordial power that shapes our
existence. Electric light creates 24-
hour cities and homes that need never
be dark. To change the sun itself and
its impact on earth is, however, a
bizarre, almost criminal, branch of
underground science. There's
something unholy about it, or
megalomaniac – wasn't it his crazy
scheme to rob Springfield of sunlight
with giant sunshades that got The
Simpsons' Mr Burns shot?
The first person who is known to
have dreamed of toying with sunlight
was the ancient Greek scientist
Archimedes. One of the secret
weapons he is said to have invented
to defend the Greek city of Syracuse
from Roman attack in the 3rd
century BC was a giant parabolic
mirror that concentrated sunlight so
fiercely that it could set ships on fire
from afar. Whether or not this solar
death ray really existed, it fascinated
Leonardo da Vinci so much that he
tried to recreate it in his workshop in
early 16th-century Rome.
Andersen's mirrors reverse the
violent intent of these hubristic
predecessors and bring light and
warmth into a cold dark valley – a
boon for "the pale little children of
Rjukan", as its mayor said. The
mirrors address our deep human
need for sunlight. In Isaac Asimov's
science fiction story Nightfall, a
planet with multiple suns never
experiences night. There's always at
least one sun in the sky. When, every
few thousand years, an eclipse does
create darkness, no one can cope and
an entire society goes mad.
It seems to be a myth that suicide
rates soar in the Arctic Circle in the
long lightless winter months. In fact
suicides in Greenland are at their
worst when the sun comes back at the
end of winter. The self-inflicted
death rate soars in spring and
summer. Greenland has an extremely
high suicide rate and this is surely
connected with its extremes of
sunlight and darkness. This suggests a
deep yet mysterious connection
between the sun and mental
wellbeing.
There are so many myths about the
sun. Pagans still go to Stonehenge for
the summer solstice when all the
evidence suggests Britain's neolithic
monuments are aligned to the winter
solstice. They seem to be "tuned" to
the darkest day of the year. At
Maeshowe in Orkney the sun on the
darkest day sends a beam of light
straight down a narrow tunnel into
the central chamber of a burial
mound. It's a stone telescope set up
for that one moment.
Why? Perhaps so the community
could know when winter was at its
deepest and start looking forward to
the sun's return. Then again, the
ghost stories and folk tales of Europe
reveal our peculiar pleasure in the
dark, our ability to get gloomily
addicted to winter. In Viking sagas
they winter around fires telling
stories and getting very, very drunk.
Our exact need for the sun is
enigmatic and complex. Dark and
light are both part of our lives and
our minds. Perhaps, in meddling with
these ancient forces, the little town of
Rjukan is after all following in the
dangerous footsteps of Archimedes
and his burning mirrors. We don't
know how the sun shapes us and we
cannot control our strange
relationship with it, the greatest love
affair in any of our lives.