Apr. 12, 1998 With rare exceptions, such as radio carbon-dating the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Shroud of Turin, or authenticating tears or blood reported from religious icons, science and religion seldom interact. In fact, they are most often at odds.
But now a mechanical engineer at Washington University in St. Louis who contemplated solving an old problem in his synagogue has literally harnessed light and reflection to enhance prayer and the synagogue experience.
Richard L. Axelbaum, Ph.D., associate professor of mechanical engineering in the School of Engineering and Applied Science, has developed a new optical design to accommodate worshippers in Orthodox Jewish synagogues. The design also may see the light of day in business and residential security and privacy devices, and even in police lineups, where witness protection is vital.
Axelbaum applied for a patent for his design in late 1997, and recently was awarded the first National Council of Young Israel's Synagogue Innovation Award on March 22, 1998, in New York. The award recognizes individuals who distinguish themselves by bringing modern techniques to synagogue design while remaining within Orthodox Jewish guidelines.
In Orthodox Judaism, men and women are required to worship apart and are literally separated by a partition called a mechitza. The separation is to keep worshippers -- particularly the males -- focused on prayer with as few distractions as possible. According to Orthodox Jewish law, there are no restrictions on women looking over to the men's side. And there are often times when women would like to observe what is happening on the men's side, for instance, to watch the bar mitzvah of their children or grandchildren.
People have tried traditional see-through mirrors to solve the problem, but they found that design actually creates two other problems. One, it requires that the lighting on the observer's side (the women's, in this instance) be much darker so that the observer does not see her reflection. Darkness obviously would hinder a worshipper's reading ability. Two, on the side that is not see-through (the men's side), the view is a mirror reflection, which itself is a distraction to a worshipper whose eyes may wander and see his own reflection. Axelbaum created a modification of a see-through mirror to remedy the situation.
Taking the standard design of such a mirror, angling it at 45 degrees and incorporating it into an assembly that resembles horizontal window blinds, he painted the panel above the mirror black and put a wallpaper design on the panel below the mirror. On the women's side, light reflecting off the black panel and bouncing off the mirror back to a person's eyes reflects the darkness. That reflection in the eyes is practically unnoticeable and lets women see through.
However, on the men's side, the light reflects the brightly colored wallpaper and nothing else. So, what the men see is a wallpaper design. The age-old problem is solved without changing light intensity and without offering one side a mirror image.
"It's an optical illusion that forces people to see what you want them to see," explains Axelbaum. "The beauty of it is, it's a simple, compact design for an optical illusion that you can use in everyday applications." The design is in use at his own synagogue, Young Israel of St. Louis, and a variation of it is being installed in another St. Louis synagogue.
Beyond the synagogue, Axelbaum's concept can be applied to security and privacy devices in residential and commercial settings, as well as in police lineups, where witness anonymity is essential. Because it does not require dimness on one side, it is particularly useful in the home. In an era of rapid suburban sprawl, such a device could protect privacy.
"I was explaining the mechitza to a group at the National Council when a woman interrupted and said she needed one of these in her kitchen," he said. "She explained that she had always enjoyed the sunlight through her kitchen window, but someone had built right next to her and their window faces hers directly.
She doesn't want people looking into her house but wants sunlight from the outside. With this design, you can make windows so people can see out but others can't see in."
Again, the drawback of the traditional see-through mirror is that in the darkness of evening, people outside can look in, but people inside can't look out. With Axelbaum's design, a homeowner, or businessperson, always can control seeing out and preventing those outside from seeing in.
The view from the outside doesn't have to be a wallpaper design. It can be a partial silvering or a white finish, anything that reflects bright light. Axelbaum also says the concept could be used with horizontal or vertical blinds. Axelbaum's engineering research is in the area of combustion synthesis of nano-sized particles for the design of new materials. Using a sophisticated sodium/halide flame, he creates new nanoparticles for use in aerospace, defense, medical, and sports and recreation industries, among others. He uses lasers and optics to measure temperature, fluid velocities and gas composition to understand the make-up of the flame, and thus, has a thorough understanding of light, reflection and optics.
He stumbled across his concept accidentally. While attending a synagogue in another city, he glanced at the mechitza and thought it had been placed at an angle. He was later told that it was actually placed straight up and down, and that he, ironically, had seen an illusion.
"I never looked at the mechitza directly, just out of the corner of my eye," he explains. "It was just my imagination, but that started me thinking about putting the see-through glass at an angle, and then the ideas for the design started flowing," he said.
While there may be other applications as a result of his concept, Axelbaum says he takes his greatest pride in its use to enhance the synagogue experience.
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