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J Opt Soc Am A Opt Image Sci Vis. 2005 Jun;22(6):1023-34.

Psychophysical study of the visual sun location in pictures of cloudy and twilight skies inspired by Viking navigation.

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Biooptics Laboratory, Department of Biological Physics, Loránd Eötvös University, H-1117 Budapest, Pázmány Péter sétény 1, Hungary.


In the late 1960s it was hypothesized that Vikings had been able to navigate the open seas, even when the sun was occluded by clouds or below the sea horizon, by using the angle of polarization of skylight. To detect the direction of skylight polarization, they were thought to have made use of birefringent crystals, called "sun-stones," and a large part of the scientific community still firmly believe that Vikings were capable of polarimetric navigation. However, there are some critics who treat the usefulness of skylight polarization for orientation under partly cloudy or twilight conditions with extreme skepticism. One of their counterarguments has been the assumption that solar positions or solar azimuth directions could be estimated quite accurately by the naked eye, even if the sun was behind clouds or below the sea horizon. Thus under partly cloudy or twilight conditions there might have been no serious need for a polarimetric method to determine the position of the sun. The aim of our study was to test quantitatively the validity of this qualitative counterargument. In our psychophysical laboratory experiments, test subjects were confronted with numerous 180 degrees field-of-view color photographs of partly cloudy skies with the sun occluded by clouds or of twilight skies with the sun below the horizon. The task of the subjects was to guess the position or the azimuth direction of the invisible sun with the naked eye. We calculated means and standard deviations of the estimated solar positions and azimuth angles to characterize the accuracy of the visual sun location. Our data do not support the common belief that the invisible sun can be located quite accurately from the celestial brightness and/or color patterns under cloudy or twilight conditions. Although our results underestimate the accuracy of visual sun location by experienced Viking navigators, the mentioned counterargument cannot be taken seriously as a valid criticism of the theory of the alleged polarimetric Viking navigation. Our results, however, do not bear on the polarimetric theory itself.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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