When I was fourteen years old, I asked my father about the whereabouts of the West Pole.
He quite rightly told me that there was no such thing.
In later years, I came to understand that North and South represent the extremes of a coordinate grid governed by the Earth’s axis of rotation. East and West, on the other hand, were no more than directions, mere pointers to the rising and setting Sun.
Since the phenomena defining the location of East and West—sunrise and sunset—are relative, one could travel forever westward without ever reaching an extreme. But there still had to be a West Pole.
In the Divine Comedy, Dante Alighieri describes the island of Mount Purgatory as lying in the seven Seas between the rising and the setting Sun. This points to a place in the far West—the farthest West—the West Pole?
The Middle and the Center of the Night
East faces the Sun, whereas West faces away from it. The easternmost point is therefore the point closest to the Sun, the point where the Sun is at its highest.11 — At any given time, there is always a point on the Earth at which the Sun is vertically overhead, in other words at its zenith.
The moment when the Sun reaches its zenith marks the middle of the day for this particular location. It follows that the westernmost point—the West Pole—is at the opposite side.22 — The point opposite the zenith is called the nadir.
Only in the region between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn does the Sun rise to the zenith and it is only here that the West Pole can be situated.
Being both at the middle and at the center of the night, it is visible only in the artificial light of a major city.
I went to Hong Kong.
My calculations had predicted a passage of the West Pole on January 6, 2006, at 00:29 UTC+08.
Since to be farthest from the Sun we had to be at the right spot at the right time and as high as possible above the ground, we requested permission to access the roof of Hong Kong’s tallest building.33 — In 2006, 2IFC (2 International Finance Centre) was Hong Kong’s tallest building, its rooftop situated 406.9m above the ground.
At the West Pole
The half-moon above 2IFC—just as the West Pole was passing—provided graphic confirmation of the passage of the West Pole through Hong Kong: Since the Moon’s terminator 4 4 — The full moon with its horizontal terminator indicating that the sun is exactly below. was horizontal, the Sun could be nowhere other than directly underneath—in the nadir.
We were half way between the setting and the rising Sun. On my search for the West Pole, I had found the Earth’s westernmost point in the Far East. And I was reminded of the slowly shifting power structures between the geopolitical poles that are generally ascribed to the cardinal directions East and West...
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5 — 2IFC houses the Hong Kong offices of several of the world’s largest banks, private equity firms, financial services providers and asset management companies as well as the Hong Kong Monetary Authority, which occupies the top twelve floors.
Today, the spot which may be where Dante imagined Mount Purgatory to be is the place where the assets of one of the global market’s biggest financial platforms are managed,5 and probably purified. And like Mount Purgatory, the West Pole is the gateway to paradise for those who make it to the top.66 — In today’s society, the top floor often serves as a metaphor for paradise. 2IFC has 88 floors; it is not unlikely that this figure was deliberately chosen because of the significance of the number 8 in Chinese culture: Since 8 stands for prosperity and wealth, 88 signifies «double wealth.» The visual resemblance between «88» and «», which means double happiness, lends weight to the paradisiacal image of 2IFC’s top floor.