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Finding Signposts in the Sky

They might not solve life's great mysteries, but three professors can answer some of the little ones by studying celestial phenomena.

August 20, 2004|Scott Gold | Times Staff Writer

SAN MARCOS, Texas — They have trudged through farms and along fjords to find the places where Vincent van Gogh painted "Moonrise" and Edvard Munch came across the ghastly inspiration for "The Scream."

Explaining a key moment in the Civil War, they determined that Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson was shot by his own troops because he was silhouetted by a full moon, making him unrecognizable as he approached jittery soldiers. They pinpointed the very moment -- 4:14 p.m. on Dec. 28, 1960 -- that Ansel Adams took a treasured photo of the moon rising over Half Dome in Yosemite Valley.

For nearly 20 years, three Texas researchers have set out to uncover details of history, art and literature using new scientific techniques -- and finding most of their answers in the stars. Using phases of the moon, patterns of stars and other celestial phenomena, the researchers are at the fore of a developing field called forensic astronomy.

The work of physicists Donald W. Olson and Russell L. Doescher, and English professor Marilynn S. Olson -- the Olsons are married -- has helped put unheralded Texas State University at San Marcos on the academic map. It has also regularly captivated one subculture after another, including history buffs and art lovers.

"These are fascinating little puzzles," said Anthony F. Aveni, a professor at Colgate University in Hamilton, N.Y., who is a leading scholar in Mesoamerican astronomy. "They are part of the larger picture of science's foray into new areas."

But some of the researchers' peers, including Aveni, say their latest project -- a clarification of an ancient battle that gave rise to the marathon race -- goes too far in trying to use science to explain what many think is a myth.

In an article in the September issue of the magazine Sky & Telescope, timed to coincide with the Olympic Games, the researchers seek to prove details of a storied event: the death of the messenger Pheidippides after running the first "marathon" to Athens in 490 B.C. Trouble is, many think that's all it is -- a story.

"This next step is kind of an escalation. What you have is an attempt to conflate myth and reality," said Aveni, who is contributing a chapter about the Texas researchers to a book exploring the connections between science and anthropology.

"This comes out of science's bottom-line nature, the idea that science decodes everything, that there is a literal truth to everything, that there is only one truth, with a capital 'T,' " Aveni said. "It's like a fundamentalist reading a Bible. It leaves no room for imagination."


On a foggy afternoon in 1994, a curious site befell the Yosemite Valley. Clusters of amateur photographers stood in a foot of snow, gazing toward Half Dome, Yosemite's magnificent landmark. No one was taking a picture -- not yet, anyway.

The Texas team had completed a study of Ansel Adams' photograph "Moon and Half Dome." By calculating Half Dome's height, the moon's position in the photograph and the place where Adams had to have been standing, and by measuring the shadows pictured on Half Dome's granite face to pinpoint the position of the sun, the researchers determined to within a minute the moment Adams clicked the shutter.

They concluded that the precise conditions would occur again at 4:05 p.m. on Dec. 13, 1994 -- and not again until 2017. With a few students, the researchers walked into Ahwahnee Meadow, where Adams stood 34 years earlier. They knew their study had been of interest to a handful of astronomy buffs, but they were gratified to see more than 40 photographers there.

"Boy," Donald Olson recalled whispering to Doescher, "we'd better be right."

They were. Shortly before 4 p.m., the sun began to burn away the fog, revealing a waxing gibbous moon, 86% illuminated -- just like the one that Adams photographed. The Texas trio watched with pride as the photographers snapped away.

"That was fun," Olson said.

Olson said there was no particular pattern to their research, just a curiosity about unanswered questions in literature, art and history. The researchers decided to study the Half Dome photograph after reading about the 50th anniversary of another Adams piece, perhaps his most famous work, "Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico."

"How long have people been looking at the sky? Forever," Olson said. "So how long have writers been writing about the sky? How long have artists been depicting the sky? How long has astronomy influenced military history? We just keep our eyes open. One thing just leads to another."

In the 1990s, the team began a line of investigation that has come to embody their work more than any other: deciphering Van Gogh's paintings of the sky. Using computer programs that allow them to recreate celestial conditions in any quadrant of the sky at any moment in history, as well as maps, letters Van Gogh sent to his brother, and complex mathematics, last year they found the spot where Van Gogh painted "Moonrise" in 1889 -- at the Saint-Paul monastery in Saint-Remy, France.

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