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Forensic Astronomer Solves Walt Whitman Mystery 44

Posted by kdawson
from the signs-and-portents dept.
New Scientist has a piece on the uncommon art of forensic astronomy. Texas State University physicist Donald Olson has solved the mystery of Walt Whitman's meteor poem, thanks to clues found in an 1860 painting by Frederic Church. "Before we were done we had collected 300 records of observations [of the event]. I think this may be the most observed, and most documented, single meteor event in history. From the Great Lakes to New England, every town that had a newspaper wrote about that meteor. ... So we've got one of America's greatest landscape artists, Frederic Church, watching the meteor from Catskill, and we've got one of America's greatest poets, Walt Whitman, watching the meteor from New York City." The field of forensic astronomy may have gotten its start more than 30 years before, when art historian Roberta Olson argued convincingly that the lifelike comet in Giotto's "Adoration of the Magi" in Padua, Italy, in fact depicted Halley's Comet in its visitation of 1301.
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Forensic Astronomer Solves Walt Whitman Mystery

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  • by beaverdownunder (1822050) on Wednesday June 02, 2010 @05:44AM (#32429200)
    Isn't this more astronomical historiography? That is, looking back at historical record to decipher the details of an event through commonalities and extrapolation?

    I thought forensic science was a bit more dry.
  • The mystery (Score:4, Informative)

    by cappp (1822388) on Wednesday June 02, 2010 @05:56AM (#32429234)
    For anyone else who didn't know what the mystery was - the researcher was looking into establishing exactly which meteor and comets were referenced in the poem. If you want spoilers....it was the meteor procession of 1860.

    As the commentor above mentioned, this field seems to be a little ill-defined. When I read the article the first academic division I thought of was Archaeoastronomy. Wikipedia's definition is servicable:

    Archaeoastronomy (also spelled archeoastronomy) is the study of how past people "have understood the phenomena in the sky, how they used phenomena in the sky and what role the sky played in their cultures."[1] Clive Ruggles argues it is misleading to consider archaeoastronomy to be the study of ancient astronomy, as modern astronomy is a scientific discipline, while archaeoastronomy considers other cultures' symbolically rich cultural interpretations of phenomena in the sky.[2][3] It is often twinned with ethnoastronomy, the anthropological study of skywatching in contemporary societies. Archaeoastronomy is also closely associated with historical astronomy, the use of historical records of heavenly events to answer astronomical problems and the history of astronomy, which uses written records to evaluate past astronomical practice.

    For anyone interested, Dr. Anthony Aveni has written a lot of interesting stuff in the field.

    • by tsm_sf (545316)
      As the commentor above mentioned, this field seems to be a little ill-defined.

      That's because there isn't enough work to call it a 'field'. When you have one or two people attempting to define their work as a separate body, make sure that the most fitting descriptor isn't "a couple of assholes" (ethnodouchebaggery).
  • by flyingfsck (986395) on Wednesday June 02, 2010 @06:06AM (#32429272)

    In those days, the little town newspapers used boilerplate from the larger city newspapers and only added in a few local articles. So the fact that the meteor was reported in many newspapers means diddly squat.

    Those were the days of the steam driven internet on rails - news travelled a little slower, but it was no different in concept from today where lots of papers and blogs quote the same text.

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      In those days, the little town newspapers used boilerplate from the larger city newspapers and only added in a few local articles.

      Sounds just like today except the big town newspapers do it too. AP,Reuters,TASS, etc boilerplate is published everywhere.

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by drinkypoo (153816)

        Sounds just like today except the big town newspapers do it too. AP,Reuters,TASS, etc boilerplate is published everywhere.

        Boilerplate doesn't refer to syndicated articles. It refers to a pre-printed front or front/back sheet with the national news. The newspapers would print their name on them, and then stuff them with their content. So it's nothing like today. We've had syndicated articles almost as long as we've had telegraph, and they're something else.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by dylan_- (1661)

      In those days, the little town newspapers used boilerplate from the larger city newspapers and only added in a few local articles. So the fact that the meteor was reported in many newspapers means diddly squat.

      I think that they would probably have only counted articles that were written in different styles or with local eyewitness accounts. I'm sure that a load of identical articles would have been very obvious.

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      In those days, the little town newspapers used boilerplate from the larger city newspapers and only added in a few local articles...

      --
      Now get off my lawn!

      Ye Gods! You are old!

  • Walt Whitman's poem (Score:5, Informative)

    by masterwit (1800118) * on Wednesday June 02, 2010 @06:23AM (#32429332) Journal

    Correct me if I am mistaken, but I believe it was this poem:

    ---
    Year of Meteors [1859-60]
    ---
    by Walt Whitman
    (1819-1892)
    ---
    Year of meteors! brooding year!
    I would bind in words retrospective some of your deeds and signs,
    I would sing your contest for the 19th Presidentiad,
    I would sing how an old man, tall, with white hair, mounted the
    scaffold in Virginia,
    (I was at hand, silent I stood with teeth shut close, I watch'd,
    I stood very near you old man when cool and indifferent, but trembling
    with age and your unheal'd wounds you mounted the scaffold;)
    I would sing in my copious song your census returns of the States,
    The tables of population and products, I would sing of your ships
    and their cargoes,
    The proud black ships of Manhattan arriving, some fill'd with
    immigrants, some from the isthmus with cargoes of gold,
    Songs thereof would I sing, to all that hitherward comes would welcome give,
    And you would I sing, fair stripling! welcome to you from me, young
    prince of England!
    (Remember you surging Manhattan's crowds as you pass'd with your
    cortege of nobles?
    There in the crowds stood I, and singled you out with attachment;)
    Nor forget I to sing of the wonder, the ship as she swam up my bay,
    Well-shaped and stately the Great Eastern swam up my bay, she was
    600 feet long,
    Her moving swiftly surrounded by myriads of small craft I forget not
    to sing;
    Nor the comet that came unannounced out of the north flaring in heaven,
    Nor the strange huge meteor-procession dazzling and clear shooting
    over our heads,
    (A moment, a moment long it sail'd its balls of unearthly light over
    our heads,
    Then departed, dropt in the night, and was gone;)
    Of such, and fitful as they, I sing--with gleams from them would
    gleam and patch these chants,
    Your chants, O year all mottled with evil and good--year of forebodings!
    Year of comets and meteors transient and strange--lo! even here one
    equally transient and strange!
    As I flit through you hastily, soon to fall and be gone, what is this chant,
    What am I myself but one of your meteors?

  • Halley's Comet (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Speare (84249) on Wednesday June 02, 2010 @07:13AM (#32429500) Homepage Journal

    Maybe I'm biased, given my name, but wouldn't Halley's own sleuthing of the comet itself be a prime candidate for "the field of forensic astronomy" getting a start? It's not like he named this thing that appeared once-- he discovered that several historical sightings of similar objects were actually the same object on a periodic return.

    • Yes, I think this was one of the clues [sydneyobservatory.com.au] he used. Can't remember if he used it to confirm his prediction or the other way around but IIRC he took the problem of the orbit to Newton who said he had written something on that, couldn't find it, and spent the next two years (re?)writting the principa to answer Haley's question.
  • I'd count dating historical observations of solar eclipses as forensic astronomy, and I think was done well before 30 years ago. Here [timeanddate.com] are some examples.

    There are also celestial alignments of pyramids and stone circles - although it would have to be a stellar alignment to count, as the sun doesn't change its path over historical times.

    • by expatriot (903070)

      I'll give you the "sun doesn't change its path" as common usage, but the earth does in fact change its path: http://www.homepage.montana.edu/~geol445/hyperglac/time1/milankov.htm [montana.edu]

      • ...the earth does in fact change its path...

        Fascinating. I knew about the precession, but the other two are new to me. I also can't understand what would cause them, especially the change in the orbit itself. The only thing I can think of would be influence from other planets, but a variance of 5 % sounds like a lot, and I'd guess that the period would vary if that was the case.

        Ah, Wikipedia to the rescue. [wikipedia.org]
        Interesting indeed, thank you! It doesn't explain the variance in axial tilt, but I guess it has the same causes as the precession.

        • I once tried to match up the stone circle surrounding a 5000 year old burial tomb against how stars would appear on the winter solstice at that time. (there is a well-known solstice alignment with the associated passage tomb.) Nothing lined up until I noticed that my Amiga astronomy program turned off precession by default so that it's 7Mhz processor wouldn't have a conniption. Lo and behold, the stars of Orion's belt rose over this stone, Sirius over that one, the ecliptic aligned with those two...

          "wher

  • [kicking Walt Whitman's tombstone]
    Homer: Damn you, Walt Whitman! I-hate-you-Walt-freaking-Whitman! "Leaves of Grass", my ass!

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday June 02, 2010 @08:14AM (#32429760)

    Halley's comment.

  • YEAR of meteors! brooding year!
    I would bind in words retrospective, some of your deeds and signs;
    I would sing your contest for the 19th Presidentiad;
    I would sing how an old man, tall, with white hair, mounted the scaffold in Virginia;
    (I was at hand—silent I stood, with teeth shut close—I watch’d;
    I stood very near you, old man, when cool and indifferent, but trembling with age and your unheal’d wounds, you mounted the scaffold;)

    I am curious: does anyone know who the old ma
  • If light takes 4 years to get here from the nearest star, then isn't all stellar astronomy forensic--looking into the past?
    Seems like we're talking cultural forensics.
    • 4 years to the nearest Star, not 7 Minutes?

      Call the Forensic Astronomers, somebody stole the Sun!

      But even taking that example, if you look at the sun (not directly at the sun) you're still looking at where the sun was 7 minutes ago.

A CONS is an object which cares. -- Bernie Greenberg.

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