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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.
  • 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.

  • 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.

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