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Forensic Astronomer Solves Walt Whitman Mystery 44

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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  • 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 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.

  • 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
    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?

  • 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.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday June 02, 2010 @08:36AM (#32429958)

    This book [] seems to indicate that it was John Brown, an anti-slavery terrorist.

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