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Celestial Sleuth – book review


Did Abraham Lincoln cheat during his most famous trial?
Did the Moon sink the Titanic?
What lay behind Edvard Munch's blood-red sky in The Scream?

Using astronomical research, Donald Olson and his team at Texas State University answered these questions, and solved a number of other puzzles too. Olson teaches a course at Texas State University called Astronomy in Art, History and Literature. He used to do research in areas like general relativity, black holes and galaxy distribution, but doesn't consider himself an astrophysicist anymore. He now does what he calls "forensic astronomy”. Celestial Sleuth contains accounts of his investigations.

The book is in three parts, one dealing with art, the others with history and literature. Each section details a number of different puzzles, explaining how Olson and the team went about solving them. There's no mention of failure, so perhaps the team is always successful - or else some mysteries remain unsolved.

The Cliff, Étretat, Sunset
To see how this celestial sleuthing works, let's look at the first study in the book, Claude Monet's painting "The Cliff, Étretat, Sunset". Olson wonders if a modern visitor can
reach the spot where Monet set up his easel. Do the existing books and articles . . . direct visitors to the correct location? How can we determine Monet's precise location, accurate to within a few feet? How [can we] determine the exact date and the precise time, accurate to the minute, when Monet observed the sky that inspired this painting?

My first reaction to this introduction was to wonder why on Earth would we want to do this. But the questions were answered. And, yes, you can go to the location where Monet painted the picture. Furthermore the picture was painted on February 5, 1883, showing the scene as it was at 4.53 p.m. local mean time.

How did they work all that out?

Celestial sleuths at work
The team read expert comments on the painting, and looked at pictures of all of Monet's Étretat paintings - over eighty of them. One was painted from nearly the same spot a year later, giving some extra clues. They walked the length of the beach taking pictures, and carrying a small copy of the sunset painting. Only one location was a match.

Monet painted the picture sometime during his three-week visit to Étretat in February 1883. The team used a planetarium program to recreate the February 1883 sky and got a date between February 3-7 for their sunset. Old meteorological observations, tide tables and Monet's letters eliminated four of the days. In order to get the angle of the setting Sun for the sunset time, they measured the height of L'Aiguille (the Needle). This is the pointed rock behind the arch in the painting. To be sure that no significant erosion had occurred since Monet's time, they overlaid their digital photos with vintage postcards.

I was impressed with the meticulous work that took into account all the factors that might affect their measurements, and their ingenious use of sources such as the old postcards.

The good
After a slow start, I enjoyed the book. There are interesting stories, and since I like astronomy, mystery and history, this was fun.

The Monet painting was a trivial puzzle. But other stories were of more general interest, such as why Omaha Beach wasn't cleared before the D-Day landings, why the British sentries didn't spot Paul Revere in the moonlight, or the inspiration for Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.

I think the saddest story came from piecing together the circumstances of the loss of hundreds of lives when a Japanese submarine sank the USS Indianapolis in 1945. The cruiser was at a considerable distance from the submarine when it surfaced, so the ship should have been safe. But at that time the Moon, the cruiser and the submarine were all perfectly aligned, the ship backlit by the Moon whose glitter path drew a line to the ship from the submarine.

The not-so-good
A good point is that the writing is straightforward and technical terms are avoided or explained. Nonetheless I found the presentation ponderous, not matching the promise of the material. The introduction to each chapter bombards you with questions. For example, one article in the history section deals with five events. Its introduction is nearly two pages, which is too long, and it includes fourteen questions. The story of the first event has its own introduction with another seven questions.

Nor does the book read like a book. It reads like the collection of articles which it is. That does at least make it easy to dip into.

Recommended?
I would still recommend the book. People are no longer connected, as they once were, to the Moon and tides, the rising and setting of the Sun, and events in the night sky. So the links between astronomy and other aspects of human life and culture has been lost. But Celestial Sleuth re-establishes some of these connections.

I think the book is appealing to astronomers and non-astronomers alike and would make a nice present. My only reservation here is its price. I'd expect a a textbook or a technical book to be expensive, but for a book aimed at a general audience this book is quite pricey.

Donald W. Olson, Celestial Sleuth: Using Astronomy to Solve Mysteries in Art, History and Literature, Springer Praxis Books, 2014

Note: I read an online copy of the book to which the publishers allowed access for review purposes.

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Content copyright © 2014 by Mona Evans. All rights reserved.
This content was written by Mona Evans. If you wish to use this content in any manner, you need written permission. Contact Mona Evans for details.

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