A possible “CSI: Old Masters” spin-off?

Thanks to the software within our cameras and phones these days, we almost always know when and where we took our photos. But what of the great images and artworks before such technology was available? That’s where the astrophysicist and forensic astronomer Donald Olson comes in.

Solved: a decades-old Ansel Adams mystery
In the past, he and his team at Texas State University have figured out where Julius Caesar landed when he invaded Britain in 55 B.C. (northeast of Dover), why the British didn’t spot Paul Revere as he made his Midnight Ride (the moon was in a weird spot), and the identity of at least two mysterious yellow orbs floating in paintings: the one in Vincent Van Gogh’s White House at Night (it’s Venus) and the one in Edvard Munch’s The Girls on the Pier (it’s the moon).

More recently, they tackled two of Ansel Adams’s images of Alaska—Moon and Denali and Denali and Wonder Lake—using topographic maps, astronomical software, and webcam archives to figure out exactly when and where the photos were snapped.

Quite the detective story. More examples in his new book.

Further Adventures of the Celestial Sleuth: using astronomy to solve more mysteries in art, history, and literature
From the author of “Celestial Sleuth” (2014), yet more mysteries in art, history, and literature are solved by calculating phases of the Moon, determining the positions of the planets and stars, and identifying celestial objects in paintings. In addition to helping to crack difficult cases, these studies spark our imagination and provide a better understanding of the skies. Weather archives, vintage maps, tides, historical letters and diaries, military records and the assistance of experts in related fields help with this work.

Author: Terry Madeley

I work with student data and enjoy reading about art and design, data, education and technology.