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.

2001 was 50 years ago already?

It’s hard to believe this film is 50 years old. The Guardian marks the occasion with a piece that describes how the first audiences were baffled and walked out of the premiere, and how the critics of the day rubbished it: “trash masquerading as art”. I wonder what its own initial review was like. The article starts with news about mountains on a tiny moon orbiting Pluto.

Kubrick’s 2001: the film that haunts our dreams of space
As a result Kubrick Mons and Clarke Montes are now two of Charon’s major mountains. It is a fitting honour – and timely. The two men’s great collaborative work, the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, was released 50 years ago this month. By putting its creators’ names on the map of Charon, at the edge of the solar system, astronomers are repaying a debt to two visionaries who reshaped our thinking about the cosmos and created a film rated by some as the greatest ever made.

As well as being a major influence on a range of film-makers, its depiction of futuristic technology caught the eye of astronomers and designers alike.

Equally intrigued were young scientists desperate to witness technology that was credible and imaginative, something that had been entirely absent from feature films until then. “The film set new standards for ‘realistic’ portrayal of life in space, overcoming decades of Flash Gordon space-westerns,” says a former teenage astronomer, Professor Ian Christie of Birkbeck, University of London. “It also created a new soundtrack for cosmic spectacle – through the use of the opening of Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra and the music of Ligeti.”

One thing I love about the film is the unflinching slowness in the editing. It’s as is the whole film, and not just HAL, is trying to stare you out. Pinter would be proud of these pauses. This clip shows that beautifully, I think.

HAL 9000: “I’m sorry Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that”

And that voice. Would the film be the same without Douglas Rain? Here he is eight years before.

Universe (1960 film)
After this work, co-director Colin Low worked with Stanley Kubrick on 2001: A Space Odyssey. His work on this short may have influenced Kubrick to begin his project. Kubrick chose Universe narrator Douglas Rain as the voice of the HAL 9000 computer and also hired Wally Gentleman, who did optical effects for the NFB documentary, to work on 2001.

‘Universe’ – 1960 – science/ astronomy animation

That film starts off with a fascinating artistic impression of the moon. Here’s a slightly more up-to-date representation, care of NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft.

Tour of the Moon in 4K