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Forensic Astronomer Solves Walt Whitman Mystery

kdawson posted more than 4 years ago | from the signs-and-portents dept.

Space 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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Astronomical Historiography? (4, Interesting)

beaverdownunder (1822050) | more than 4 years ago | (#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.

Re:Astronomical Historiography? (1)

srussia (884021) | more than 4 years ago | (#32429254)

Yes, "forensic" means "belonging to, used in, or suitable to courts of judicature or to public discussion and debate".

Re:Astronomical Historiography? (5, Funny)

ensic (1824474) | more than 4 years ago | (#32429378)

Yes, "forensic" means "belonging to, used in, or suitable to courts of judicature or to public discussion and debate".

Well that explains a lot! I kept thinking that people were trying to give me stuff.

Re:Astronomical Historiography? (1)

digitig (1056110) | more than 4 years ago | (#32429724)

And this work is being used in public discussion and debate, so it's forensic! As is everything discussed in any public place, so I wonder whether Merriam-Webster's definition might be a little too broad.

Re:Astronomical Historiography? (1)

sjames (1099) | more than 4 years ago | (#32436822)

I think they're about 90 degrees off. In the modern usage it should probably be "pertaining to the reconstruction of past events through available evidence". In that modern usage, it fits perfectly with TFA.

Re:Astronomical Historiography? (2, Funny)

RandomFactor (22447) | more than 4 years ago | (#32429546)

Soo, you are saying that this research into an icy mudball is all wet?

Re:Astronomical Historiography? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#32432062)

The original article appeared in Sky and Telescope and the NewScientist is merely a reprint. The article on a whole is lame at several levels. It isn't science (astronomy in this case) nor is it literature. The article isn't science since it is merely a rehash of sensational newspaper articles, the original science describing the meteor stream was detailed by scientists when it happened. A whole raft of journal articles appeared at the time. It isn't literature as it merely rehashes someone elses poem. It is merely a badly written article by a wanna be scientist who cann't get published elsewhere and a group of Artsy Fartsy arts majors looking for continued justification of there existence. I sure that this will go down as a "peer-reviewed article" in an annual report

Re:Astronomical Historiography? (3, Funny)

GameboyRMH (1153867) | more than 4 years ago | (#32432872)

Yeah but putting "forensic" in the title draws the CSI fans.

You could say...*puts on shades*...it's the star attraction.

Re:Astronomical Historiography? (1)

jemtallon (1125407) | more than 4 years ago | (#32433350)

http://sadtrombone.com/ [sadtrombone.com]

Re:Astronomical Historiography? (1)

GameboyRMH (1153867) | more than 4 years ago | (#32434934)

I don't think you understand how this works.

Re:Astronomical Historiography? (1)

Random Data (538955) | more than 4 years ago | (#32442198)

YYEEEEEAAAAAAHHHHHH!

Not "forensic" (1)

AthanasiusKircher (1333179) | more than 4 years ago | (#32434056)

From the OED for "forensic":

adj. Pertaining to, connected with, or used in courts of law; suitable or analogous to pleadings in court.

It comes from the Latin word "forum," as in the Roman Forum, where public debates were held and legal proceedings were carried out. With CSI and such, it seems people think "forensics" means something like "finding and analyzing evidence," but unless that evidence is meant for a courtroom, it's not "forensics."

What this person is doing is historical research, pure and simple. It's what a historian does. If I discover the subject of a historical painting, am I doing "forensic art"? If I discover the identity of a battle that is referenced in a historical poem, am I doing "forensic warfare"? No. I'm doing history -- art history, military history, whatever.

Many people think that historians just sit around telling stories about the past, perhaps digging through documents and books in archives. But there's a lot of technical stuff going on all the time -- you can figure out where a document might have originated by watermarks in the paper, many historians are pretty adept at paleography and handwriting analysis to determine the authenticity of a manuscript, analysis of ink color, paper size, pen type, and such can all narrow down the possible geographic origin, etc. Just because you're doing something dealing with science or using scientific methods doesn't mean it isn't still history.

Honestly, I'm a little suspicious whenever I see some historical argument labeled as "forensics," which usually implies either that the author is a historian trying to sound hip or that some random scientist (perhaps with forensics training) has jumped into doing historical research, often with little background in history. Either way, it can sometimes be a way to sidestep peer review and get published in the mainstream media.

Anyhow, these people are helping to write the history of astronomy, perhaps as it impacted artists, writers, and the public at large, but it's still just history. Unless someone's going to sue someone else over it, though, it's not "forensic."

The mystery (4, Informative)

cappp (1822388) | more than 4 years ago | (#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 spoilers....it 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.

Re:The mystery (1)

tsm_sf (545316) | more than 4 years ago | (#32429324)

As the commentor above mentioned, this field seems to be a little ill-defined.

That's because there isn't enough work to call it a 'field'. When you have one or two people attempting to define their work as a separate body, make sure that the most fitting descriptor isn't "a couple of assholes" (ethnodouchebaggery).

Re:The mystery (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#32429438)

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 spoilers....it was the meteor procession of 1860.

And for those who don't want spoilers... well, I guess sucks to be them...

Boilerplate != multiple observations (3, Interesting)

flyingfsck (986395) | more than 4 years ago | (#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.

Re:Boilerplate != multiple observations (2, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#32429322)

In those days, the little town newspapers used boilerplate from the larger city newspapers and only added in a few local articles.

Sounds just like today except the big town newspapers do it too. AP,Reuters,TASS, etc boilerplate is published everywhere.

Re:Boilerplate != multiple observations (2, Informative)

drinkypoo (153816) | more than 4 years ago | (#32429690)

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.

Re:Boilerplate != multiple observations (1)

morgan_greywolf (835522) | more than 4 years ago | (#32429726)

(Just fixing a bad mod by posting.) But yes, that's why they call them 'wire' articles.

Re:Boilerplate != multiple observations (2, Insightful)

dylan_- (1661) | more than 4 years ago | (#32429674)

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.

I think that they would probably have only counted articles that were written in different styles or with local eyewitness accounts. I'm sure that a load of identical articles would have been very obvious.

Re:Boilerplate != multiple observations (2, Funny)

Arthur Grumbine (1086397) | more than 4 years ago | (#32431400)

In those days, the little town newspapers used boilerplate from the larger city newspapers and only added in a few local articles...

--
Now get off my lawn!

Ye Gods! You are old!

Walt Whitman's poem (4, Informative)

masterwit (1800118) | more than 4 years ago | (#32429332)

Correct me if I am mistaken, but I believe it was this poem:

---
Year of Meteors [1859-60]
---
by Walt Whitman
(1819-1892)
---
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?

Re:Walt Whitman's poem (4, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#32429468)

The young prince of England was winked at by the laureate poet, in pre-internet emoticons!

With attachment? What prescience!

Re:Walt Whitman's poem (1)

Anci3nt of Days (1615945) | more than 4 years ago | (#32429610)

I'm sure he will find a way back from the grave / freezer to sue you for breach of copyright.

... oh wait - that was the other Walt.

Re:Walt Whitman's poem (4, Insightful)

Lucidus (681639) | more than 4 years ago | (#32430140)

So these guys studied a poem entitled "Year of Meteors [1859-60]" which mentions "the strange huge meteor-procession," and were able to determine that it refers to the great meteor procession of 1860? Wow, that is some impressive detective work!

Re:Walt Whitman's poem (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#32431528)

tl;dr

Halley's Comet (4, Interesting)

Speare (84249) | more than 4 years ago | (#32429500)

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.

Re:Halley's Comet (1)

TapeCutter (624760) | more than 4 years ago | (#32430004)

Yes, I think this was one of the clues [sydneyobservatory.com.au] he used. Can't remember if he used it to confirm his prediction or the other way around but IIRC he took the problem of the orbit to Newton who said he had written something on that, couldn't find it, and spent the next two years (re?)writting the principa to answer Haley's question.

Solar eclipses (1)

Michael Woodhams (112247) | more than 4 years ago | (#32429570)

I'd count dating historical observations of solar eclipses as forensic astronomy, and I think was done well before 30 years ago. Here [timeanddate.com] are some examples.

There are also celestial alignments of pyramids and stone circles - although it would have to be a stellar alignment to count, as the sun doesn't change its path over historical times.

Re:Solar eclipses (1)

expatriot (903070) | more than 4 years ago | (#32429786)

I'll give you the "sun doesn't change its path" as common usage, but the earth does in fact change its path: http://www.homepage.montana.edu/~geol445/hyperglac/time1/milankov.htm [montana.edu]

Re:Solar eclipses (1)

Man Eating Duck (534479) | more than 4 years ago | (#32432180)

...the earth does in fact change its path...

Fascinating. I knew about the precession, but the other two are new to me. I also can't understand what would cause them, especially the change in the orbit itself. The only thing I can think of would be influence from other planets, but a variance of 5 % sounds like a lot, and I'd guess that the period would vary if that was the case.

Ah, Wikipedia to the rescue. [wikipedia.org]
Interesting indeed, thank you! It doesn't explain the variance in axial tilt, but I guess it has the same causes as the precession.

Re:Solar eclipses (1)

An dochasac (591582) | more than 4 years ago | (#32432344)

I once tried to match up the stone circle surrounding a 5000 year old burial tomb against how stars would appear on the winter solstice at that time. (there is a well-known solstice alignment with the associated passage tomb.) Nothing lined up until I noticed that my Amiga astronomy program turned off precession by default so that it's 7Mhz processor wouldn't have a conniption. Lo and behold, the stars of Orion's belt rose over this stone, Sirius over that one, the ecliptic aligned with those two...

"where the sun's path touches the earth" is almost exactly the phrase used in an old native American story about a boy who rigged a noose at the point "where the sun's path touches the earth" in order to punish it for burning his coat. The noose choked the sun and nearly put it out until (a mouse?) gnawed through the rope and allowed the sun to be restored. Does this sound familiar? The story is from a north American tribe which is currently confined to an area which hasn't seen a total solar eclipse in several hundred years. I'd love to discuss with David exactly which eclipse matches this mystery. The last time I investigated this I assumed it was a southern Canadian eclipse from the 1700s but it might not have been.

Slightly oblig. (1)

GF678 (1453005) | more than 4 years ago | (#32429740)

[kicking Walt Whitman's tombstone]
Homer: Damn you, Walt Whitman! I-hate-you-Walt-freaking-Whitman! "Leaves of Grass", my ass!

/* Halley */ (5, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#32429760)

Halley's comment.

Who was on the scaffold? (1)

walmass (67905) | more than 4 years ago | (#32429812)

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 am curious: does anyone know who the old man was, why he was being hung? Was it a lynching?

Re:Who was on the scaffold? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#32429884)

...you mounted the scaffold...

I had a completely different mental picture involving a quite different definition of the word "mount".

Re:Who was on the scaffold? (1, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#32429958)

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

Re:Who was on the scaffold? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#32431102)

this is why I hate poetry.

http://weslarson.blogspot.com/

So, let me get this straight... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#32430028)

The poem's title includes the year 1860, and specifically mentions a "meteor procession" and this astronomy fella figured out it was the Meteor Procession of 1860? How did he know?!

All astronomy is forensic (1)

minstrelmike (1602771) | more than 4 years ago | (#32431784)

If light takes 4 years to get here from the nearest star, then isn't all stellar astronomy forensic--looking into the past?
Seems like we're talking cultural forensics.

Re:All astronomy is forensic (1)

Tekfactory (937086) | more than 4 years ago | (#32432332)

4 years to the nearest Star, not 7 Minutes?

Call the Forensic Astronomers, somebody stole the Sun!

But even taking that example, if you look at the sun (not directly at the sun) you're still looking at where the sun was 7 minutes ago.

Re:All astronomy is forensic (1)

minstrelmike (1602771) | more than 4 years ago | (#32514178)

Ha, I forgot about Sol. It is so close it seems more like a mere celebrity than a true star.
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