Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Nice Work if you Can Get It!

Here's a job that would be pretty cool to have: April's Smithsonian magazine had an article on a few forensic astronomers who specialize in art and art history. Essentially, they are scientists first, who are experts in the solar system, star patterns, etc (the real deal, not astrology). Because of the precise orbits and nature of the universe, they are able to go back in time and figure out why certain famous art pieces are what they are.

Example: Van Gogh's White House at Night. It's a house with a starry sky around it, and one particular star is very noticeable. Up till this recent discovery, it was thought the stars were the effect Van Gogh intended as in Starry Night. But actually, by going to the actual location where Van Gogh painted it, exactly to the spot by using details in the painting, at exactly the same corrseponding day it was painted (requiring hours of research and study) they found that it was actually Venus that was the bright star in the painting, not just an ordinary star.

Another study they did was of Munch's The Scream painting (I call it Diary of a Migraine). In the background the sky is bright red. It was thought this was just artistic license. But by going back to the exact year it was painted, to the exact location, and going through historical records, they found that it was the ash in the sky from the eruption at Mt. Krakatoa that made the background actually appear red. They assert that Munsh painted it as he saw it, and perhaps the expression on the figure's face was in reaction to that scary sky.

One point the article brought out was that many artists are inspired by the variations of the sun and moon, and events such as eclipses are often tied in with their work. So the study for the forensic astronomist is actually really like a treasure hunt, trying to see what is in the worksand if it's at all related to astronomy. Cool!

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