Finding Clues in the Sky

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The Olympics are nearly upon us, and once again runners in Greece will take the approximate route followed by the lone runner who in 490 B.C. raced some 26 miles from the battlefield at Marathon to Athens. There he brought word of the Greek victory over the Persians, and then collapsed and died. Why did a 26-mile run, routinely practiced by today’s long-distance athletes, prove fatal to the presumably fit and experienced Greek runner?

Astronomer Donald Olson and his colleagues at Texas State University think they know why. In a report to be published in the September issue of Sky & Telescope magazine, they provide convincing evidence that the Marathon run, widely accepted by historians to have taken place in mid-September, actually occurred in August, and more precisely, on August 12. That one-month difference explains a lot. While the average maximum temperature these days along the Marathon route is a bearable 83 degrees F. in September, it ranges from 88 to 91 degrees in August, and often rises as high as 102 degrees near Athens. Those temperatures might well prove fatal, even to superbly-conditioned athletes.

In reaching this conclusion, Olson and his team made use of “astroforensics,” a discipline of their own that combines knowledge of astronomy, historical accounts, and just plain sleuthing. From writings of the Greek historian Herodotus, they found precise descriptions of the phase of the Moon at the time of the Marathon. They also knew, from historical accounts, that when the Persians first landed at Marathon, the Athenians had pleaded for help from the Spartans, who were willing but, because of a religious festival, couldn’t dispatch their army until the next full Moon, which was six days away.

Using this information and making some astronomical calculations, a 19th Century German scholar had established the date of the religious festival, and from it, the September 12 date of the Marathon run. But Olson found a fatal flaw in that reasoning. In dating the Marathon, the German had used the Athenian calendar. However, in 491-490 B.C., Olson determined, the Athenian calendar had run a month ahead of the Spartan calendar, which the Spartans, of course, had used to schedule their religious festival. That placed the Marathon in the steamy month of August.

Using similar techniques, and with the aid of his unique computer programs, Olson has revealed the role of the Moon, and of lunar tides, in a number of historic military encounters, and used his knowledge of the night sky to pinpoint the time and place that literary and artistic masterpieces were created.

With his team, he discovered how the Japanese submarine spotted and sank the heavy cruiser Indianapolis in the closing days of World War II: at the precise moment that the sub surfaced, the Indianapolis, more than 10 miles away, happened to be in the “glitter path” of a three-quarters Moon that had just emerged from behind clouds. At any other alignment of the sub, the cruiser and the Moon, the Japanese lookout could not have seen the Indianapolis at so great a distance.

Traveling to France, the Texans found the house and located the exact spot where van Gogh had set up his easel in 1890 to paint his famous “White House at Night.” From the lighting and shadows in painting they determined that the house had been illuminated by the setting sun. Olson’s computer analysis then identified the “star” in the painting. It was the planet Venus, which in an early June evening occupied that portion of the sky. That June evening, by the way, must have been on the 16th, which local weather records revealed was the only clear day in the middle of that month.

Turning to Shakespeare, Olson established that the “bright star” mentioned in the opening scene of Hamlet was not, as experts had believed, a planet or a familiar star, but “Tycho’s star,” actually a supernova that flared in the constellation Cassiopeia in 1572.

Olson was also the first to explain “the tide that failed” during the bloody Marine landing at Tarawa on 1943. Without that expected tide, the landing craft grounded at the edge of the reef, requiring the Marines to wade 600 years to the shore under heavy Japanese fire. Olson’s computer programs revealed that on the day of the invasion, the Moon was close to its apogee, or farthest distance from Earth, and exerted so weak a gravitational pull that Tarawa was virtually tide-free.

Other of Olson’s astroforensic triumphs abound. Chaucer was a sophisticated astronomer. The figure in Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” — probably Munch himself — was frightened in 1883 by a blood-red Norwegian evening sky resulting from dust blown into the atmosphere by the far-away explosion of the volcanic island of Krakatoa. Paul Revere was able to row, undetected, past a British warship on his way to make his famous ride because on that night the Moon was exceptionally low on the horizon. Knowledge of tides on the St. Lawrence enabled to British to surprise and defeat the French at the 1759 battle on the Plains of Abraham. Ansel Adams’s famous photograph Moon and the Half Dome was snapped precisely at 4:14 p.m. on December 28, 1960.

With physics lecturer Russell Doescher, co-author of many of these sky-based revelations, Olson conducts a university honors course at Texas State called “Astronomy in Art, History and Literature.” Given that the curriculum consists largely of their discoveries and insights, it must be one helluva course.