UT-Trained Scientist Works As ‘Celestial Sleuth’

Don Olson’s office is tucked deep into a corner of the physics department at Texas State University. But don’t call him an astrophysicist.

“Celestial sleuth is the term I prefer,” Olson said.

Behind him, replicas of Frankenstein, Einstein and Paul Revere, and a shelf of Jack in the Box antenna toppers stare into the distance of his fourth-story office. Posters of works by Van Gogh, Munch and Ansel Adams cover the walls. In one corner, stacked boxes of Coca-Cola and Dr Pepper speak to his academic penchant for late nights. Aside from the astronomy books tucked into the office’s back corner, there is little to indicate that we have arrived in the physics department.

For the last 25 years, Olson has been blurring the line between the hard sciences and the humanities. Pulling on his expertise in astronomy and his passion for the arts, he has published over 40 articles debunking historical misconceptions and resolving artistic mysteries. Olson received his PhD in physics from UC-Berkeley, and after studying galaxy structure for two years at UT-Austin, he settled into Texas State, where he has been teaching since the early 1980s.

Long a connoisseur of art and literature, Olson was approached in 1987 with a proposition that would allow him to merge the arts with his expertise in astronomy. An English professor asked for his help in interpreting astronomical references in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Shortly afterward, a history professor had a similar request, this time looking at the impact of moonlight and tides on the amphibious invasion at the Battle of Tarawa during World War II. “I owe so much to these two professors,” said Olson. “They changed everything for me.”

Along with student researchers, he has traversed the world in search of astronomical truths. In 2009, he floated the English Channel in the same tidal conditions that Caesar would have encountered before landing on Great Britain in 55 B.C. His findings: English textbooks had it wrong. The first recorded event in English history took place a day later than previously thought. Olson’s work on the death of Civil War Gen. Stonewall Jackson, who died by misguided Confederate fire while silhouetted against a full moon, prompted a re-enactment of the event on the night when moon conditions would have best simulated those that led to Jackson’s demise.

“I don’t want to say my work is dangerous,” Olson said. “But I would say it’s ambitious.”

Most recently, Olson took aim at one of Western literature’s most renowned novels: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. In the summer of 2010, Olson took a small team of researchers to Geneva, Switzerland, to resolve a longstanding disagreement among literary scholars about the date that Shelley began writing the preface to her famed 1831 edition of Frankenstein.

Using computer simulations, weather archives, on-site measurements and historical documents, Olson and his team pinpointed the moon in Shelley’s preface to have risen over the hills surrounding Geneva between 2 a.m. and 3 a.m. on June 16, 1831. The findings concur with Shelley’s account, which had long been questioned. Olson pointed to his “Frankenstein shelf” as he described the excitement of visiting Villa Diadoti, where Shelley wrote her novel.

His eyes light up when he talks about the historical projects he has worked on. “D-Day!” he exclaimed. “Tides were huge on D-Day, of course!”

He was equally excited about the Almanac Trials, Abraham Lincoln’s most famous legal case as a trial lawyer: “Many people thought Abe Lincoln was being dishonest about his description of the moon!”

In 1990, Olson and Russell Doescher, a fellow astronomer at Texas State, confirmed that Lincoln was right to claim that a witness in the 1857 murder of James Metzger was able to clearly see the altercation in the light of a nearly full moon high in the sky

Ultimately, Olson has drawn attention to a little-known subgenre of astronomy: celestial sleuthing. In the process, he’s drawn readers who aren’t otherwise interested in astronomy. “He picks topics that resonate with people far outside of regular astronomy,” said Roger Sinnott, former editor of Sky and Telescope magazine. “He’s been a real gem for the magazine, given us a whole new type of article.”

Olson’s popular work has been mentioned in such major media outlets as the New York Times, the Guardian and Time magazine, but his critics span the interdisciplinary divide that he intends to bridge. “There are some people that think that his articles aren’t ‘hardcore astronomy,’” Sinnott said. “When they subscribe to Star and Telescope, they want to read about things they can look at through their telescopes.”

Likewise, some art historians accuse Olson of removing the component of mystery from great works of art. For example, he found that the red sky behind Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” was not a manifestation of the artist’s mental landscape, but a scientifically verified volcanic event. It’s a revelation that threatens to reduce art to something that can be explained rather than interpreted.

“We never assume that artists are painting reality,” said Olson. “But we try to make a convincing case with the ones that we choose.”

Twenty-five years in, Olson has little doubt that his nontraditional path as a physicist was the right choice. “This work has really enriched my life,” he said. “I get to look at really beautiful paintings and read Walt Whitman.” He adds that it has allowed him to return to a broader spectrum of interests.

“Remember when we didn’t have to specialize?” he asked rhetorically. “Doing this work has allowed me to broaden my scope of interests again and apply my little bit of expertise.”

Backed by books on Munch, Monet, astronomical formulae, and spherical astronomy, Olson pauses mid-story to recall a detail from his adventures in the English Channel. Photo by Eva Hershaw.

This story was reported and  first published by Reporting Texas.


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