Don Olson's wish for today is that at twilight, all of us face southeast and observe the rising of the full moon. At that moment, Olson hopes we will collectively turn our thoughts to Vincent van Gogh.
If it were possible, Olson, a Texas astronomer, would transport all of humanity to a field in the south of France to do today's moon-watching there. Olson is convinced that on this very day, 114 years ago, that is exactly what Van Gogh, the great Dutch post-impressionist, did and exactly where he did it. Today is one of the few occasions since that long ago evening when what van Gogh saw -- the alignment of the moon with the landscape -- will be perfectly duplicated.
It will be as it was, Olson says, and as van Gogh, that most tortured of artists, captured it on his canvas soon afterward in a painting known as Moonrise.
Olson, a 56-year old professor at Southwest Texas State University, believes all of this because he has proven it -- or thinks he has.
In an article in this month's Sky & Telescope magazine, Olson, his English-professor wife Marilynn and fellow physicist Russell Doescher purport to show that van Gogh's Moonrise did not spring whole from his imagination. Instead, the authors say, the painting derived from what the night sky actually produced at one precise moment above the village of Saint-Remy, where van Gogh had gone in the spring of 1889 to recuperate from his latest collapse.
The significance of the exercise, Olson says, is "that it gives us a better appreciation of how [van Gogh] was inspired by nature. He saw it, was inspired by it, and painted it."
Olson's enthusiasms are infectious and his style accessible, which helps explain why students clamor to get into his honors course, "Astronomy in Art, History and Literature." It is a sort of astronomical forensics class in which Olson delves into celestial events that purport to be linked to either artistic expression or historical events.
A fatally weak tide
Olson's investigations into these kinds of astronomical riddles began almost accidentally. In 1987, a colleague from the English department asked him what he made of some celestial references in Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales. Olson looked into it and came up with a theory to explain an unusual tidal phenomenon described by Chaucer. While he was relating this find to his friend in a campus cafeteria, he was overheard by a history professor, who approached him with another mystery.
"He said, 'You ought to look into what happened at Tarawa,' " Olson recalls.
The reference was to the disastrous amphibious landing by American Marines on the Tarawa Atoll during World War II. The tide that day failed to come in as expected, which grounded the landing craft 600 yards from the shore. The Marines were forced to wade in waters up to their chins under ferocious Japanese machine-gun fire. They suffered 2,300 casualties, a thousand of them deaths.
The question for Olson was: What happened to the tide that day?
Through a series of calculations, he discovered that the luckless Marines were the victims of a celestial alignment that happens only twice a year, when the moon is both farthest from the earth and also in a quarter phase. The combination results in an unusually weak -- fatally weak at Tarawa on Nov. 20, 1943 -- tidal range. "The tide just hangs there, and it stranded them on the coral reef."
Olson was energized by the discovery and soon launched himself at other celestial quandaries related to the arts and history. Many have resulted in published pieces.
He deduced that the "bright star" described in Shakespeare's Hamlet most likely derived from a supernova that had unnerved Europeans for 16 months when the bard was 8 years old.
He identified the exact time and date Ansel Adams shot his famous Yosemite photograph, Moon and Half Dome -- 4:14 p.m. on Dec. 28, 1960.
And he discerned that the reason Stonewall Jackson's own troops had mistakenly shot him down in 1863 was that when they saw him, he was riding out of a full moon sitting on the horizon. It had silhouetted the Confederate general while also obscuring the features of his uniform. His men couldn't tell he wasn't a Yankee, and fired on him, depriving Robert E. Lee of one of his best commanders two months later at Gettysburg.
Lincoln and the almanac
One of Olson's greatest crowd pleasers concerned a famous courtroom performance by Abraham Lincoln when he defended one client in a murder case. To discredit the testimony of an eyewitness, Lincoln dramatically held up an almanac -- a scene later portrayed in a Norman Rockwell painting. The witness could not have seen the killing by the light of the moon as he had claimed, Lincoln insisted, because the moon was too low on the horizon by then.