CSI: Galactic Edition


IO9, an excellent science-fiction site has publicized the exploits of the world’s greatest astroforensicist, astroforensician, expert on astroforensics, Professor Donald Olson of Southwest Texas State University. 

Olson and his colleagues specialize in exactly “timing” momentous events or famous episodes in history by combining astronomical data with topographic maps, aerial photographs, weather records, journals, and letters. 

According to Time magazine and The New York Times, his sleuthing feats include:

  • Explaining why that Greek fellow, Pheidippides, who raced 26 miles from Marathon to Athens in 490 BC collapsed and died after bringing news of the Persian defeat. To those lazy souls, who, like me, assumed it was because he had run, Gatorade-less, 26 miles, Olson demonstrated that the run occurred on August 12 (rather than mid-September, as usually posited), when the average temperature ranges from 88 to 91 degrees, soaring as high as 102 near Athens. A month later, it falls to a more temperate 83 degrees. Olson’s source was Herodotus, who precisely describes the phases of the Moon at this time, and he also knew that the Athenians had pleaded for Spartan help. No problem, said they, but only after the next full Moon — six days away. Where previous historians had erred in dating the marathon (not Marathon, I guess) was in using the Athenian calendar to deduce the time of the Spartans’ Moon-based religious festival and then to have worked back from there (hence September). But the Spartans, sensibly enough, used a Spartan calendar — which runs a month behind that of their Peloponnesian frenemies. So it was August they were talking about. 
  • Discovering that on the moonlit night Paul Revere rowed undetected under the nose of a British vessel on his way to Ride into history, the moon was in fact exceptionally low on the southern horizon. 
  • Tracking down the identity of the mysterious “bright star” cited in the opening scene of Hamlet. It was a supernova exploding in the Cassiopeia constellation in 1572. (I’m not so convinced about this one; surely Shakespeare could have just been being metaphorical?)
  • Arguing that the red sky behind the figure in Munch’s The Scream was caused by the Krakatoa volcano’s dust. (Ditto as above for me on this one.)
  • Pointing out that at Tarawa in 1943, the Marines’ landing craft were caught on the edge of a reef and were forced to wade 600 yards under fire before they got to the beach. According to Olson, the Moon was almost at its farthest point from the Earth, and its weak gravitational pull rendered the Tarawan tides almost non-existent.

His latest exploit (see here and here) is pinpointing the exact date of Julius Caesar’s amphibious landing in Britain. In 55 B.C. (or BCE, whichever you prefer), he arrived with two legions (about 10,000 men) somewhere on the southern coast.

The exact date has long been disputed, with opinion wavering between August 26 and 27. Even his landing place was uncertain; most historians, remarking that the terrain matched Caesar’s description, asserted it was northeast of Dover, between Walmer and Deal. Scientists argued that a northeastern location was impossible. The tides, the hydrographers and astronomers said, would have pulled the Romans southwest along the coast. There seemed no way of reconciling the twin demands of Science and History (notice the portentous capitalization). 

Rather fortunately, the equinox and lunar cycle of August 2007 exactly matched those pertaining in the summer of 55 BC — a very rare occurrence. Olson and his team travelled to Britain to see if their on-site experiments could solve the mystery. They found that the historians were right in one respect: the landing was indeed to the northeast, at Deal. But the scientists, too, were right: On August 26-27, there was no way Caesar’s legions would have been able to beach their boats at Deal. 

But, if one revised the date to August 22-23 (thanks to the historian R.G. Collingwood, who in 1937 discovered a probable transcription error in the ancient records), then suddenly the conflict solved itself. On those dates, the tides would have been perfect for a Deal landing. 

Is any of this stuff really all that important? There’s but a week’s difference between the dates. Perhaps it isn’t world-shakingly important, but the application of the rigorous, logical scientific method to solve enduring historical mysteries, and the use of historians’ intuitive skills to temper scientific certitude, is interesting. 

Posted by Alexander Rose, www.alexrose.com


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