I firmly believe that the popularity of Astronomy is strongly related to our ability of producing awe-inducing photographs of the furthest corner of the cosmos.
While looking up interesting pictures to talk about on the blog I stumbled upon the Astronomy Forensic Team from the University of Texas. This was my first encounter with the term forensic astronomer and I instantly pictured CSI:Miami memes and bad puns about very cold cases.
The team is led by Professor Donald Olson who in 2008 managed to give a very good estimate for the beginning of the Roman invasion of Britain (see: http://ancientimes.blogspot.co.uk/2008/07/astronomer-dates-caesars-invasion-of.html).
This time, the team managed to estimate when Monet’s masterpiece Étretat: Sunset was painted. And their estimate is down to the very minute.
Apart from being a wonderful example of impressionsist art, this painting has the unique feature to show the setting sun position in relation to the cliffs. This allowed the team (after a visit to France) to calculate on which days of the year the sun would be following that trajectory and it was found to be (allowing for some uncertainty) between February 3rd and February 7th 1883.
Further studies of the painter’s letters by Olson have concluded that the only possible date for him to have painted this is the 5th, and using dedicated software that
Monet observed this sunset on Feb. 5, 1883 at 4:53 p.m. local mean time.