Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Astronmers get the "Munch"ies

Feel free to groan after that title. Sorry for the bad pun (well, not really).

People often wonder what function astronomy performs for the betterment of society. While I can toss off many reasons from the abstract (like the study of the unknown) to the concrete (like advances that have resulted in everyday technology), today we'll look briefly at astronomy and the arts.

Many artists (and I mean the term broadly -- from language arts to fine arts and everything in between) use astronomical events as inspiration. In recent years, some astronomers have been researching these inspirations and have been surprised at both the level of detail captured by the artists or lost details that can be gleaned from the work. In the last few years, I've read articles that have determined the exact date and time that an Ansel Adams photograph "Autumn Moon" was taken, determined the inspiration behind the red sky in Munch's "The Scream," and even determined that an appearance of Venus in "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" thought to have been impossible is actually possible (although we still question whether J. K. Rowling knew it was possible or got lucky).

In this article on Sky & Telescope's website, astronomers have determined both the identity of the yellow orb in Munch's "Girls on a Pier" (it is the moon) and explained why the reflection of the moon is not seen in the water (the house blocks the moonlight from reaching the water but not the viewer).

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