How astronomers solved ‘V-J Day kiss’ mystery

While astronomers were able to solve one of the photo's mysteries, they can't resolve another question: Who are the kissers? "Astronomy can only go so far," says Steve Kawaler. (Credit: Lt. Victor Jorgensen, US Navy/Wikimedia Commons)

After astronomer Steve Kawaler read an August 2010 New York Times article that questioned the timing of the famous Alfred Eisenstaedt photo of a sailor kissing a nurse in Times Square on V-J Day 1945, he sent a note to Donald Olson, a colleague in Texas.

Olson has built a reputation as a sleuth who uses astronomical clues in paintings and photos to solve mysteries about the art.

Kawaler, an Iowa State University professor of physics and astronomy, wrote to Olson about that New York Times story and speculation in the reader comments that a shadow on a building behind the kissers might establish the exact time the shutter clicked.

“I suppose that, knowing the exact location of the subjects and photographer, and the 1945 skyline around Times Square, one could pin it down pretty well,” he wrote.

What time did they kiss?

Three years later Olson, who is a professor of physics at Texas State University in San Marcos, made a guest appearance via Skype in one of Kawaler’s undergraduate seminars to talk about astro-forensics. After the class, Olson and Kawaler discussed the V-J Day project and before long they were learning all they could about Times Square in 1945.


Working with old photos, maps, sun data, and the help of Russell Doescher of the physics faculty at Texas State, they report the kiss happened at 5:51 p.m. on August 14, 1945. The findings are published in the August issue of Sky & Telescope.

While their work solves one of the photo’s mysteries, it can’t touch another question: Who are the kissers?

“It remains mysterious,” Kawaler says, “astronomy can only go so far.”

Kawaler, whose professional work is all about understanding the interior structure and evolution of stars, says it was fun to do a little astro-sleuthing on the side.

“It was the kind of thing I used to do as a nerdy kid,” he adds. “I felt like a kid again.”

Source: Iowa State University