Even Art Can Be Science

Munch’s The Scream. Whether you’re an art connoisseur or you tried finger painting that one time at a preschool birthday party, you’ve seen it before. The painting depicts a screaming figure against the backdrop of a vividly red sunset. While I could analyze it in more detail, this happens to be a science blog, and so even art must be reduced to an experiment.

So, let me ask the question that’s obviously been plaguing us all. Why is the sunset so red? Elementary, my dear Watson. Here are the facts. One. An excerpt from Munch’s diary states that “one evening [he] was walking along a path – the sun was setting, and the clouds turning blood red”. Two. Munch was born in 1863 and passed away in 1944. Three. The Scream was painted in various versions between 1893 and 1910. Following so far?

Here is the crucial ingredient in our investigation. In 1883, Krakatoa, an Indonesian volcano, erupted, spewing large amounts of ash into the atmosphere. Particles in the atmosphere scatter shorter wavelengths of visible light (ie. blue and violet) much more efficiently than longer ones (ie. red). This causes sunsets to appear red, and sunsets in the Western Hemisphere in the months after Krakatoa’s eruption – a very vivid red.

You might ask why we don’t get such bright red sunsets all the time, given that there’s always a volcano erupting somewhere. The Krakatoa eruption is ranked as a 6 or ‘colossal’ on the Volcanic Explosivity Index (VEI). To put this in perspective, the largest eruption in recorded history (Mount Tambora in 1815) ranked as a 7, and only three eruptions since (Krakatoa in 1883, Novarupta in 1912, and Pinatubo in 1991) have even come close, all ranking as 6’s. The famous eruptions of Mt. St. Helens and Vesuvius ranked as 5’s, and Eyjafjallajokull (try saying that five times fast) in Iceland in 2010, which caused huge delays in air traffic across Europe, only a 4. (Just in case you’re wondering, the most recent ‘8’ eruption was Lake Taupo in New Zealand almost 27,000 years ago.) The eruption of Krakatoa destroyed the entire volcanic island, and tsunamis were recorded across the world.  The explosion was heard almost 5000 kilometers away, and the ash cloud, launched more than 80 kilometers into the atmosphere, cooled the global climate for next 5 years.

And so, the vibrant sunsets of 1883 and 1884 may well have served as inspiration for Munch. Of course, art historians have presented alternative explanations, including Munch’s expressionist painting style and his mental instability. But, at least in the eyes of this writer, when in doubt, always choose science.


Cover photo courtesy of Manuel González Olaechea y Franco, Wikimedia Commons



5 responses to “Even Art Can Be Science

  1. Excellent piece, Alan. Sorry it has taken me until now to Follow your blog. To be honest, I do not follow very many but I like yours because of the references to Douglas Adams.

    As I have said to you on my blog, I doubt Krakatoa directly caused the red sky in Munch’s painting 10 years later. However, I do like it when science explains historical events, such as:
    (1) The first recorded sighting of what later became known as ‘Halley’s Comet’ being documented by the Bayeaux Tapestry depiction of events in or around 1066AD; or
    (2) The probable destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah during an earthquake that caused the liquefaction and spontaneous combustion of poorly consolidated deposits containing bitumen.

    • Thanks for following Martin! I have a couple of your articles open right now and am looking forward to reading them. I do love Douglas Adams – I think I need to write a piece on fjords next just so I can bring up some of his reference.

      Agreed. The premise I was basing the article on was that he was inspired by views he had seen several years earlier. I definitely agree about science and historical events, although I hadn’t heard about the Sodom and Gomorrah earthquake. I also remember hearing a couple years back about a study that explained the biblical flood by a comet impact.

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