Iowa State’s Steve Kawaler helps sleuth out the timing of famous V-J Day kiss, photo

Aerial photo of 1945 Times Square

This is one of the old photos Iowa State's Steve Kawaler studied to help determine the exact time of the famous V-J Day kiss photographed by Alfred Eisenstaedt. This photo shows the Times Square area (lower right) in 1927. Larger photo. Photo courtesy of Steve Kawaler.

AMES, Iowa – Iowa State’s Steve Kawaler knew it was a case for his old buddy, the celestial sleuth.

And so -- after reading an August 2010 New York Times story by Andy Newman that questioned the established timing of the famous Alfred Eisenstaedt photo of a sailor kissing a nurse in Times Square on V-J Day 1945 -- Kawaler, an Iowa State University professor of physics and astronomy, sent a note to Donald Olson, a professor of physics at Texas State University in San Marcos.

When Kawaler was an undergraduate at Cornell University in the 1970s, Olson was a post-doctoral researcher there. The two traded baseball cards back then. Later, when Kawaler was a graduate student, they crossed paths again at the University of Texas. In the decades since, Olson has built a reputation as a sleuth who uses astronomical clues in paintings and photos to solve mysteries about the art. He describes his cases in the 2014 book, “Celestial Sleuth: Using Astronomy to Solve Mysteries in Art, History and Literature.”

Kawaler wrote to Olson about that New York Times story and speculation in the reader comments (Kawaler contributed two posts to the discussion) 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.

Well, three years after that note, Olson 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 Aug. 14, 1945. The findings are published in the August issue of Sky & Telescope under the title “Telltale Sun and Shadow: Astronomy & the VJ Day Kiss.”

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

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

Kawaler, whose professional work is all about understanding the interior structure and evolution of stars, said 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,” said the native of New York's Long Island. “I felt like a kid again.”