Jennifer Drapkin and Sarah Zielinski on “Celestial Sleuth”

Sarah Zielinski and Jennifer Drapkin
Sarah Zielinski (left) is an assistant editor at Smithsonian magazine and Jennifer Drapkin (right) is a senior editor at Mental Floss magazine. Molly Roberts / Jennifer Drapkin

Jennifer Drapkin and Sarah Zielinski teamed up to report and write “Celestial Sleuth,” a feature about “forensic astronomer” Don Olson’s quest to solve artistic mysteries in Smithsonian’s April issue. Drapkin is a former Smithsonian writing intern who has written for The Village Voice, The Week, Psychology Today and Smithsonian. She is currently a senior editor at Mental Floss magazine. Zielinski is an assistant editor at Smithsonian and a blogger for’s Surprising Science.

What drew you to this story?

Drapkin: My grandfather was an amateur astronomer, and he's the one who told me about Olson's work. Solving mysteries with the stars was all the rage in his retirement community.

What was your favorite moment during your research and reporting?

Drapkin: Looking at the paintings! Seriously, the piece was a great excuse to spend quality time with some of my favorite works of art.

What did you find most interesting about Olson’s manner of studying art?

Drapkin: It's the way he picks up on details. Most people look at a painting and see the subject. He sees how the subject came out of the three-dimensional world.

Sarah, what surprised you the most about Olson’s studies?

Zielinski: I was surprised that anyone could think that there was a downside to this work. Olson’s work doesn’t diminish a piece of art. The greatness is there whether or not we know the details behind its creation. And it’s even improved if Olson’s work piques the interest of people wouldn’t normally be so interested in art.

You’re a science person. Had you ever had questions similar to those Olson asks when looking at art? And do you think you’ll be more conscious of those things after working on this story?

Zielinski: I’ve never been the type of person to stare at a piece of art for a long time, trying to decipher its meaning. I tend to look and quickly decide whether or not I like it and then move on. But that changed a little after I spoke with Don Olson. I started looking at the stars in painted skies and, like him, wondering which ones they were. It hadn’t occurred to me before this that those little dots might represent real celestial bodies. But now I do wonder.

How does knowing such details enhance the work?

Zielinski: For me, it provides another dimension to the work. I tend to be a literal thinker, so this helps me relate to the art.

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