The Thumbnail Book Reviews

by John Q McDonald --- 17 July 2017

American Eclipse

A Nation's Epic Race to Catch the Shadow of the Moon and Win the Glory of the World

by David Baron

As what might well be the most watched total solar eclipse in history approaches, spanning the continental United States from Oregon to South Carolina (August 21, 2017), we are, of course, hearing more and more about solar eclipses and how to watch them. We're hearing a lot, too, about the science of solar eclipses. Despite the fact that observatories on the ground and in space are today dedicated to watching the Sun, there are still a few things we can glean from a solar eclipse, not least a stunning global view of the solar corona, the hottest region in the Sun's atmosphere, which appears as a gossamer glow surrounding the lunar silhouette during an eclipse. Total solar eclipses, too, are rare and strangely wonderful events, providing humans with a dramatic opportunity to see themselves in a celestial perspective. A total eclipse is truly different from the more common partial eclipse. The darkening of the sky in daytime is eerie and viscerally moving. If you miss the one in 2017, keep an eye out for the next American eclipse in 2024.

Any one point on the Earth experiences an eclipse on average every 400 years. (Some get lucky, those spots were eclipse tracks intersect.) Of course, there have been many other eclipses in America's history. The one that fell on July 29, 1878 is the subject of this engaging popular history. The United States was still recovering from the brutality of the Civil War, and making its return to the world stage as an intercontinental player. One certain way to do that was to make a statement about American inventiveness, know-how, and scientific ingenuity. The solar eclipse gave American scientists the opportunity to show the world that we intended to make our place on the global stage. By the end of the 19th century, we would do just that. At the moment, though, the eclipse path traversed what was still the wild frontier of the nation, where the conflict against displaced Native Americans were still waged in bloody battles. Many notable scientists of the day participated in eclipse expeditions stretching from Wyoming to Texas. This book profiles many of them, scientists known to historians of astronomy, others more widely known, such as Thomas Edison and Maria Mitchell. In an engaging adventure in story-telling, author David Baron sets his characters into their historical context, relates their cross-country adventures, and in a brilliant series of chapters, tells the story of their scientific efforts during the surreal and beautiful two-and-a-half minutes of eclipse totality.

The story of these eclipse chasers is beautifully rendered in an engaging and fast-moving narrative. Baron has done extensive research into the vast records of the eclipse, and has returned with a tale of science and adventure. Along the way, though, Baron deftly weaves in elements of the historical tale that are deeply relevant today, and not merely because so many Americans will see another stunning eclipse this year. By telling the story of Vassar professor Maria Mitchell, he tells an often overlooked story of women in American science, and Mitchell's role in demonstrating to a chauvanistic male-dominated culture, that women have an important place in scientific and cultural endeavours. It is a story that, sadly, still has relevance in the ongoing struggles of accomplished women scientists to get the recognition they deserve in a field still dominated by men. Baron also tells us of the complicated work of science, the perpetual struggle through failures of hypothesis and results. During the 1878 eclipse, scientists searched for a planet within the orbit of Mercury. This planet Vulcan was supposed to explain inconsistencies in Mercury's predicted orbit. We were certain Vulcan must exist, but it took Einstein's theories of gravity, much later, to explain Mercury's precession, and which were confirmed by later solar eclipse observations. Finally, Baron also conveys the critical role science holds in the advancement of our society, our economy, and our educational standing in the world. America has long relied upon science as a key to its greatness. Without hammering the point, and simply telling his historical tale, Baron shows us how scientific knowledge, expertise and persistence are so important to us today.

In his well-illustrated narrative, which steps engagingly and deftly through history of science and American adventure, and which recognizes many of the complexities and contradictions of our history, Baron has created a notable work of non-fiction for the summer of our great solar eclipse (and for the one in spring of 2024). Highly recommended.

[Mail John][To List]

[Other books about Science]

[Other History, Biography and Memoir]