American Eclipse: A Nation’s Epic Race to Catch the Shadow of the Moon and Win the Glory of the World. David Baron. Liveright, 384p.
People in North America will be treated to a solar eclipse on August 21, and those who are in a narrow band stretching from Oregon to South Carolina will be treated to a total solar eclipse. What is amazing about this eclipse and other modern-day eclipses is the degree of precision in predicting timing, duration, and obscurity levels, thanks to the advancements in astrophysics. But, what about the people who lived centuries ago? Were they informed? How did they treat eclipses? Did they study them scientifically?
The historical narration, American Eclipse-A nation’s epic race to catch the shadow of the moon and win the glory of the world by David Baron helps us understand the answers to these questions. It gives a very vivid, but suspenseful account of events surrounding the 1878 total solar eclipse. The book also, in a way, tells the story of how America slowly grew as a ‘scientific power’. As a physics professor, as a women in science, as an eclipse enthusiast, and as one who encourages her students to be persistent, this book touched my heart!
David Baron is a former science correspondent for NPR and the former science editor for the public radio program The World. His first experience with a total solar eclipse was in Aruba in 1998 and that mesmerizing encounter with the heavenly wonder transformed him into an eclipse chaser or umbraphile. He began to wonder about the human reaction to eclipses in the past. This propelled him into a journey of investigation of the past eclipses and what he discovered was a rich history of not only eclipses, but also a story of how ‘United States came to be the nation that is today’. It is this history that Baron narrates in American Eclipse.
The book mainly focuses on three scientifically minded 19th century individuals who had urging reasons to pursue the total solar eclipse which crossed America along a path slicing through Wyoming, Colorado, and Texas. First, Prof. James Watson, a famous american astronomer of the time, a professor at University of Michigan, who aspired to be the the one who discovered the most asteroids. He viewed the total solar eclipse of 1878 as a timely opportunity to identify and prove to the world the existence of the most illusive planet that he thought existed between the earth and the sun. Second, Thomas Alva Edison, having already invented several award winning apparatus including the electric pen, but not yet invented the light-bulb, was in a constant quest to find the next big gadget. He had just designed the heat sensing tasimeter at his New Jersey laboratory. He viewed eclipse of 1878 as an opportunity to not only test the tasimeter by measuring the coronal temperature, but also ‘to cement his place in history’ as one of the greatest. Finally, Prof. Maria Mitchell, a female astronomy professor of Vassar College, New York, a rarity at that time, was vehemently fighting back the idea that educating women can kill their femininity. For her, the eclipse was an opportunity to show the world that ‘science and femininity can co-exist’. Her eclipse expedition in 1878 included only females, some of whom were her former students!
As we are preparing to witness yet another total solar eclipse in just a few weeks, this book is a timely read. I recommend this book to teachers and professors who constantly remind students of persistence and grit, politicians who make the decision about funding allocations, all STEM students, and anyone who is curious about the culture of science almost 150 years ago. It is my hope that the readers ponder on how research in science and astronomy evolved over time and how our current actions and decisions have a much bigger impact on the lives centuries later.