This summer a full solar eclipse will cross the United States. This captivating history examines the last time that happened, and its effect on American science.
American Eclipse: a Nation’s Epic Race to Catch the Shadow of the Moon and Win the Glory of the World by David Baron. Norton, 2017, 323 pages including notes, bibliography, and index.
Reading Level: Adult, 16-up
Recommended for: 16-up
“Tourists are coming into Denver so thick that they can hardly find hotel accommodations. It looks as though by the time the eclipse gets here there will be no longer room in-doors, and tents will be the only resort of the more tardy visitors.” That was the scene in many a dusty western town in July of 1878. Two years before, America had celebrated its centennial with a huge Exposition in Philadelphia—a showcase of American art, science, and know-how. Still considered an upstart, the nation had yet to become a world power or intellectual leader, but the solar eclipse of 1898, tracing a path of totality from Wyoming to the Texas coast, would give homegrown scientists an opportunity to shine.
Three Americans in particular had something to prove: James Craig Watson, professor of astronomy at the University of Michigan, was an asteroid hunter who identified and named orbiting rocks in the newly-discovered “asteroid belt” between Mars and Jupiter. He was determined to prove that Mercury had its own little moon, a theoretical body called Vulcan that he aimed to find when the sun went dark. Maria Mitchell, of Vassar College, was one of the foremost astronomers of her day, but scorned by too many self-important men. She intended to take an all-female band of students and colleagues to stake a claim for women in the sciences. And Thomas A. Edison, and up-and-coming inventor (and self-promoter) had developed a device he called a tasimeter which could measure temperatures to a fraction of a degree. The eclipse would give him an opportunity to capture temperature readings from the sun and earn some respect as a scientist as well as an inventor. These three characters and their stories are the framework of an event that captured the world. The author, a science journalist, has experiences two solar eclipses around the globe, and adds his own impressions of that other-worldly event: “. . . like falling through a trap door into a dimly-lit, unrecognizable reality.” Americans who are looking forward to a similar event this month will find this a fascinating little-known chapter from our past.
Overall Rating: 4 (out of 5)
- Artistic value: 4.5
- Worldview/moral value: 3.5