Title: American Eclipse
Author: David Baron
Format: audiobook, narrated by Jonathan Yen, courtesy of LibraryThing and HighBridge Audio
Start Date: August 15, 2017
End Date: August 21, 2017
Rating: 4 stars
With a total solar eclipse, you come to appreciate the very word – eclipse – is misleading, because what is notable is not what is hidden, but what is revealed. A total eclipse pulls back the curtain that is the daytime sky, exposing what is above our heads but unseen at any other time: the solar system. Suddenly, you perceive our blazing sun as never before, flanked by bright stars and planets.
The eclipse of 1878 brought together the disparate accounts of three astronomically different figures of history as they sought to unlock the sun’s mysteries. Told in five parts, David Baron’s American Eclipse wove together a history of scientific discovery from multiple points of view, both leading up to and resulting from the eclipse.
Although it might not seem like something of great scientific importance today, especially with the monumental advancement of technology, astronomers in 1878 would often go on long journeys just to view a precious few moments of the sun eclipsed by the moon. This allowed for astronomers to study the sun’s corona without damaging their eyes. Though there were many astronomers that partook in the observation of the eclipse across the country, the author focused on three of the event’s influential players: James Craig Watson, Thomas Alva Edison, and Maria Mitchell.
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James Craig Watson sought the existence of an inter-Mercurial planet (dubbed Vulcan), which was believed to cause Mercury’s wayward and inexplicable path around the sun. A prominent Professor of Astronomy at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and later at the University of Wisconsin, as well as the Director of the Detroit Observatory, Watson’s main claim to fame was his discovery of 22 asteroids over the course of his career. We now know that there is, in fact, no planet Vulcan, and Mercury’s odd rotation around the sun was explained by Albert Einstein’s Theory of Relativity decades after Watson’s death in 1880.
Thomas Alva Edison was a self-educated inventor and businessman, often described as America’s greatest inventor. At the time of his death in 1931, he held 1,093 US patents as well as 2,332 patents worldwide. His most prominent inventions included the phonograph, the motion picture camera, and the electric light bulb. He traveled to Colorado for the eclipse of 1878 to test out his new invention, the tasimeter, which he used to measure the heat emitted by the sun’s corona.
Although successful, the tasimeter was not widely used. However, this invention (unbeknownst at the time) actually measured infrared radiation, technology that is still used today. Thomas Edison was an interesting man, and is quoted as saying “Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always try just one more time,” as well as, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that don’t work.”
Maria Mitchell wanted to prove to the world that women were just as capable as men in the field of science. She was the first women elected as Fellow of American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1848) and to American Association for the Advancement of Science (1850), as well as one of first women elected to American Philosophical Society (1869). In 1847, she discovered a comet, later called “Miss Mitchell’s Comet,” and won a gold prize medal for her achievements. She was a professor at Vassar College from 1865 to her retirement in 1888, during which she educated young women in the field of astronomy. In 1878, she and a team of women went to Colorado to study the eclipse.
Although science didn’t drastically change for women, there were improvements. Mitchell is attributed as saying, “We have a hunger of the mind which asks for knowledge of all around us, and the more we gain, the more is our desire; the more we see, the more we are capable of seeing.” As a woman in science (though chemistry rather than astronomy), I am eternally grateful for her determination to prove her mettle as a woman and scientist, terms that were not mutually exclusive at the time (and sometimes are still not today). You go, girl!
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Baron’s American Eclipse told the story of these three scientists in particular and about science in general. The eclipse of 1878 proved to the world that the United States was competitive in the sciences, even against European countries as England, France, and Germany.
I really enjoyed this book. As a scientist, I enjoy reading nonfiction works that describe how the science of the past has shaped the science of today, from astronomy (American Eclipse) to physics and mathematics (Hidden Figures) to health and safety regulations (The Radium Girls). David Baron’s writing is very accessible and engaging, and although he often went on tangents, I felt that they were, if not “necessary,” at least interesting. The narrator, Jonathan Yen, brought life and excitement to the work as well.
The tale ultimately reflects how an unfledged young nation came to embrace something much larger than itself – the enduring human quest for knowledge and truth.
Thank you to LibraryThing as well as HighBridge Audio for a copy of this audiobook in exchange for an honest review!
The next scheduled total eclipse is slated for August 21st, 2017. It is nicknamed the Great American Eclipse because the path of totality falls exclusively in the contiguous United States, spanning from the west to east coasts. Although eclipses are not as integral to astronomy as they once were – for astronomers today are able to study the sun with advanced instruments even during the day – they are still a draw for scientists and the general public. Although where I live is not in the path of totality, I am still in the path of 70% coverage (note the X, in red, located on the map below).
Even though I only was able to view a partial solar eclipse, it was still pretty cool! Thankfully, someone let me borrow their eclipse glasses (since I waited until the last minute, as per usual), so I got to view the eclipse in all its glory.
I also snagged some cool pictures!