When David Baron witnessed his first total eclipse, in Aruba in 1998, it was a transformational encounter.
“I felt transported to another planet,” he writes, “indeed to a higher plane of reality, as my consciousness departed the earth and I gaped at an alien sky. ... I felt something I had never experienced before — a visceral connection to the universe — and I became an umbraphile, an eclipse chaser, one who has since obsessively stalked the moon’s shadow — across Europe, Asia, Australia — for yet a few more fleeting moments of lunar nirvana.”
What he calls “this eccentric passion” led Baron, a science writer and broadcaster, to write the laboriously titled “American Eclipse: A Nation’s Epic Race to Catch the Shadow of the Moon and Win the Glory of the World.” It’s an entertaining and highly readable account of the total eclipse of July 29, 1878, and three particularly notable scientific expeditions that set out to see and learn from it.
Baron opens his story in the summer of 1876, at the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. With more than 100 buildings and thousands of exhibitions from around the world, it showed off everything from artworks to the latest in inventions, including Alexander Graham Bell’s “speaking telephone.”
Where the United States lagged behind Europe, however, was in the sciences. When British astronomers announced that summer that two years later a total eclipse would sweep in an enormous arc across the country — from the Montana Territory to the Gulf of Mexico — it inspired their American colleagues to try to make their marks.
Baron touches on a number of these but focuses on a distinctive trio, one famous, one now obscure and one who should be better known: the brilliant (and self-promoting) young inventor Thomas Alva Edison, who longed to be accepted as a scientist; the arrogant, ambitious asteroid hunter James Craig Watson, who wanted to find proof of the theoretical “intermercurial planet” close to the sun that he’d already named “Vulcan”; and the Vassar professor and feminist Maria Mitchell, who fought grotesque bigotry to prove that women had major contributions to make in science.
Baron does a fine job of scene-setting, starting with his portrait of the crass nature of American culture in the Gilded Age. “It was also a time marked by the acquisition of wealth and the perceived decay of public morals, when the country’s chief aim had become getting rich — ‘Dishonestly if we can; honestly if we must,’ in the words of Mark Twain.”
He explores the public interest in the eclipse. There’s a nice portrait of Denver, the largest metropolis in the path of totality, which attracted vast numbers of visitors. Baron quotes the Washington Evening Star just before the eclipse: “A cannon shot fired in any direction from a central point in (Colorado) would, it is thought, cause a sad falling off in the number of college professors who expect to report for duty at the beginning of the fall term.”
Baron follows the paths of his principal characters and a few others and describes the event itself in great detail.
“A total eclipse is a primal, transcendent experience. The shutting off of the sun does not bring utter darkness; it is more like falling through a trapdoor into a dimly lit, unrecognizable reality. The sky is not the sky of the earth — neither the star-filled dome of night nor the immersive blue of daylight, but an ashen ceiling of slate. A few bright stars and planets shine familiarly, like memories from a distant childhood, but the most prominent object is thoroughly foreign. You may know, intellectually, that it is both the sun and moon, yet it looks like neither. It is an ebony pupil surrounded by a pearly iris. It is the eye of the cosmos.”
Edison’s tasimeter proved impractical. Mitchell and her students made no great discoveries, but they did provide an inspiration and an example to other women. Watson thought he’d found his Vulcan, but that triumph proved short-lived. And, says Baron, “Even before the eclipse, the United States was fast on its way to becoming a formidable scientific power. It is fair to say, however, that the celestial event helped push the country toward that destination, and not solely because it inspired and educated a broad American public.”
There are a few dull moments (there’s too much space devoted to the weather, and whether the eclipse would be visible or not), but Baron has succeeded in writing an enjoyable and informative book that will should inspire more people to make sure they don’t miss this month’s total eclipse — and, perhaps, thereby create more umbraphiles.
“American Eclipse: A Nation’s Epic Race to Catch the Shadow of the Moon and Win the Glory of the World”
By David Baron
Published by Liveright, 352 pages; $27.95