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An 1878 eclipse offered American scientists the chance to prove their scientific chops. Did they deliver?

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

David Baron
Liveright
2017
349 pp.
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In the summer of 1878, the United States was adjusting to post–Civil War unity. “Like an ungainly teenager after a growth spurt,” writes David Baron in American Eclipse, the country was “settling in to its larger, more muscular body, and it was beginning to exert its strength.”

The total solar eclipse that would sweep across the western states on 29 July of that year was an opportunity for the nation’s scientists to prove their prowess, both to themselves and to a Europe dismissive of the country’s scientific potential. In Britain, France, and Germany, private societies, government agencies, and public universities promoted scientific excellence, but science in a nonelitist democracy needed the support of the people.

A host of scientists and inventors fill Baron’s narrative, but the story follows three main players: Maria Mitchell, Thomas Edison, and James Craig Watson. At a time when women did not have the right to vote and experienced crushing misogyny, astronomer Maria Mitchell led a group of women to Denver to record the eclipse and make visible the role of women in professional science. Edison, 31, had not yet invented the electric light bulb. His contribution was the invention of a “tasimeter,” a sensitive device that he intended to point at the solar corona in the hopes of detecting its heat. Watson, a celebrated asteroid hunter, sought to discover evidence of the planet Vulcan, a celestial body that scientists hypothesized was responsible for Mercury’s unusual orbit.

Unfortunately, however, these intrepid Americans did not succeed in using the eclipse to “win the glory of the world.” Mitchell’s expedition, while a political achievement, “produced no great scientific discoveries.” Edison’s tasimeter had no lasting value. The planet Vulcan—although initially believed to have been spotted—alas, remained unconfirmed (its existence was later disproven).

American Eclipse is thus a story of the inevitability of failure in scientific pursuits, as opposed to the altogether rarer success stories. Samuel Pierpont Langley, the astronomer who inspired Edison to develop the tasimeter, summarized, “We often hear it, for instance, likened to the march of an army towards some definite end; but this, it has seemed to me, is not the way science usually does move, but only the way it seems to move in the retrospective view of the compiler.”

That’s not to say, however, that these endeavors had no effect on the country’s scientific legacy. Edison founded the magazine Science shortly after the eclipse, and Watson left his considerable wealth to the National Academy of Sciences for the establishment of an award for scientific achievement that is still given today.

Baron’s account is more historical than scientific, but the science that is described—e.g., spectroscopy, penumbras, and latitude and longitude measurements—is well rendered. The story’s tension is forced in places (a bit too much is made of the fickle weather, for example) and is undermined on occasion by the fact that most readers will already know that there is no planet Vulcan and that the tasimeter was “a bust scientifically.”

NASA/HINODE/XRT

The Hinode satellite captured this solar eclipse on 4 January 2011.

The prose takes many detours, but it moves at a fast clip and covers a lot of ground. One engaging digression features a sidelong glance at Alvan Clark, who would later gain infamy for accidentally releasing a plague of gypsy moths on northeastern forests. Other details feel extraneous, as when Baron describes how a marmot appeared while a crowd awaited the eclipse on Wyoming’s Pikes Peak and adds, for no discernible narrative reason, that the creature “squatted and grinned.”

Despite these minor fumbles, Baron’s description of the eclipse, like the eclipse itself, does not disappoint. “In the closing seconds before the onset of a total solar eclipse,” he explains, “darkness falls with disorienting rapidity. It can feel as if you are losing your eyesight, or perhaps your sanity. The dimming light does not just surround you; it swallows you.” Baron’s love of these rare and spectacular events is plain, reinforced explicitly in the epilogue, which breathes fresh air into the historical narrative with the author’s account of his own eclipse chases.

As we await the eclipse that will sweep across the United States on 21 August of this year, Baron reminds us: “They afford a chance not only to grasp the majesty and power of nature, but to wonder at ourselves—who we are, and who we were when the same shadow long ago touched this finite orb in the boundless void.” American Eclipse invites us to wonder at the nation we were in 1878, the nation we are now, and the Sun and Moon’s endlessly repeating dance above it all.

About the author

The reviewer is a physics professor and freelance writer in Los Angeles, CA, USA.