The captivating story of a 19th-century solar eclipse.
In this compelling social and scientific history, former NPR science correspondent Baron (The Beast in the Garden, 2003) begins with his own unexpectedly transformative experience witnessing a total solar eclipse for the first time. “For three glorious minutes,” he writes, “I felt transported to another planet, indeed to a higher plane of reality, as my consciousness departed the earth and I gaped at an alien sky.” Such a response is not atypical: “For millennia, total solar eclipses have awed, frightened, and inspired.” Their occurrence, however, is rare, “passing any given point on earth about once every four hundred years.” By 1878, astronomers accurately predicted that a total solar eclipse would be observable in the western United States, and they charted its likely path. Expeditions set out to witness the event in Wyoming and Colorado, including one led by Maria Mitchell, a female professor of astronomy from the women’s college Vassar. Mitchell, writes Baron, “saw it as her role not only to teach female students but…to create the kind of supportive environment for intelligent women so lacking in the outside world.” Another notable figure who traveled west to see the eclipse was Thomas Edison, who had invented an instrument that would hopefully measure differences in solar heat during and after the eclipse. Although the device was not as accurate as he had hoped, it anticipated the development of infrared telescopes. As Baron capably and enthusiastically shows, the solar eclipse of 1878 proved to be an important moment in the emergence of American science; another outcome was the creation of the first national weather service. Would-be eclipse watchers used the telegraph to track weather systems in order to determine the best time and place for their sightings. Two years later, President Ulysses Grant signed legislation creating the weather service, “to be operated by the Army Signal Corps.”
A timely, energetic combination of social and scientific history in anticipation of the total solar eclipse predicted for Aug. 21, 2017.