Book review: ‘American Eclipse’ a captivating read
Still wondering if you should head to Wyoming to witness the total solar eclipse this summer? Science journalist David Baron's suspenseful tale of "nature's grandest spectacle" that crossed the Wild West in 1878 will seal the deal for your Aug. 21 road trip. This review was originally published in Steamboat Pilot.
"American Eclipse: A Nation's Epic Race to Catch the Shadow of the Moon and Win the Glory of the World" is captivating literary nonfiction that reads like a thriller. Baron lures us in with his personal solar eclipse experience and sells us unabashedly on why we should care: "For three glorious minutes, 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 … I felt something I had never experienced before — a visceral connection to the universe …"
The 1878 eclipse happened when travel and communication were slow. While much of America eagerly awaited a scientific awakening, others perspectives saw a Biblical doomsday in the sun's darkening. Indeed, Baron writes, "The 1870s was a time of snake oil and flimflam, an era in which the American populace often had difficulty distinguishing scientific fact from pseudoscientific fraud."
In America's "search for existential meaning," Baron uncovers a turning point when science won over America. After months digging through dusty unopened boxes at the Library of Congress, he unpacks the treasures in gripping prose and incredible images.
"American Eclipse" tells an irresistible history of American ingenuity and intellectual maturation during the Gilded Age. The action culminates in less than three minutes on the Wyoming and Colorado frontier, backdropped by the rise of the Brooklyn Bridge in the East and the slow boil of a Ute tragedy on the immediate landscape. We dip into a consequential 1876 world's fair, which stoked America's imagination and competitive pride — a young nation's nudge to speed up our scientific achievements. Indeed, 1878 proves America's moment for redemption — an opportunity to put us on a scientific echelon with Old Europe.
Baron brings to life many of America's notable homegrown scientists. Relying on more than a resume, he dissects big personalities and their lofty ambitions. We travel deep inside their methodologies, workspaces, family lives and emotional selves. We grip the alliances and the egos, the grudges and the personal glories, their business and their pleasure. All the while, Baron keeps the setting in check, reminding us that Americans are still monitoring the price of whale oil and molasses, women's suffrage remains a long way off and it's a year before the Meeker Massacre unfolds in Northwest Colorado.
Baron delivers delicious insight into Thomas Edison as a manic inventor with a particular prowess for the press — indeed, a Kardashian of his time. Edison's tasimiter in a Wyoming chicken coop ultimately did not break scientific ground, but his enigmatic presence delivered vast attention to the eclipse and its scientists. Of particular intrigue is the role scientist Maria Mitchell played in a burgeoning women's movement with her valiant Vasser team of female scientists, who beat all odds to meet the eclipse as it crossed Colorado. And James Craig Watson emerges as an ego incarnate as we follow his self-important search for the elusive planet Vulcan.
Putting his journalistic craft to fine use, Baron offers accessible explanations of complex science and its gadgetry. He delivers poignant regional history as the totality transpires on a path from southwest Wyoming's windswept flats to Denver's Cherry Creek and the tip of Pike's Peak. The intervening characters are familiar — squabbling railroad tycoons, Chief Colorow, Nathan Meeker, Major Thomas Thornburg — yet Baron adds new dimension to their histories. Taking us through two years paced just right, it's history and suspense wrought by an astronomical spectacle unfolding under the vagaries of weather, gear and human frailty.
"American Eclipse" unveils a competitive American lens on science that's a little wild, a lot ingenious and always political. There was more to the 1878 eclipse than chasing the shadow of the moon. They were chasing women's rights, new planets and even the stature to launch our modern light bulb. It's a story of victory for American science, a discipline in which this young country found great pride and authenticity and committed to investing deep value. It serves as a refreshing reminder in these uncertain times for 21st-century science.