- Hardcover: 352 pages
- Publisher: Liveright; 1 edition (June 6, 2017)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1631490168
- ISBN-13: 978-1631490163
- Product Dimensions: 6.7 x 1.2 x 9.6 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 57 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #260,105 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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American Eclipse: A Nation's Epic Race to Catch the Shadow of the Moon and Win the Glory of the World 1st Edition
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“Baron, an award-winning journalist, uses exhaustive research to reconstruct a remarkable chapter of U.S. history. He tells the surprising story of how the eclipse spurred three icons of the 19th century―inventor Thomas Edison, planet hunter James Craig Watson, and astronomer and women's-rights crusader Maria Mitchell―to trek into the wild Western frontier to observe it.”
- Lee Billings, Scientific American
“The stories of these three enterprising scientists reflect the ambition and intellectual curiosity of the United States in the late-nineteenth-century, when the country was trying to cement its place in the international scientific community.”
- Concepción de León, New York Times Book Review
“David Baron contracted an incurable case of umbraphilia twenty years ago in Aruba. Fortunately for readers, Baron’s fever stokes his account of the first great American eclipse, in 1878, while priming us for the next one―and the next, and the next.”
- Dava Sobel, author of The Glass Universe
“David Baron beautifully captures the awe, the magic, and the mystery of one particular eclipse, an event in 1878 that spurred on America to embrace the sciences. A superb contribution to the history of astronomy.”
- Marcia Bartusiak, author of Einstein's Unfinished Symphony
“This fascinating portrait of the Gilded Age is suffused with the peculiar magic and sense of awe that have always attended eclipses, those fraught few minutes when day becomes night, time stands still―and anything seems possible.”
- Hampton Sides, New York Times best-selling author of Blood and Thunder
“A suspenseful and dramatic account of the rival scientific expeditions that came to the American West to view and study this rare phenomenon…Baron enables us to understand what drew them to the eclipse and what this episode tells us about the changing role of science in American culture.”
- Paul Israel, author of Edison: A Life of Invention
“A wonderful book, bringing lessons from the past to the present. In exceptionally clear and interesting prose, Baron brings nineteenth-century personalities to life, showing how men and, unusually, a female astronomy professor of that time observed the total solar eclipse of 1878.”
- Jay Pasachoff, Field Memorial Professor of Astronomy at Williams College
“Lucidly melds science, ambition, policy, technology, the interplay of personality and practice, and the immediacy of experience. The book is marked by wonderful, eye-opening surprises, notably Edison’s enthusiasm for and participation in the observation of the eclipse and the independent expedition of Maria Mitchell and her crew in the face of their exclusion from the effort.”
- Daniel Kevles, author of The Physicists
“Brilliantly researched and beautifully crafted, American Eclipse conveys historical discoveries and scientific obsessions with the verve and excitement of a work of fiction. David Baron's vivid prose captures the wonder of an era in which modern astronomy was just beginning to reveal our connection to vast universe beyond our own small world.”
- John Pipkin, author of The Blind Astronomer's Daughter
“Science journalist Baron shares a timely tale of science and suspense in this story of rival Gilded Age astronomers contending with everything from cloudy skies to train robbers to overserve the historic total solar eclipse of July 29, 1878. . . . Baron skillfully builds tension, giving readers a vivid sense of the excitement, hard work, and high stakes in play. With the first total solar eclipse to cross the U.S. in 99 years set to occur in late August 2017, this engrossing story makes an entertaining and informative teaser.”
- Publishers Weekly, starred review
About the Author
David Baron, an award-winning journalist and author of The Beast in the Garden, is a former science correspondent for NPR and former science editor for the public radio program The World. An incurable umbraphile whose passion for chasing eclipses began in 1998, he lives in Boulder, Colorado.
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What was Mitchell's role in studying the phenomena? Baron says "the Vassar party did not attempt anything technically complex during totality" and "the eclipse had produced no great scientific discoveries, but her expedition too had achieved a remarkable goal." But, like some journalists that he quotes from back in the 19th century, Baron is impressed that at least some women were doing astronomy.
Maybe there is a story to be told about women oppressed by men in 19th century science. But it is tough to see how Maria Mitchell relates to that story. Indeed, within American Eclipse, Baron talks about accomplished male scientists who enjoyed far less career success or popular attention. Baron fails to show that Maria Mitchell would have been more successful had she identified as a man. It is also unclear that America, a scientific backwater at the time, is the right place to be researching this story (in fact, even for this eclipse it seems that Americans didn't do anything constructive; one of our most accomplished (male) astronomers of the day wrongly identified the planet Vulcan, orbiting inside of Mercury).
[If Baron is striving for Social Justice and imagines himself encouraging more women to go into the dark pit of science graduate school, it is hard to see how his book will accomplish this. He says "Maria Mitchell’s all-female expedition to Denver, despite the favorable attention it received in its time, failed to transform the male-dominated world of science, a realm that still too often pushes women to its margins." Wouldn't a rational woman, reading this, choose to work on Wall Street or go to medical school rather than pursue academic science? Baron, whose biography suggests that he has no experience working in scientific research ("a journalist, author, and broadcaster who has spent his thirty-year career largely in public radio"), tells readers that women are "pushed to the margin". Why would an intelligent person invest 15 years of science undergrad, grad school, and post-doc with the expectation of being pushed to the margin?]
The book is good for reminding us how little we knew of our world until only recently. Today we have helium in our kids’ balloons, but it was discovered as a spectral line coming out of the sun in 1868 and not isolated on Earth until 1895. There is also some fun material on Edison, e.g., the best scientific minds of the time heaping derision on his light bulb invention.
There is a lot of good material in here, but it doesn't hang together that well as a book and the tangent of female victimization in the world of science doesn't help with coherency.
Former NPR science correspondent David Baron witnessed his first total eclipse in 1998 and has been a confirmed umbraphile ever since, traveling the world to witness this amazing phenomenon whenever he can. His newest book tells the story of America’s last greatest eclipse which occurred on July 29th, 1878, when path that the moon’s shadow took went right across the wild west from Montana territory down to Texas. Astronomers and scientists from around the world flocked to the American West to witness the event. Chief among them was Thomas Edison who, at just over thirty and having recently invented the phonograph, was already an American icon and media darling. Others making the pilgrimage west were Cleveland Abbe, chef meteorologist for the newly formed National Weather Service, Maria Mitchell, director of the Vassar College Observatory, and James Craig Watson, director of the Ann Arbor Observatory. Edison had recently invented the tasimeter, a device designed to measure infrared radiation and scientists hoped that it could be used during the eclipse to measure the temperature of the sun’s corona, something which cannot ordinarily be done due to the tremendous heat given off by the sun itself. Watson, the discoverer of 22 asteroids, was hunting an even more elusive prey. He hoped to be the first person to see the planet Vulcan widely believed to exist and have an orbit closer to the sun than Mercury. If it existed, such a planet would never appear in the night sky so the only way to see it would be during an eclipse. Mitchell’s goal was possibly the most important of all. In a world that believed the feminine mind lacked the aptitude for higher education and that strenuous mental activity was physically harmful to women, Mitchell and a team of female astronomers from Vassar set out to report on the eclipse and prove to the world that women were just as capable of men at when it came to scientific observation, reporting and methodology.
The 1878 eclipse had result of putting the United States front and center on the stage of scientific study and discovery, a position that some would argue it has held firmly until the beginning of this year. Edison may not have perfected his tasimeter but as soon as he return home to Menlo Park he began work on the light bulb, an invention that forever freed mankind from the shadows.
Bottom line: This book was entertaining an full of valuable information. It also gave me a good sense of the mood and attitudes of Americans during the decade after the Civil War. Baron researched the subject thoroughly, which helped keep me reading even when the story was less than compelling.
The Highbridge Audio version of Baron’s book was ably narrated by Jonathan Yen. Unfortunately, I have come to the conclusion that audio recordings are not the best medium for most nonfiction books. Often when reading a nonfiction book, I like to highlight certain passages and refer back to them in the future. This is not convenient in audio. Also, I would like to how characters names are spelled so that I can do further research on them. Finally, many nonfiction books include photographs and maps of the subjects that missing from an audio recording.
* The review was based on an advanced reading copy obtained at no cost from the publisher in exchange for an unbiased review. While this does take any ‘not worth what I paid for it’ statements out of my review, it otherwise has no impact on the content of my review.
FYI: On a 5-point scale I assign stars based on my assessment of what the book needs in the way of improvements:
*5 Stars – Nothing at all. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
*4 Stars – It could stand for a few tweaks here and there but it’s pretty good as it is.
*3 Stars – A solid C grade. Some serious rewriting would be needed in order for this book to be considered great or memorable.
*2 Stars – This book needs a lot of work. A good start would be to change the plot, the character development, the writing style and the ending.
*1 Star - The only thing that would improve this book is a good bonfire.