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Eclipse: The Celestial Phenomenon That Changed the Course of History Hardcover – October 15, 2001
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From Library Journal
Many books have been written about eclipses, but few are as comprehensive as this one, first published in Britain in 2001 and now rewritten for a U.S. audience with new chapters that describe famous American eclipses, such as the Rocky Mountain eclipse of 1878. Steel, an astronomer and author of two previous books on asteroid and comet-impact hazards, clearly describes the science and history of solar and lunar eclipses. He also explains other kinds of eclipses, such as transits (when a planet passes in front of the sun) and occultations (when a planet or asteroid passes in front of a star or other body). Some cultures, he continues, saw eclipses as a message from God, and some used advance knowledge of them to manipulate the ignorant. Steel adds that eclipses have played a role in advancing scientific knowledge about, for example, the sun's chromosphere. His informative book is recommended for all astronomy collections. Jeffrey Beall, Univ. of Colorado Lib., Denver
Copyright 2001 Reed Business Information, Inc.
Astronomer Steel surveys eclipses of all types, although the solar variety get marquee billing. Frequently Steel relates the circumstances surrounding particularly famous eclipses, such as the one in 1919 that vindicated Einstein's theory of general relativity; elsewhere, he reaches back in history to describe superstitious reactions to eclipses. Steel's compendium ranges from entertaining information about eclipses to the scientific significance of the vast amount of technical information astronomers have teased out of these events. Such information includes that derived from studying the sun's corona; measurements of distances to the moon and sun; and, in combination with eclipse records made by ancient civilizations, deductions made about the lengthening day or the moon's recession from the earth. Steel's ambit also encompasses the uses made of occultations, such as measuring the shapes of asteroids, and of the rare transits of Venus across the solar disk, which James Cook measured during saunters in the South Seas in 1769. Generously illustrated, Steel's informative discourse also promises staying power by ending with a guide to the next two decades of solar eclipses. Gilbert Taylor
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
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Top Customer Reviews
* Einstein's theory of relativity as vindicated by an Eclipse
* Alexander's defeat of Darius the day after an eclipse in 331 BC.
* The bible's use of moon language, speaking of days where the moon will be darkened (some kind of eclipse?)
With facts like this, Steel keeps us following a provocative discussion of the moon and its cycles. The history lessons are interspersed with scientific facts so that after a while one doesn't know if he is reading a history book or a science novel.
As the author points out, the Eclipse as a phenomena in the sky held special cultic meaning for the Ancient Near Eastern religions (esp. the Egyptians). But one is left wondering if Steel is accurate at all points of history. For example, when arguing from the Bible about supposed eclipse accounts therein, he sees the story Abraham as alluding to one, "And when the sun was going down...great darkness fell upon him." Because he sees this text as an eclipse, he dates the time of Abraham to 9 May 1533 BC 6:30pm. What is interesting in this is that there is an actual internet database maintained by NASA that allows the author (and us!) to track all eclipses for all time. Indeed, there was an eclipse visible in Jerusalem in 1533, but does that mean that the text in question is talking about an eclipse? Steel may be misreading the biblical data, but it is only a small distraction from his great book.
It should be noted, Steel's book is not only about the moon, but about all of the celestial bodies and man's reaction to their appearances (Mars, comets, famous meteor storms, etc.).
This book is a good introduction for the novice about such things as "blue moons", "the diamond ring" affect, eclipses in general, the calendar and the moon, and other such relevant topics.
I first heard of Duncan Steel when he was interviewed on NPR in June of 2002; the audio of that was once available on the internet.
I've read quite a few astronomy books in my day (and browsed many more), and found none quite as nifty as this one: equal parts science, history, and trivia, it's a light and thoroughly engaging read that I recommend for anyone interested in the eclipse phenomenon. Serious enthusiasts might prefer a harder, more mathematically-bent text, but chances are that many newbies will come away from this book feeling they could write about eclipses themselves, and they might be half-right.
"On the day of the eclipse, Principe was bedevilled by clouds, and only 2 photographic plates were deemed marginally acceptable. At Sobral, 18 poor plates and 8 better plates were obtained. The problem was that the 18 poor plates yielded a deflection of starlight much smaller than predicted by Relativity, while the 8 better plates produced a much higher value. By adding the 2 plates from Principe to the mix, Eddington managed to come up with a number close to that required by the Theory of Relativity. It was not the clear-cut victory for Einstein that the textbooks proclaim. Yet the spin was on!"['Science Frontiers', William R. Corliss, #126, Nov-Dec 1999]
Steel is in the camp of Clube and Napier, and as he badmouthed Velikovsky at least once in print I'm reluctant to review this book or anything else he's written. Still, as an introduction to the astronomical / astrological impact made on ancient societies, this book is probably a good choice. Steel has been involved in the search for asteroids on collision courses with the Earth, but his interest in Clube and Napier seems to have resulted in a certain amount of being held at arm's length. I noticed this in a David Morrison review of Steel's "Rogue Asteroids".
I have plenty of objections to using eclipses to date anything. More to the point, everyone should have at least some reservations:
"At 8.45 on the morning of 15 April 136 BC, Babylon was plunged into darkness when the Moon passed in front of the Sun. An astrologer, who recorded the details in cuneiform characters on a clay tablet, wrote: "At 24 degrees after sunrise-a solar eclipse. When it began on the southwest side, Venus, Mercury and the normal stars were visible. Jupiter and Mars, which were in their period of disappearance, became visible. The Sun threw off the shadow from southwest to northeast." If present-day astronomers use a computer to run the movements of the Earth, Moon and Sun backwards from their present positions, like a movie in reverse, they find something very odd. The total eclipse of 15 April 136 BC should not have been visible from Babylon at all." ['In the shadow of the Moon', New Scientist, 30 January 1999]
The rather more expensive "Historical Eclipses and Earths Rotation" by F. Richard Stephenson makes a good subsequent read, and is the source of the information in the above quote. Steel's book will make a decent introduction to the eclipse topic also, but remember to take it with a grain of salt.
The book is relatively small at 7.25 x 5.25 inches, and so the illustrations are quite small. The only color photo is on the cover jacket, which is a shame. I recognize a number of the B&W illustrations, and so I know that the originals were in color.
Despite its shortcomings, this book is a welcome addition to my eclipse library.