Sunday, January 20, 2019

American Eclipse by David Baron

Source of book: Borrowed from the library.

If you have followed my blog for the last couple of years, you know that the kids and I travelled to eastern Oregon in August of 2017 to view the solar eclipse. To say that it was a mind-blowing experience would be to undersell it. I love all things astronomical: we watch the Perseid meteor shower every year it isn’t washed out by the moon, and I have fond memories of when comets Hale-Bobb and Hyakutake appeared in the 1990s. The kids and I have viewed several of the more common lunar eclipses over the years. (Including one tonight - which sadly was somewhat obscured by clouds.) So, when I first heard that the western United States would have a total solar eclipse, I was all over it.

The 2017 eclipse counts as one of the most hyped and talked about eclipses. Certainly, it was the most discussed eclipse of my lifetime. I crossed the entire US, from Oregon to the Carolinas, and, as it turned out, the weather was outstandingly clear for most of the path.

But, before the 2017 eclipse, there was another truly “American” eclipse, which garnered its own high level of publicity and scientific attention. In 1878, the western part of the United States experienced an eclipse which went from Montana down to Texas. The young United States was at that time just starting to form a scientific establishment, and was eager to have something to show the world. The path of the eclipse went through what was then fairly uninhabited territory - except for Denver, which was a pretty small town back then. Thus, viewing the eclipse was quite the undertaking. 

David Baron’s book, American Eclipse, is a story of that event. I say “a story,” because it doesn’t purport to be a broad view of the event. Rather, it focuses on three key individuals who viewed the eclipse, whose legacies endure to this day.

The first of those three persons was astronomer James Craig Watson, who sought to prove the existence of Vulcan. (See my post about The Hunt for Vulcan, for more on that story.) He was, as we realize now, unsuccessful. However, he thought that he was successful at the time, because he (and a couple other astronomers) sighted objects where they shouldn’t have been. In time, it was realized that they were simply known stars which were slightly out of place, due to the bending of light by the sun’s gravity. This, and other observations from the hunt for Vulcan, eventually led Einstein to develop his theories of general and special relativity. As a result of his “discovery,” Watson had a brief moment of fame, before doubts crept in. He spent the rest of his life trying to prove he was right, before his death in his early 40s. His biggest legacy turned out to be his wife’s endowment of an award for scientific work, which helped rescue American science from its neglect. (See more about this below.)

The second person was Maria Mitchell, an astronomer from Vassar College, who combined a keen eye, a sharp brain, and a dedication to women’s rights. In her late 20s, she discovered a comet, and went on to teach and inspire several generations of female scientists. I found it interesting that she was raised as a Quaker (who were pretty much the most badass religious people of the 19th Century, serving the Underground Railroad, and educating their daughter, and generally doing good things), and was thus expected to be the intellectual equal of any man. And she was. Ms. Mitchell organized an expedition from Vassar, and, while she lacked some of her equipment due to a baggage issue (trains were the airlines of the day in more ways than one…), she and her assistants helped change public opinion about educated women. (See more on this below as well.) Mitchell also had a great history as an advocate for justice, refusing to wear clothing made with southern cotton due to her opposition to slavery. She helped give platforms to such luminaries as Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth (and some literary notables as well) via her influence and social connections. After reading up on her, I think she should be better known today than she is as a truly admirable person.

The final person featured in this book was none other than Thomas Edison, who needs no introduction. Edison is best known as an inventor - and he deserves it - and as a scientist (a title he couldn’t decide whether to embrace or not.) However, what he most excelled at was marketing, and this book definitely notes that. Edison had invented a device he called a “tasimeter,” a device to detect minute amounts of heat. He hoped to measure the temperature of the corona during the eclipse. It turned out that his device was rather useless: it could detect heat, but not really measure it, and it was too eratic to be of use, and thus has been largely forgotten. In an interesting twist, however, it does appear that Edison’s trip gave him a needed break from his work, and time to think. At some point during his trip, he appears to have had the inspiration of tacking the creation of a practical electrical grid - and an incandescent light bulb.

Baron focuses on these three, in part because they documented their experiences well, and because they each had legacies which lasted beyond the eclipse. He brings in a good number of primary sources about the backgrounds of each as well. Despite its non-technical emphasis, it is well researched.

There were a number of things that stood out to me in this book. The first was a recognizable 21st Century American tendency: the neglect and mistrust of science. A number of scientific sorts within the US government - mostly the Navy, which counted on astronomy for navigation - attempted to get funding for an official government observation of the eclipse. They asked for $8,000.00. That’s roughly $200,000.00 in today’s money. And also a clear pittance for a scientific project, and an opportunity which wouldn’t occur again for decades. Embarrassingly, but not surprisingly, Congress refused to fund it. Eventually, Watson would cobble together some funds from the college which employed him, state government, and a little bit of federal funding. But not the amount which should have been allocated to do the project justice. And Maria Mitchell, who discovered a freaking comet, for crying out loud, had to make do with even less: just a few bucks from Vassar and her own fundraising.

The good news is that there was an outcry from the media on this issue, which is the only reason Watson got some money in the end, and eventually public opinion started to turn. Looking back from my perspective in 2019, it is clear that there was a period from the dawn of the 20th Century through perhaps the 1970s when the United States supported and believed science. Those days are looking as if they are gone, at least for the political Right. There is a definite connection between the views of the Gilded Age and our present day. Then, as now, there was this idea that science was only valuable to the degree it led directly to profit. Pure science was contemned as having no economic value.

I also was reminded again of one of the great “controversies” of the 19th Century, and one of its greatest villains. In 1973, Dr. Edward H. Clarke (may his name burn in everlasting infamy), published a book which made the claim that education, because it taxed the brain, caused female reproductive anatomy to atrophy. This caused, shall we say, a big stir at the time, and, unfortunately, proved to be all too influential with those who wished to keep women uneducated and pregnant. Maria Mitchell was not a fan, to put it mildly. However, since she never married, her opinion tended to be dismissed. Of course, later research proved that women could in fact use their brains without impairing their ovaries, a fact which any number of educated and fertile women could have told said researchers in advance and saved them the money. And, fast forward to the 21st Century, and it turns out educated women are more likely to marry.

By the way, I am married to a highly intelligent, educated woman, who exercises her brain constantly. We are the parents of five children, who were conceived within a seven year period. She studied for and took her test for a critical care certification while on maternity leave for our 4th kid.

I think I can conclusively state that education and mental exertion is utterly ineffective as a method of birth control.

On a possibly related note, it is interesting that Watson, while his supposed discovery of Vulcan gave him publicity, he never really captured the public imagination. Likewise, Edison’s lectures about the eclipse were panned as technical and dry (and his machine didn’t work anyway.) It was Maria Mitchell’s description of the eclipse which drew crowds and applause. She managed to combine scientific rigor with poetic language. Plus, her stories of the misdirected luggage humanized her. In essence, she was effective in debunking Clarke’s bullcrap and changing public opinion about female education. Baron cites the differing opinions from the New York Times (and others) about female scientists, and female education before and after the eclipse. As I said, Maria Mitchell was a badass.

Speaking of poetic descriptions, Baron isn’t half bad himself. He is an eclipse chaser, and has viewed them around the world. (Yeah, I’m a bit jealous. But he is another example of the high quality of writer that NPR has managed to attract.) Here is a bit of his description:

A total eclipse is a primal, transcendent experience. The shutting off of the sun does not bring utter darkness; it is more like falling through a trapdoor into a dimly lit, unrecognizable reality. The sky is not the sky of the earth -- neither the star-filled dome of night nor the immersive blue of daylight, but an ashen ceiling of slate. A few bright stars and planets shine familiarly, like memories from a distant childhood, but the most prominent object is thoroughly foreign. You may know, intellectually, that it is both the sun and moon, yet it looks like neither. It is an ebony pupil surrounded by a pearly iris. It is the eye of the cosmos.

In a book, which is mostly competent narrative of history, this stands out as a point in which the author writes his own feelings. And damn, that’s good writing. Having witnessed an eclipse myself, he nails it. I wish I had written that good of a succinct description.

One more thing to mention, which isn’t really related to anything else, but was something that I didn’t know before reading this book. Etienne Leopold Trouvelot comes into this book because of his work as an astronomer. However, his legacy is really about something else - something seriously unsavory. Trouvelot fled from France when Napoleon came to power, and seems like a decent guy, with an inclination toward democracy and freedom. And he was a legitimate scientist, and apparently a nice guy. That said, he is responsible for a horrible amount of destruction due to an accidental mistake. He bred silkworms to try to find a way to prevent disease in them. However, for reasons unclear, he brought Gypsy Moth larvae to the New World. They escaped, and have caused severe destruction throughout the United States, unfortunately. The destruction is one of the greatest in history, alas. Unintended consequences, to be sure, but a warning to all of us that our actions might be more consequential than we expect. Tread carefully.

This book is a rather quick and easy read, well written and interesting, with a narrow focus. Don’t expect a detailed look at the eclipse, or a wide view of the overall event. Rather, it picks three individuals and their stories and impacts, and draws connections to the overall culture. For what it attempts to do, it is a good book, with solid writing, thorough research, and a clear vision. I found it quite enjoyable and definitely recommend it. But also, go see an eclipse. No words can do justice to the experience.

I originally wanted to read this book before the 2017 eclipse, but it was, for obvious reasons, on an endless request list at our local library. Now, over a year later, the furor has abated, and I was able to get it without competition.

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