“Seeing a partial eclipse bears the same relation to seeing a total eclipse as kissing a man does to marrying him.”
-- Annie Dillard, Total Eclipse
David Baron is an umbraphile. He's obsessed with eclipses the way some people are obsessed with chocolate, and has traveled around the globe to catch a celestial event that lasts less than three minutes.
His extensively researched, wonderfully illustrated, and timely new book, American Eclipse, tells the story of the 1878 solar eclipse and its impact on the common folk as well as members of the scientific community. (The upcoming coast-to-coast solar eclipse on August 21 follows a similar path of totality across the West.) Among the historical actors who figure prominently in Baron's account are the young and brash Thomas Edison, an intrepid female astronomer, Maria Mitchell, and James Craig Watson, an arrogant discoverer of small planets and comets.
Baron, who lives in Boulder, took time from his busy schedule to talk with us:
American Eclipse is meticulously and exhaustively researched – how did you begin such an undertaking, and what was your favorite place to visit?
I started at the Library of Congress, in the Manuscript Reading Room, and that’s where I did a lot of my research. The collections there include the personal papers of hundreds of prominent Americans. It was a thrill to handle original letters and daybooks and diaries from the likes of Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, James A. Garfield, and many of the scientists I write about in my book. One day when I had a little spare time, I asked to see the papers of Groucho Marx—just for fun. Now that was a hoot.
How were you able to take an event that was both historical and scientific and make it accessible to all types of readers?
To tell a good story, it helps to start with good material, and there certainly was no lack of good material stemming from the eclipse of 1878. The era was compelling—it was the beginning of the Gilded Age and the height of the Wild West. The characters were alluring—not only Edison, but also Maria Mitchell (a prominent Vassar professor and women’s rights activist), James Craig Watson (an egotistical “planet hunter”), Cleveland Abbe (known today as the father of the National Weather Service), and a host of others. The trick for me was to decide where to insert the science and how to do so in a way that wouldn’t disrupt the narrative. That took trial and error.
Which historical figure from your book would you most like to have dinner with?
Can I dine with two? I adore both Thomas Edison and Maria Mitchell. Now, Edison would probably be a terrible dinner guest—he ate at odd hours and was prone to drift off into his own world when an idea suddenly struck him—but he was such a colorful, quirky, self-deprecating character. Maria Mitchell would be a more polite dinner guest, and I would want to ask her about her scientific studies and her fight for women’s rights, but she was shy and would probably be reluctant to say much. Edison would dominate the dinner conversation, but Mitchell’s remarks would have more substance.
What are your plans for the August 21 eclipse?
I’ll be in Jackson, Wyoming, where I made hotel reservations three years ago and where I convinced thirteen family members to join me. On the day of the eclipse, we plan to be on top of Rendezvous Peak, at the ski resort, at an elevation of 10,000 feet. From such a lofty spot, I hope to view not only the eclipse overhead but also the moon’s shadow as it races across the land below.
Pluto: Planet or not?
Oh, gosh. I don’t want to weigh in on that controversy, but I would say that the planet/not-planet debate has a long history. As I write in my book, back in the nineteenth century, asteroids in the asteroid belt were also called “planets.” I would suggest that we not get hung up on terms. Planet or not, Pluto looks to be a pretty interesting place, based on the pictures sent back recently by the New Horizons spacecraft.
I’m still trying to figure that out. I have now written two books—the first was The Beast in the Garden—and both tell scientific tales set in the American West. I would love to continue following that vein, and I’ve started to hunt around for ideas, but I haven’t yet settled on anything. Writing a book is a major life commitment. I won’t begin my next project until I’m certain I’ve found a story that is not just important and interesting but that also can sustain my interest for at least three years of hard work.
Also by David Baron: