A new American solar eclipse, same total fascination

First Published      Last Updated Apr 19 2017 09:07 am

Before Thomas Edison invented something that would bring light to the world, he traveled hundreds of miles across the country to stand in the shadow of the moon.

Edison is one of the three historical figures whom author and former NPR science correspondent David Baron tracks through his new nonfiction book, "American Eclipse," set to publish in June just weeks before another full solar eclipse graces U.S. skies Aug. 21, with the path of totality passing through Idaho and Wyoming as its closest points to Utah.

In addition to the inventor, Baron recounts the stories of James Craig Watson and Vassar astronomer Maria Mitchell as they raced to experience the July 29, 1878, total solar eclipse.

Edison hoped to deepen his scientific credentials by studying the eclipse, Watson wanted the bragging rights of discovering a new planet during the daytime twilight and Mitchell wanted to showcase the capabilities of women scientists.

Total solar eclipses happen fairly frequently across the globe, but as the Earth is 80 percent ocean, they often are in inconvenient locations. The 1878 eclipse crossed from northern Idaho southeast through Wyoming, Colorado, Oklahoma, Texas and Louisiana.

In his riveting account, Baron shows his ability to wade through slews of historical documents (which take 64 pages to credit at the end of the book) to bring the figures to life.

"I've been a journalist my whole career, not a historian. To write about history really was a challenge for me. I had to take a lot of time to get to know these people as people," he said.

That meant going beyond reading their journals and obituaries and instead finding what other people said about them, including reading letters the writers never thought others would read.

The digitization of many of these records helped the research process, but Baron still found himself at places such as Chicago, Vassar in New York and the Library of Congress and the National Archive in Washington, D.C.

Baron's passion for eclipses powered him through his research. He became an umbraphile — a person who loves eclipses and travels to see them — when he covered an annular solar eclipse in 1994. During that kind of eclipse, which happened in Kanarraville in 2012, the majority of the sun is covered and creates a ring-of-fire effect, but the moon does not block out the entire sun.

Baron was in New Jersey for that 1994 partial eclipse with Jay Pasachoff, Field Memorial Professor of Astronomy at Williams College. Pasachoff encouraged him to see a full solar eclipse, so in 1998, Baron traveled to Aruba to witness one.

"It was one of the most moving experiences in my life," he said. "I knew I wanted to see this again and again."

That eclipse fever is easy to catch.

Patrick Wiggins, NASA/JPL solar-system ambassador to Utah, caught the fever in 1979 when he saw his first total eclipse, which was viewable from the northwest corner of the United States.

"The rarity and spectacularness of the event is unbelievable," Wiggins said. "People who haven't seen one before don't realize the feeling that overcomes you when you see a total eclipse of the sun. It runs the gamut from crying to shouting with joy."

Wiggins has traveled the world to see five solar eclipses so far, and he made plans years ago to secure lodging along the path of totality for the eclipse that will traverse the entire continental United States on Aug. 21 — 99 years after the last one that crossed the country coast-to-coast. He encourages anyone who can to travel to see the eclipse because seeing the sky darken during midday is an incomparable experience.

"In my head, I know what's going on, but in my soul there's something held over from Cro-Magnon times — it's spooky and exciting and neat," Wiggins said.

The next total solar eclipse to cross U.S. skies after this summer will pass through Utah, but it won't be until 2045.

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American Eclipse

David Baron

Liveright; 1 edition (June 6)

Pages » 384

Price » $27.95

Preorder » american-eclipse.com

More on the eclipse » https://eclipse.gsfc.nasa.gov/eclipse.html