Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Non-Fiction Review: American Eclipse by David Baron

"American Eclipse: A Nation's Epic Race to Catch the Shadow of the Moon and Win the Glory of the World" by David Baron
First published in 2017
238 pages (plus bibliography)
My rating: 4 out of 5

The Short Of It:
An easy-to-read non-fiction book that came out at the perfect time, right before the total solar eclipse of 2017.

The Long Of It:
I love reading about science and scientists (and mathematicians, for that matter) -- probably because as soon as science became math-based in school, it was bafflingly complicated to me. Even as the topics fascinated me, I despised chemistry in high school and astronomy was quite possibly my least-favorite class in college.

And something you probably know about me if you read the blog regularly is that I'm from Colorado and like to tell people that at every opportunity -- and I like to read about it, too. So when I saw that "American Eclipse" was a story about scientists flocking to the Rocky Mountains to witness the total solar eclipse of 1878, it immediately went on my to-read list.

Baron's well-researched book chronicles the lives and contributions of three scientists and leads up to their trip to the Rockies and their experiences of witnessing and researching the eclipse. And I must say, after reading the book I've added watching a total solar eclipse to my bucket list. It sounds utterly magnificent -- Baron's descriptions made me feel even more like I was there then the videos and photos that flooded social media after this year's eclipse, plus he provided the scientific reasons for all the unusual things that happen when the moon covers the sun.

The three scientists Baron chose for his book are the ubiquitous Thomas Edison, the Wizard of Menlo Park; James Craig Watson of Ann Arbor who was in a race with a former friend turned bitter rival to discover and name the most asteroids; and Maria Mitchell, the country's first professional female astronomer and a women's rights activist.

Baron gives us their backstories, providing a glimpse into their achievements and personalities. I thoroughly enjoyed the photographs scattered throughout, which helped put faces with names, and the stories were interesting enough to keep my attention. My favorite part of the book was the final  chapters that told of the scientists' journey to and arrival in Colorado and Wyoming, their often painstaking on-the-ground preparations, and the momentous 3-minute event itself.

I learned quite a bit from reading Baron's book -- about astronomy, about eclipses, about the various faces of late-19th-century science -- and while it was educational it was also fascinating and short enough not to feel boring or tedious. It was interesting to read a book set in a time when there were many more mysteries yet to be solve about our solar system and when some people still thought an eclipse was a sign of impeding doom or apocalypse. And I'd have to say any book that expanded my bucket list is worth a read!

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