The eclipse that made Amer­ica great

The Denver Post - - LIFE & CULTURE - By Gra­ham Am­brose

It was a per­fect sum­mer af­ter­noon when they ar­rived at the sum­mit. Over­head, a cloud­less blue sky gave cause for cel­e­bra­tion. The hun­dreds of hik­ers who’d made the trek to Pikes Peak toasted with a feast of cham­pagne that filled the val­ley be­low with drunken laugh­ter.

Then, at ex­actly 3:29 p.m., the cerulean sky grew dark. The tem­per­a­ture plum­meted. From the north­west came what one pic­nicker called “an an­gry black cloud of inky black­ness” that ad­vanced with the fe­roc­ity of a hur­ri­cane, vi­o­lently sweep­ing over the land like a onyx cur­tain.

Be­fore any­one could blink, the black­ness had en­gulfed the moun­tain­top. On­look­ers gazed up to find that the sun had gone dark like a burned-out light bulb. Si­lence fell over the crowd.

Then the spec­ta­tors erupted in joy. “Cheer af­ter cheer echoed and re-echoed among the sur­round­ing moun­tains,” noted a jour­nal­ist. They were wit­ness­ing what they had come for: a to­tal eclipse of the sun.

It was Monday, July 29, 1878, and the Great Amer­i­can Eclipse — which sliced the na­tion from the Mon­tana Ter­ri­tory down to the coast of Louisiana — had reached the Cen­ten­nial State, barely two years old. Af­ter months of me­dia hype and weeks of

painstak­ing prepa­ra­tion, thou­sands of sci­en­tists, ama­teur as­tronomers and ad­ven­ture seek­ers from across the globe de­scended on Colorado and Wy­oming to wit­ness the rare align­ment of sun, moon and earth.

That’s but one mem­o­rable scene in David Baron’s “Amer­i­can Eclipse,” the new his­tor­i­cal ac­count of “how an un­fledged young na­tion came to em­brace some­thing much larger than it­self — the en­dur­ing hu­man quest for knowl­edge and truth.”

Baron, who lives in Boul­der, sets out to ed­u­cate and en­ter­tain. “Amer­i­can Eclipse” is a so­cial story dressed in sci­en­tific garb, more This Amer­i­can Life than Sci­en­tific Amer­i­can.

He starts at the height of the Gilded Age with the sorry state of Amer­i­can science, which lagged em­bar­rass­ingly far be­hind its Euro­pean peers. “It must be ac­knowl­edged,” wrote Alexis de Toc­queville af­ter his 1831 tour of the young re­pub­lic, sum­ma­riz­ing wide­spread Euro­pean opin­ion, “that in few of the civ­i­lized na­tions of our time have the higher sciences made less progress than in the United States.”

The 1878 eclipse of­fered Amer­i­cans a fleet­ing, three-minute win­dow to prove that wrong. And, no less, on home turf. Sci­en­tists wanted to cap­i­tal­ize on the ideal, eclipse-cre­ated con­di­tions for star-gaz­ing to put to rest fun­da­men­tal ques­tions about the so­lar sys­tem: Why did Mercury have such a pe­cu­liar and in­ex­pli­ca­ble or­bit? Did an­other planet ex­ist be­tween Mercury and the sun? What ex­actly makes up the sun? What about the so­lar corona?

How­ever im­per­ti­nent to the av­er­age Amer­i­can, th­ese prob­lems vexed 19th cen­tury as­tronomers, who were tan­ta­lized by the prospect of a dis­cov­ery that could win renown for them­selves and glory for their na­tion. Those as­pir­ing to ac­claim, though, al­most ex­clu­sively lived and worked in the uni­ver­si­ties of Europe and, to a lesser ex­tent, New Eng­land. Baron con­vinc­ingly shows how, for a brief few weeks in the sum­mer of 1878, the eyes of the in­ter­na­tional sci­en­tific com­mu­nity looked to the Wild West, a mythic land of pop­u­lar lore and com­mon mis­con­cep­tion.

“Den­ver was no rude, util­i­tar­ian bor­ough,” Baron writes, “but in­stead an oa­sis of civ­i­liza­tion in a bar­barous West.” De­spite un­paved streets, peren­nial sewage, and a rep­u­ta­tion as a refuge for er­rant crim­i­nals look­ing to es­cape the East Coast, the Mile High City “as­pired to el­e­gance, even en­light­en­ment.” That ex­plained why eclipse chasers from Prince­ton, Chicago, Wash­ing­ton and Lon­don flocked to Cherry Creek, Capi­tol Hill and the peaks of Colorado moun­tains to glimpse the cos­mic splen­dor first­hand.

The book’s story un- spools through three char­ac­ters: Thomas Edi­son, the ec­cen­tric and quintessen­tially Amer­i­can in­ven­tor who ven­tured to Wy­oming with a team of lead­ing in­tel­lec­tu­als — and his own per­sonal eclipse cor­re­spon­dent — to test out a du­bi­ous new gad­get on the haloed sun; Maria Mitchell, the Vas­sar as­tronomer and pres­i­dent of the Amer­i­can As­so­ci­a­tion for the Ad­vance­ment of Women who set out to “trans­form Amer­i­can cul­ture by ex­pand­ing the pal­try op­por­tu­ni­ties for women in science”; and James Craig Wat­son, a brash cos­mol­o­gist with a rep­u­ta­tion for ge­nius and an itch­ing for the fame he be­lieved his birthright.

With an ex­pert sto­ry­teller at the helm, a nar­ra­tive that might oth­er­wise sink in ar­cane tech­ni­cal­i­ties stays afloat at a brisk, ac­ces­si­ble pace. Baron breaks down the science with a pa­tience learned from three decades in pub­lic ra­dio. “In broad­cast­ing, you can’t reread,” he said in an in­ter­view. “So you need to write very sim­ply, in a straight­for­ward man­ner, so peo­ple can eas­ily fol­low its di­rec­tion.”

The re­sult suc­cess­fully swerves from the dry, im­pen­e­tra­ble prose of science writ­ing, grasp­ing in­stead at some­thing poetic, of­ten funny. The au­thor winks at his­toric par­al­lels be­tween by­gone fig­ures and re­al­i­ties in the present. Edi­son, for in­stance, will re­mind many of Elon Musk, an en­tre­pre­neur as savvy at tech­no­log­i­cal dis­rup­tion as self-pro­mo­tion.

Baron down­plays any one-to-one like­ness, though. In­stead, he em­pha­sizes the broad sim­i­lar­i­ties of the post-re­con­struc­tion era with con­tem­po­rary po­lar­iza­tion.

“In 1878, we had a to­tal eclipse that re­ally brought the coun­try to­gether in this shared ex­pe­ri­ence of won­der at na­ture,” he said. “There was a sense of pa­tri­o­tism that this was our eclipse.”

This Au­gust, he sees a sim­i­lar op­por­tu­nity for unity through awe. “The eclipse of 2017 won’t solve our po­lit­i­cal dis­agree­ments,” he said, “but it can be a shared ex­pe­ri­ence for us as a na­tion to put down our dif­fer­ences for a day and sim­ply en­joy some­thing amaz­ing.”


“Amer­i­can Eclipse” re­counts the Great Amer­i­can Eclipse of the late 19th cen­tury, a celestial phe­nom­e­non that in­spired sci­en­tists, tourists and shad­owchasers across the world to de­scend on Colorado and Wy­oming in July 1878.

Pro­vided by David Baron

A sketch of the so­lar corona dur­ing to­tal­ity, by renowned as­tronomer Sa­muel Pier­pont Lan­g­ley, as seen from atop Pikes Peak in 1878.

Pro­vided by David Baron

Boul­der au­thor David Baron de­cided to write the book 19 years ago af­ter view­ing his first to­tal so­lar eclipse in Aruba in Fe­bru­ary 1998.

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