Science Writer David Baron Shares His Passion for Solar Eclipses
June 8, 2017 — Science writer David Baron says he is “obsessed” with total solar eclipses, and turns that passion into a lively book, “American Eclipse.” Baron will share that excitement at a free talk at 7 p.m. Monday, June 19, at the Library Center auditorium.
Baron explains, “I wrote the book – which is set in the Gilded Age and Wild West – with the express intention of using the 2017 eclipse as a teachable moment for science and for history,” Baron says. “American Eclipse” is a narrative history that tells the true story of a total solar eclipse that crossed America’s western frontier in 1878. That celestial event lured many of the era’s great scientists (including Thomas Edison and the Vassar astronomer Maria Mitchell) to Wyoming and Colorado, and it helped inspire America's rise as a scientific power.
Baron shares some insights about his book and the passion that drives him.
With decades of science and environmental reporting in your past, what drew you to this story about a solar eclipse?
I am obsessed with total solar eclipses. I saw my first in 1998, in Aruba, and I was immediately hooked. Not only did I become an eclipse chaser, but I resolved that I would write a book on eclipses, and I decided way back then – nineteen years ago – that the book should be published in the summer of 2017 because I knew that this would be a time when Americans would be eager to learn about eclipses. As for what drew me to the specific story I tell in American Eclipse, that was Thomas Edison. When I learned that Edison traveled to America’s western frontier in 1878 to see a total solar eclipse, and that he did so at a key time in his life – right after his invention of the phonograph and right before he devised his incandescent light – I had no doubt that I had stumbled on a great story.
What techniques do you use to develop a science story into a “suspenseful narrative history” that is drawing so much praise?
Well, 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 other scientists. The trick for me was to decide what to leave out. In order to build suspense and keep the tale moving forward, I had to trim away many interesting but ultimately irrelevant side stories.
Outside of the current attention on the solar eclipse, do you sense a booming interest in science stories?
I’m not sure that I can answer that – I don’t have my finger on the pulse of the publishing industry – but I think a science story that is well told will always find an eager audience. After all, everyone loves a good mystery, and what is science but an organized attempt to solve nature’s riddles? That said, a lot of science writing is admittedly dry and off-putting because it oozes jargon and overlooks the human side of the enterprise – the dreams, the disappointments, and the bitter rivalries that exist in science as much as (if not more so than) in any other human endeavor.
How would you tackle a story about climate change that would give readers the same valuable context that you have given the story of total solar eclipses?
Wow, that’s a tough question. Any good story requires conflict – people with differing points of view and different stakes – and the topic of climate change has that in spades. However, a good story also benefits from some kind of resolution, and we don’t yet have that with climate change, at least not on a global scale. In other words, we don’t yet know how the planet will fare in the decades ahead or if humans will take steps to stave off the worst effects. However, as you suggest, there are pieces of this larger story that could work from a storytelling and explanatory point of view. One idea might be to focus on a single community that’s been devastated by a changing climate – perhaps Gatlinburg, Tennessee, after its terrible wildfires – and explore the various human, scientific, and environmental factors that led to that disaster and how, in turn, the disaster changed the people. No single story can explore every aspect of a huge issue like climate change, but that might be a start.
What are your plans for watching the August 21 eclipse in Jackson Hole, Wyoming?
I made my hotel reservations in Jackson three years ago because I knew that the resort town at the base of the Tetons would be swamped with visitors. Jackson sits right near the centerline of the eclipse path, enjoys a relatively arid climate (so the skies tend to be clear), and has some of the prettiest scenery in the West. I convinced thirteen family members from around the country – siblings, cousins, etc. – to fly in and join me there. On the day of the eclipse, we’ll be on top of Rendezvous Peak at an elevation of 10,000 feet. (That may sound impressive, but we won’t have to climb; there’s a tram to the top.) 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. Some of the characters in my book, during the eclipse of 1878, caught that very view from high in the Rockies, and what they saw was breathtaking: a monstrous shaft of darkness from outer space that swallowed distant mountains at lightning speed. That’s what I hope to see on August 21.