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Steamboat Magazine

Eclipse Watch

07/17/2017 02:23PM ● By Alesha Damerville

This summer marks the 21st century's first full solar eclipse passing over the United States-the first coast-to-coast eclipse in 99 years. Photo by NASA

Eclipse History
An interview with award-winning, eclipse-chasing, Colorado-based journalist David Baron
By Jennie Lay

David Baron is a professed umbraphile (one who loves eclipses, chases them) who has spent the past three decades reporting on science and the environment for NPR and PRI’s “The World.” More recently, his reporting has turned to multi-year book endeavors. His last book, The Beast in the Garden, reflecting on mountain lions and an increasingly unnatural state of nature surrounding human development, won the Colorado Book Award.

Baron’s much-anticipated new nonfiction tale is American Eclipse: A Nation’s Epic Race to Catch the Shadow of the Moon and Win the Glory of the World. Baron delivers a story of science and suspense surrounding the 1878 eclipse that crossed America’s frontier and brought the Wild West face-to-face with three charismatic pioneering scientists: James Craig Watson, Maria Mitchell and Thomas Edison.

Steamboat Magazine: Where exactly do you plan to watch the 2017 eclipse—and why did you choose that spot?

David Baron: I will be at Wyoming’s Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, on top of Rendezvous Peak at an elevation of 10,000 feet. The mountain sits right along the centerline of the path of totality—where the eclipse will last the longest—and from such a lofty perch I hope to view not only the awe-inspiring panorama overhead but also the moon’s shadow as it races across the earth below. As an added bonus, I understand that Corbet’s Cabin, the mountaintop eatery, serves excellent waffles.

SM: You’re witnessed five total solar eclipses. Where and when did you see these—and what made them individually special?

DB: Indeed, I’m obsessed with total eclipses. They are transcendent spectacles, and each is special in its own way. I saw my first in Aruba in 1998. That year, the solar corona—the sun’s ethereal outer atmosphere—looked like it was made from shimmering strands of silk. The following year, I viewed a total eclipse from a hotel roof in Munich, and my greatest memory is the immense shout of joy—tens of thousands of voices in unison—that rose from the city as the shadow descended. In 2012, I was on the coast of Queensland, Australia, where it rained during the partial phase of the eclipse, leaving everyone sorely disappointed, but then—five minutes before the onset of the total phase—a hole opened in the clouds, offering a perfect view. The total eclipse of March 2015 proved a special challenge because it crossed land in only two places, both hard to reach. I went to the Faroe Islands, in the North Atlantic—a notoriously stormy locale—and counted myself lucky to see the solar corona for two full seconds in an otherwise cloudy sky. I experienced my fifth total solar eclipse in March 2016 on Belitung, a small Indonesian island. The eclipse itself was stunning—most notable was a big red prominence, like an enormous flame leaping off the sun—but I was also struck by the reactions of the villagers. They seemed more taken by the hordes of eccentric foreigners who had come to see the eclipse than by the celestial event itself.

SM: We’re long past the Gilded Age that you write about in American Eclipse—and we know a lot more about eclipses now. What is it about an eclipse that keeps us so enthralled?

DB: Eclipses of all types—solar and lunar, partial and total—are humbling events. They remind us how puny and powerless we are in the enormous clockwork universe we inhabit. But of these various types of eclipses, nothing compares to the grandeur of a total solar eclipse, an event so rare that any given spot on earth will see just one every four hundred years or so. Actually, see is the wrong word, because a total solar eclipse is something you experience with many senses. In rapid succession the sky changes color, the wind shifts, the temperature drops, the birds sing crazily, darkness descends, bright stars and planets appear, and you suddenly feel yourself transported to an alternate reality, as if you’re standing on another planet beneath an alien sky. I often describe the experience as psychedelic. Indeed, it can be addictive.

SM: What drew you to a career in reporting about science?

DB: In college, I was both a science geek and a radio geek. I took classes mostly in physics and geology, and outside of class I spent most of my time at the campus radio station, so it seemed natural to combine my interests and become an NPR science correspondent. There was a time when I thought I’d eventually go back to graduate school to train as a bona fide scientist, but I was having too much fun in radio—traveling the world, interviewing Nobel laureates—and decided that reporting on science provided the intellectual excitement I was looking for while allowing me to avoid the scut work of actually doing science. After many years in radio, I wanted to go deeper with my writing, which is why I have transitioned to books.

SM: Your new book strikes me as more history than science. How important was understanding the science to relaying this story to the public?

DB: You’re right that American Eclipse is as much—if not more—about the people and the era than it is about the science. Although I’m a science writer, I consider myself a storyteller first. My goal is to engage readers in a compelling tale, and then, once I hook them with the story, to offer up palatable, bite-sized morsels of science. To write American Eclipse, I had to acquire a firm grasp of astronomy so I knew which concepts to introduce and how to do so, but I’m glad to hear that from a reader’s standpoint the book doesn’t feel science-heavy. I hope to attract readers who might never set foot in the science section of a library or bookstore but who simply enjoy a good historical yarn.

SM: What was the revelatory thread in your research that made you realize there was a story to be told in the 1878 eclipse?

DB: It all started with Thomas Edison. When I learned that Edison came to the vaunted Wild West 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. Then, the deeper I dug, the richer the story became. Not just Edison, but many scientists who came west for the 1878 eclipse were inspiring individuals, none more so than Maria Mitchell, the Vassar astronomer who brought an all-female expedition to Denver to show what women could do in science. I was also struck by the importance of the eclipse to our young nation. In 1878, America was an immature and striving country that aimed to prove itself on the global stage, and the eclipse offered an opportunity to do just that. In the end, the story of the 1878 eclipse is really a story of America’s intellectual coming of age.

SM: What was the most inspiring or extraordinary result that came out of the American rush to study the 1878 eclipse?

DB: Well, if you had asked anyone that question right after the eclipse, they would have told you that the biggest result was the discovery of a new planet, called Vulcan. They might also have mentioned that Edison’s much-touted new invention—an infrared detector called a tasimeter—had shown its value during the eclipse and would soon revolutionize astronomy. Now, it won’t surprise you to learn that the discovery of Vulcan eventually proved faulty, and Edison’s tasimeter was also quickly forgotten, but the eclipse did leave an enduring legacy through its effects on the American public and American institutions. The eclipse helped inspire this country to become, in a relatively short time, the world’s undisputed leader in scientific research.

SM: What excites you about the science being done surrounding the 2017 eclipse? Any studies or projects you’re watching particularly keenly?

DB: Total eclipses are not as important to astronomy today as they were in 1878, but some interesting scientific research will be conducted on August 21. I’m especially intrigued by an experiment called Citizen CATE (Continental America Telescopic Eclipse), which will station teams of volunteers at seventy sites along the eclipse path from Oregon to South Carolina. As the moon’s shadow races across the country, successively darkening each site, the team within the shadow will record a short movie of the sun’s corona, which is visible only at that time—during the total phase of the eclipse. Those short clips—each lasting about two minutes—will later be spliced together into what scientists hope will be one continuous video showing how the sun’s corona evolves during the full ninety-minute span that it will take for the eclipse to progress from coast to coast. Astronomers still find much about the corona puzzling, and they hope that this movie will suggest some answers.

SM: Following up on the reporting for your last book, The Beast in the Garden, you say that “while ostensibly about mountain lions, (the book) is really about how nature itself has become unnatural—how we have so altered our environment that we are modifying wildlife behavior in turn.” Have you noticed any marked changes in general, in management styles, broader knowledge or perceptions about predators, over the passing years?

DB: Absolutely. When it comes to human-predator conflict, I think there’s a more nuanced understanding of the issue both by the public and by wildlife management agencies. Twenty years ago, I found people divided into two warring camps—those who saw predators as victims that deserved absolute protection and those who saw predators as villains that deserved to be killed. Today, I see a much larger middle ground. Most people I talk to—in my circles, at least—believe that predators deserve protection as species but that some individual animals may need to be killed from time to time to protect human safety. I think our society is evolving toward a place where we understand that living with mountain lions, wolves, and bears means accepting some level of risk, but where we’re also prepared to reduce that risk by changing our own habits (for instance, by securing our garbage so bears can’t get to it) and, on occasion, by taking action against specific animals that exhibit worrisome behaviors.

SM: What are you reading these days?

DB: On my nightstand is The Nature Fix, by Florence Williams.* It’s a wonderful book that explores the health benefits we derive from spending time in nature, and it’s a suitable topic for me right now. I moved to Colorado long ago because I love to spend time in the mountains, but my own writing kept me so busy over the past few years that I barely got outdoors. Williams’s book is spurring me to resume my forays into the mountains, not only for my enjoyment but also for my physical and psychological wellbeing. 

(* Read our interview with author Florence Williams in the spring 2017 issue of Steamboat Magazine.)

In the end, the story of the 1878 eclipse is really a story of America’s intellectual coming of age.