Saturday, October 27, 2018
Books I'm Reading: American Eclipse and The Education of a Coroner
Baron focuses on three groups of eclipse viewers. One was organized by astronomer James Watson, known as a planet hunter (more precisely, as discoverer of asteroids), who appears to have been chiefly interested in the opportunity the eclipse seemed to present to see the planet Vulcan, said to orbit the sun inside the orbit of Mercury (he claimed to have seen it; the claim proved a distraction to the pursuit of astronomy for many years subsequently). Another group was led by Maria Mitchell, a pioneer among women interested in the heavens. The third group included inventor Thomas Edison who was eager to gain the respect of serious scientists. He brought with him his "tasimeter," a hyper-sensitive heat-detecting invention with which he hoped to measure the heat of the sun's corona during the eclipse (it proved a failure).
Trips into remote parts of Colorado and Wyoming presented numerous difficulties. All the groups had to put up with primitive accommodations, while Maria Mitchell and her all-female entourage (primarily gifted students of astronomy she taught or had taught at Vassar) had the additional burdens of dealing with prejudice against the undertakings of a woman scientist and of trying to locate equipment lost by a railway company more interested in a feud with a competitor than it was in locating luggage critical to her investigations (ultimately recovered in the nick of time). Edison garnered far more attention in the press than Mitchell, despite her credentials.
Although the book seemed a bit anti-climactic as it devotes little space to the eclipse itself (being focused on the events leading up to the event), it appears to have been meticulously researched and it is well written and entertaining. Recommended.
Beyond the case studies, the book is interesting for the procedural details it gives, for its look into how coroners operate in general, for its local focus (many of the locations discussed will be very familiar to residents of Northern California and San Francisco), and for its look at how politics impinged on the career of Mr. Holmes. Worth the time.