By Sheena McFarland
Special to The Tribune
Before Thomas Edison invented something that would bring light to the world, he traveled hundreds of miles across the country to stand in the shadow of the moon.
Edison is one of the three historical figures whom author and former NPR science correspondent David Baron tracks through his new nonfiction book, “American Eclipse,” set to publish in June just weeks before another full solar eclipse graces U.S. skies Aug. 21, with the path of totality passing through Idaho and Wyoming as its closest points to Utah.
In addition to the inventor, Baron recounts the stories of James Craig Watson and Vassar astronomer Maria Mitchell as they raced to experience the July 29, 1878, total solar eclipse.
Edison hoped to deepen his scientific credentials by studying the eclipse, Watson wanted the bragging rights of discovering a new planet during the daytime twilight and Mitchell wanted to showcase the capabilities of women scientists.
Total solar eclipses happen fairly frequently across the globe, but as the Earth is 80 percent ocean, they often are in inconvenient locations. The 1878 eclipse crossed from northern Idaho southeast through Wyoming, Colorado, Oklahoma, Texas and Louisiana.
In his riveting account, Baron shows his ability to wade through slews of historical documents (which take 64 pages to credit at the end of the book) to bring the figures to life.
“I’ve been a journalist my whole career, not a historian. To write about history really was a challenge for me. I had to take a lot of time to get to know these people as people,” he said.
That meant going beyond reading their journals and obituaries and instead finding what other people said about them, including reading letters the writers never thought others would read.
The digitization of many of these records helped the research process, but Baron still found himself at places such as Chicago, Vassar in New York and the Library of Congress and the National Archive in Washington, D.C.
Baron’s passion for eclipses powered him through his research. He became an umbraphile — a person who loves eclipses and travels to see them — when he covered an annular solar eclipse in 1994. During that kind of eclipse, which happened in Kanarraville in 2012, the majority of the sun is covered and creates a ring-of-fire effect, but the moon does not block out the entire sun.
Baron was in New Hampshire for that 1994 partial eclipse with Jay Pasachoff, Field Memorial Professor of Astronomy at Williams College. Pasachoff encouraged him to see a full solar eclipse, so in 1998, Baron traveled to Aruba to witness one.
“It was one of the most moving experiences in my life,” he said. “I knew I wanted to see this again and again.”
That eclipse fever is easy to catch.
Patrick Wiggins, NASA/JPL solar-system ambassador to Utah, caught the fever in 1979 when he saw his first total eclipse, which was viewable from the northwest corner of the United States.
“The rarity and spectacularness of the event is unbelievable,” Wiggins said. “People who haven’t seen one before don’t realize the feeling that overcomes you when you see a total eclipse of the sun. It runs the gamut from crying to shouting with joy.”
Wiggins has traveled the world to see five solar eclipses so far, and he made plans years ago to secure lodging along the path of totality for the eclipse that will traverse the entire continental United States on Aug. 21 — 99 years after the last one that crossed the country coast-to-coast. He encourages anyone who can to travel to see the eclipse because seeing the sky darken during midday is an incomparable experience.
“In my head, I know what’s going on, but in my soul there’s something held over from Cro-Magnon times — it’s spooky and exciting and neat,” Wiggins said.
The next total solar eclipse to cross U.S. skies after this summer will pass through Utah, but it won’t be until 2045.
For those who can’t go to the path of totality (lodging is already hard to come by in Wyoming and other states along the path) on the morning of Aug. 21, viewers in Utah will see anywhere from 95 percent of the sun covered in the northernmost part of the state to about 80 percent coverage in St. George. Salt Lake City will see about 92 percent of the sun covered. The eclipse will reach its maximum locally at 11:33 a.m.
To safely view the eclipse, it is essential to have eye protection. Solar eclipse glasses are quite cheap, and in the past have been available at places such as the Clark Planetarium, Natural History Museum of Utah and The Leonardo. Those interested also can buy them online at Rainbow Symphony for less than $2 a pair.
“Be prepared and don’t risk your eyeballs,” Wiggins said. “Unless it’s got the proper filtration, don’t look through a telescope at the sun.”
The fever that likely will start spreading as the Aug. 21 date approaches isn’t unlike the eclipse fever felt in 1878.
While the three scientists Baron follows all had their own goals and desires, the moment they looked up and saw the moon cast its shadow across the Earth was a profound one.
The first time Baron saw a total solar eclipse, the view boggled his mind. He was in this 30s, old enough to know what Earth’s sky looks like at any time of day or night or weather. But the sky turning orange in a 360-degree horizon made him think he was on an alien planet. Seeing the corona of the sun, which is not a halo or ring but rather “a wreath woven from silvery thread,” made him think of what an LSD trip must be like.
“It was like I had stepped outside the solar system and was looking back at creation. It connected me in a deep way to the universe. I’m not a spiritual person, but totality lasted 174 seconds, and that sliver of time can be addictive,” Baron said. “I’ve become an eclipse evangelist, I really do think this is something people owe to themselves, and we’re being given a gift of total eclipse in our own backyard. Take advantage of it.”
More on the eclipse
• NASA’s Eclipse 2017 site
• 2017 Path of Totality (video)
• 2012: ‘Ring of Fire’ eclipse puts on a show for southern Utah crowds
• Eclipse Glasses at Rainbow Symphony
• Interactive Google map showing the path of the Total Solar Eclipse of 2017