Book review: Sun Moon Earth by Tyler Nordgren

Tyler Nordgren’s new book Sun Moon Earth: The History of Solar Eclipses from Omens of Doom to Einstein and Exoplanets (Basic Books, 2016) is a must read for anyone with even the slightest interest in the heavens, or in the total solar eclipse that will sweep across the United States on August 21, 2017. It’s far more than a where-to-go and how-to-see-it tale, although those pointers do show up at the end (don’t stare at the partially eclipsed Sun without proper, certified shielding, folks.) The fun part is the history lesson suggested by the subtitle.

Indeed, total solar eclipses have been happening for millennia, and Nordgren travels the world to examine what ancient cultures made of this unusual phenomenon. The complete blotting out of the Sun was seldom considered a good thing by people who didn’t understand what was really going on. It has only been in very recent times that the total solar eclipse has been embraced as a tourist attraction. Nordgren’s explanations of how scientific thinking developed and helped explain what was happening during eclipses are engaging and fascinating, as are his tales of the science that has only been possible during these rare events.

Nordgren has become an eclipse chaser himself, and I enjoyed his accounts of his travels to view eclipses, especially his trip to the relatively remote Faroe Islands, between Scotland, Iceland, and Norway, for the eclipse of March 20, 2015. The islands are not exactly the world’s leading tourism destination, and yet they were on that day because it was one of the few dry-land locations from which to see that particular eclipse. It was an interesting tale of the lengths to which people will go to get into the path of totality of a solar eclipse, and how the communities within that path prepare and react to the event.

Most people seem to agree that next year’s total solar eclipse will be seen by more people than any other in history. Often times the path of totality mostly passes over water, as it did for the Faroe Islands in 2015. The last time a total solar eclipse crossed the U.S. like this was in June of 1918. The 2017 eclipse will cross a huge land mass with a large population, many opportunities for tourists, and easy access to the path of totality all along the way.

Sun Moon Earth is a delightful read and would be a most welcome gift for anyone on your list with an interest in astronomy. We included it in our recent gift guide for astronomy buffs.

Tyler Nordgren

Tyler Nordgren

Author Nordgren is a renaissance man of sorts. He’s a professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Redlands. He’s also a photographer and an artist and has done a variety of beautiful travel posters for the eclipse as well as for other tourist spots around the solar system. They’re available on his website and also referenced in our gift guide. He’s done a great deal of work on night sky astronomy programs in National Parks. He’s the author of Stars Above, Earth Below: A Guide to Astronomy in the National Parks (Praxis, 2010) and spoke about the topic at the 2014 annual banquet of the Seattle Astronomical Society. He’ll be in town again to talk about Sun Moon Earth January 14 at Town Hall Seattle. Tickets are $5 and are available online.


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