Tag Archives: David Baron

Our favorite books and author talks of 2017

We created Seattle Astronomy because, given our region’s seemingly perpetual cloud cover, there were more opportunities to write about astronomy than to actually observe the night skies. We also read the writing of others, go hear them talk about it, and report back to you! Here are our top five author and book stories of 2017.

1. Treknology

Ethan Siegel’s new book Treknology: The Science of Star Trek from Tricorders to Warp Drive (Voyageur Press, 2017) is a must for any Star Trek fan. As the title suggests, Siegel takes a look at a host of technologies imagined by the various Trek TV series and movies and weighs in on which have already come true, which are on the horizon, and which would still require some discovery. Siegel is reluctant to say something will never happen. Instead, with challenging technologies such as warp drive, he looks at the physics of how it could work and the challenges for bringing that to reality. Siegel isn’t just making this stuff up; he’s a theoretical astrophysicist and writes the blog and produces the podcast Starts With a Bang. Siegel has appeared several times on our pages. Find our article and podcast about Treknology, and our articles about his talks on gravitational waves and the expanding universe given to Rose City Astronomers in Portland, and his talk about dark matter at Astronomy on Tap Seattle.

2. American Eclipse

Former NPR science editor David Baron got the idea to write a book about solar eclipses way back in 1998 when he witnessed his first total solar eclipse from the beach in Aruba. He figured 2017 would be a good year to publish, when interest in the great American eclipse was at its peak. American Eclipse: A Nation’s Epic Race to Catch the Shadow of the Moon and Win the Glory of the World (Liveright, 2017) is the story of the 1878 totality that crossed the American frontier from Montana down through Texas, and it chronicles the efforts of Thomas Edison, Maria Mitchell, and James Craig Watson to view the eclipse. Baron credits the event for sparking a scientific boom in the United States. We just finished the book during a recent train trip and found it to be a marvelous and informative read. Baron spoke at Pacific Science Center in July. Check out our review of his talk.

3. The Greatest Story Ever Told—So Far

Lawrence Krauss is a renowned author and theoretical physicist and cosmologist who packed Town Hall Seattle back in April for a talk about his book The Greatest Story Ever Told—So Far: Why Are We Here? (Atria Books, 2017). We love it when someone can tackle particle physics without causing headaches, and Krauss nailed it with both his talk and the book. Krauss tells not just about the advances in physics over the years, but gives interesting insights about the creative processes that led to the discoveries. As an example, there are at least two cases in which amazing discoveries came when the scientists were sleep deprived because of the recent birth of children! Here’s our review of Krauss’s talk in Seattle. There’s a weak connection between Krauss and Ethan Siegel; one of Krauss’s earlier books is The Physics of Star Trek (Basic Books, 2007).

4. Vacation Guide to the Solar System

Olivia Koski and Jana Grcevich created the “Intergalactic Travel Bureau,” and their book Vacation Guide to the Solar System: Science for the Savvy Space Traveler! (Penguin Books, 2017) is a travel brochure. Packed with information about what to see from Mercury to Pluto, the guide tricks us into learning something in an entertaining and beautifully illustrated format. They spoke at Town Hall Seattle in June. Here our recap.

5. Earth in Human Hands

David Grinspoon himself wonders how an astrobiologist such as himself wound up writing a book about the human impact on Earth. He figures the more we know about how planets work, the better we can be at making changes to the climate that are for the better. In Earth in Human Hands: Shaping Our Planet’s Future (Grand Central Publishing, 2016) Grinspoon notes that we aren’t the first species to radically change the planet’s climate; the humble cyanobacteria killed off just about everything else on Earth once by adding oxygen to the atmosphere. Grinspoon spoke at the Pacific Science Center last January; here’s our recap of his talk.

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Gift ideas for the astronomically inclined

It’s that time of year again when we start getting questions about what sorts of gifts to give to astronomy buffs. Here are a few great ideas for you.

Year of the eclipse

Eclipse map 2024

Map courtesy Michael Zeiler, GreatAmericanEclipse.com

A solar eclipse was visible all over the country back in August, and the path of totality stretched from coast to coast in the United States. Eclipse mementos would make excellent gifts this year. A great source for them is GreatAmericanEclipse.com, which has a wide selection of eclipse maps, attire, and accessories, and is running discounts this month. Plus it’s never too early to start gearing up for 2024’s eclipse! We interviewed mapmaker Michael Zeiler late last year about his work; check out the article and podcast based on that interview. Zeiler’s maps are gorgeous and suitable for framing.

Sorin Space Art out of Denver offers some marvelous items, including prints of Sorin’s solar eclipse photography. He’s also made some hand-painted tree ornaments depicting the Moon, Sun, and planets, but as of this writing he was running a bit short of supply on those. Sorin also is the proprietor of Astro Box, a quarterly subscription service that delivers space art, writing, apparel, and more four times each year. It’s a cool gift that keeps on giving.

Two Chicks Conspiracy offers a line of artistic belts and accessories. Several of their belts have space-themed designs, and they created a special key fob in commemoration of the 2017 total solar eclipse.

Books

Tyler Nordgren’s book Sun Moon Earth: The History of Solar Eclipses from Omens of Doom to Einstein and Exoplanets (Basic Books, 2016) was on our year-end gift list last year and remains a good pick this time around. It’s a combination of eclipse mythology and history, travelogue, and eclipse science, and is a fine read. Check out our review of the book and our recap of Nordgren’s author talk about it.

Another good read for eclipse year is David Baron’s American Eclipse: A Nation’s Epic Race to Catch the Shadow of the Moon and Win the Glory of the World (Liveright, 2017). Baron’s book is a look back at the American total solar eclipse of 1878 and in particular how main characters Thomas Edison, Maria Mitchell, and James Craig Watson led high-profile eclipse-viewing expeditions to the wild west that helped spark a national interest in science. Baron gave a talk about the book earlier this year. Here’s our recap.

Ethan Siegel‘s book Treknology: The Science of Star Trek from Tricorders to Warp Drive (Voyageur Press, 2017) will please anyone who has been a fan of any of the Star Trek television shows or movies. Check our article and podcast with Siegel about Treknology.

Telescopes

Recommending a gift telescope is tricky business. I’ve written a number of past articles on the topic, and the ideas there still hold true. If you don’t know what to get, a great reference is the Backyard Astronomer’s Guide (Firefly Books, 2008) by Terence Dickinson and Alan Dyer. It’s a marvelous book for walking one through the ‘scope-choosing process, based on one’s astronomical interests. I used it when I first started out in stargazing, and it’s still a valued reference years later.

If you want to get a first-hand look at a variety of different telescopes, including solar scopes that are designed for observing the Sun, it would be worth a trip to Cloud Break Optics in Ballard. They have quite a selection of ‘scopes in their show room and a lot of experience in stargazing and astrophotography. They’re also running a holiday blowout sale on both new and used gear. Cloud Break Optics is a patron of Seattle Astronomy on Patreon.

That said, I will let you know that the Orion eight-inch Dobsonian telescope is my personal scope of choice. It’s easy to use—just take it out to the back yard, point at something, and take a look! With its simple design it also delivers the most visual bang for the telescope buck. This telescope is really not for photography, though I’ve used it to get smartphone pictures of the Moon and the Sun. Other objects like galaxies or nebulae require longer exposures and that means a ‘scope that can track objects to compensate for the Earth’s rotation. That starts to run into a little money.

Binoculars are also a good gift for someone just starting out in astronomy. Get some that are at least 10x power and 50mm in aperture. I have a 10×50 outfit from Orion, and one can see a lot of neat stuff with a good set of binoculars.

Experiences

If you’d rather give experiences than stuff, how about a membership to a local organization? The Pacific Science Center, the Museum of Flight, and the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry often have space- and astronomy-themed exhibits and presentations. Memberships are a good value that keep on giving all year long!

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Solar eclipses and the stature of science

A total solar eclipse that crossed the American West in 1878 helped ignite a great boom in science in the United States. David Baron is hoping that, in an era in which people have to march in the streets in support of science, the total solar eclipse that will cross the nation next month will be similarly inspirational. Baron, a former science editor for National Public Radio, is the author of American Eclipse: A Nation’s Epic Race to Catch the Shadow of the Moon and Win the Glory of the World (Liveright, 2017). He spoke about the book last week at the Pacific Science Center, part of the center’s Science in the City lecture series.

Baron saw his first total solar eclipse from Aruba in 1998.

“I was just dumbfounded,” he said at the sight of the eclipse, which revealed stars in the daytime and Jupiter, Mercury, and Venus. “There, among the planets was this thing; this glorious, bewildering thing. It looked liked a wreath woven from silvery thread and it just hung out there in space, shimmering.”

It was the Sun’s corona, and Baron said the photos you’ve seen don’t do it justice. Soon, the eclipse was over.

“The world returned to normal, but I had changed,” Baron said. “That’s how I became an eclipse chaser.”

He said he decided that day, on the beach in Aruba, that he wanted to write a book about solar eclipses. He also figured 2017 would be the year to release it, with public interest in solar eclipses likely to be at its apex because of this year’s eclipse. So his book has been 19 years in the making. He said the work started in earnest about seven years ago, when he went researching for interesting eclipse stories to tell.

The American eclipse of 1878

Battle Lake markerBaron came upon a historical marker next to Battle Lake in the Wyoming Sierras, which claims that Thomas Edison came up with the idea to use bamboo as a filament for an electric light bulb while fishing at the lake in 1878. Baron found no evidence that this was actually true, but Edison was involved in eclipse watching in Wyoming that summer, for the total solar eclipse of July 29, 1878. The eclipse ran from Montana south down across the American frontier through Texas. At the time, Baron noted, Europeans were the clear leaders in eclipse science.

“Here was America’s chance to shine—or an opportunity to slip up and embarrass ourselves—but if all went well we would show the rest of the world what we were capable of as a scientific nation,” Baron said, “and so the eclipse was a big, national undertaking.” The eclipse and the expeditions to observe it received in-depth coverage in the newspapers.

Edison was among a group that went to Rawlins, Wyoming to view the eclipse. The group included Norman Lockyer, who had discovered helium on the Sun and founded the journal Nature; and James Craig Watson, an astronomer at the University of Michigan, who was in search of the hypothetical planet Vulcan that could explain orbital anomalies of Mercury.

David Baron

Author David Baron spoke about his book American Eclipse on July 19, 2017 at the Pacific Science Center. (Photo: Greg Scheiderer)

Also out west was Maria Mitchell, professor and director of the Vassar College Observatory, who brought a group of Vassar students to Denver to show that women could do science, too. For Edison’s part, he was anxious to test an invention he called the tasimeter, intended to detect minuscule changes in temperature. Astronomers were interested in the device, which might reveal if the Sun’s corona gave off heat.

“These three main characters of mine had a lot on the line,” Baron said, and on the day of the eclipse they declared great success and the press was highly positive, though neither Edison, Watson, nor Mitchell really achieved their set goals.

“Maria Mitchell did help open the doors of science and higher education to women, but it’s not like male scientists suddenly embraced their female counterparts,” Baron noted. “It was the beginning of a long, hard, continuing struggle.”

Watson didn’t find Vulcan, of course; the precession of Mercury’s orbit was explained later through Einstein’s general relativity. Edison’s tasimeter never lived up to the hype. He did head home and start work on the light bulb, though not in the way the Historical Landmark Commission of Wyoming would have you believe.

“The eclipse of 1878 did not illuminate America in the way the historical marker claims,” Baron said. “However it did enlighten America, helping to push this upstart nation toward what it soon would become—the undeniable global superpower in science, a country that would, in this intellectual realm, eclipse the world.”

Learning from history

Baron sees an interesting parallel with next month’s total solar eclipse.

“Once again the Moon’s shadow will visit us at an interesting time in our intellectual development,” he noted. “Today the issue isn’t whether America can rise up and take on the world in science, the question is whether America can maintain its global lead.”

It will undoubtedly be the most widely viewed total solar eclipse in human history. We’ll see whether it has the power to change hearts, minds, and the course of history.


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