David Baron has been chasing eclipses for almost 20 years. His first total solar eclipse — when the Moon fully blocks the Sun from sight, turning day into night — was in 1998, in Aruba. The experience convinced him to travel the world to catch more eclipses. “I really didn’t know what a big deal it would be,” says Baron, a science writer. “It was so moving, almost psychedelic. I just decided I wanted to experience it again.”
Since 1998, Baron has traveled to Europe, Australia, and Indonesia to witness five total solar eclipses. And on August 21st of this year, he’ll climb nearly 11,000 feet to the top of Rendezvous Peak in the Teton Mountains in Wyoming, to witness the first total solar eclipse crossing the US from coast to coast since 1918. He’s not alone: eclipse chasers all over the world travel wherever they can to get a fleeting glimpse of the celestial phenomenon. This month’s eclipse is expected to draw millions of people.
The experience can be addictive, Baron says. A total solar eclipse lasts only a few minutes — just a couple minutes on August 21st, depending where you are — but those few minutes can give you a “feeling of incredible connection to the universe,” he says. During a total solar eclipse, the day turns into night, and all of a sudden you can see the planets appear in the sky. You can also see the Sun’s wispy outer atmosphere, called the corona, the jets of light and rays shot into the surrounding universe. “It’s just the most breathtakingly beautiful, I daresay, glorious sight in the heavens,” Baron says.
Eclipse chasers have been around for a long time, and we have good records of who attempted to catch more recent eclipses. In 1860, a group of scientists traveled by train, stagecoach, wagon, steamboat, and canoe for 47 days to witness a total solar eclipse in today’s central Manitoba, Canada. (Unfortunately, clouds covered the entire eclipse.) In 1870, Frenchman Jules Janssen escaped Paris by balloon during a Prussian siege to reach Algeria and witness a total solar eclipse there.
Baron writes about these, and other, eclipse-chasing adventures in a new book, called American Eclipse. The book focuses on the eclipse of 1878, which crossed the US from Montana to Texas. Among the eclipse chasers this time were astronomer Maria Mitchell, who wanted to show the world that women could be scientists; and a young Thomas Edison, who yearned to prove his scientific worth. (He spent eclipse day testing an improbable instrument called the tasimeter, which was designed to measure the heat emitted by the Sun’s corona.)
The 1878 eclipse proved to be an important one for the US: it allowed a young country to prove that its burgeoning scientific community was capable of doing serious scientific research. And it inspired thousands of regular Americans to become interested in science: many flocked to Denver, buying blue or smoked glass to stare at the Sun as the Moon hovered over it; on Pikes Peak, Colorado, dozens picnicked as they waited for the eclipse. Crowds cheered loudly once the Sun became completely covered. Baron says he’s experienced the same collective cheering while watching a total solar eclipse in Munich in 1999.
“Eclipses, I find, connect the present with the past like few other natural events,” Baron writes at the end of American Eclipse. “For me, personally, they are life milestones. Each forces me to reflect on who I was the last time I gazed at the corona. For us, collectively — as a society, a nation, a civilization — they can have the same indelible, life-affirming effect. They afford a change not only to grasp the majesty and power of nature, but to wonder at ourselves — who we are, and who were were when the same shadow long ago touched this finite orb in the boundless void.”
Ahead of this month’s total solar eclipse, The Verge talked to Baron about eclipse chasing, his book, and whether this year’s total solar eclipse will be as important as the one in 1878.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
We know what drives scientists to chase eclipses. But what about regular people?
It is just the most jaw-droppingly beautiful and spectacularly moving experience I’ve ever had, and certainly a lot of people feel the same way. Even though it is so brief, it’s like nothing else you’ve ever experienced and so for a lot of folks, it can become an addiction. You just want to have that experience again, that feeling of incredible connection to the universe.
Who’s your typical eclipse chaser?
A number of eclipse chasers are kind of the traditional group of amateur astronomers, folks who go with their telescopes and their solar filters and really like the scientific aspects of it. They’re not studying it, but they’re taking photos with their fancy cameras and stuff like that. But then you’ve got other folks — and I would put myself in their camp — who just find it exciting and moving and beautiful. And that can be anyone who may have seen their first solar eclipse by accident, or they were just going along with a friend who really wanted to see it and were unexpectedly moved by the experience. There is a wonderful, wonderful video that was produced by some Australian TV program about this mother-daughter pair who chase eclipses. It just captures what I’m trying to say: it makes you feel alive and part of the universe and something you just want to share with people you love.
Have you bumped into the same eclipse chasers over and over?
I haven’t personally, but it’s hard often, because if a total eclipse goes over a large section of land, people will be spread out. But when I was in Indonesia last year, I was traveling around with a Canadian eclipse chaser whom I’d met online and we intentionally hooked up on the island of Belitung, Indonesia, and rented a car together. As we were driving around the island, he happened upon an American eclipse chaser whom he hadn’t seen in 15 years, who he had last seen in Ghana at a previous total eclipse. And he recognized that guy. So it definitely happens; it has yet to happen to me.
Where did you meet the Canadian guy?
There are a couple of places where eclipse chasers can kind of hang out or meet up with each other. There’s this very active listserv called SEML, Solar Eclipse Mailing List. Whenever a total eclipse or even partial eclipse is coming up, folks will be talking about where they’ll be going. It provides tips on hotels or travel or the best place for clear skies. It’s a way for eclipse chasers to kind of fuel each other’s enthusiasm. There’s also eclipse-chasers.com. The most interesting aspect is there’s an eclipse chaser log. So after you’ve seen a total eclipse, you can have your own log entry and you can update it, marking on Google Maps precisely where you were, counting whether you had clear skies, cloudy skies, and how many minutes, seconds, and tens of seconds you were in the Moon’s shadow. And it all gets added to the running tally, so if you go to the eclipse chaser log, you can see who’s in first [place] in terms of total eclipses, or total time in the shadow of the Moon. I’m way down the list somewhere.
It kind of reminds me of what birders do with their life lists. I’m not part of the birding community, but I think there’s both an aspect of collegiality and also competition in terms of who’s got the longer life list. There’s a bit of that in the eclipse chasing, too. Everyone really wants success for everyone else, but you also kind of like the fact that you’ve seen more total eclipses or you had better success than somebody else.
What drove you to see your first total eclipse?
That was May 1994, when there was a partial eclipse that was going to cross the US. In the course of reporting on that eclipse, I interviewed the astronomer Jay Pasachoff from Williams College, and he was emphasizing that even a very interesting partial eclipse is nothing compared to a solar eclipse. And he said to me, “Before you die, you owe it to yourself to see a total eclipse.” And I took it seriously. I took a book out of the library or I bought a book about total eclipses, and I noticed that, in a few years, there was going to be one crossing Aruba in February, and it just seemed like a no-brainer that I should go to Aruba and see what he was talking about. That’s what got me to see my first total eclipse.
During that trip to Aruba, you got the idea to write a book about total solar eclipses. Why did you decide to make Edison such a central character in the book?
Really, my excitement for this story began with Thomas Edison. I was looking at various eclipses that might be worth writing a book about, but when I discovered that Thomas Edison — in the very year right after he invented the phonograph, and immediately before he invented the light bulb — had gone to Wyoming to see a total eclipse, I thought, well, there’s gotta be a story here. This is a key year in Edison’s life, and here he is out in the Wild West. It’s been written about so little. If you read any Edison biography, it will mention maybe in a paragraph that, oh and by the way, in the summer of 1878, Edison took a vacation, went out West, saw a total eclipse, and then he came back.
If Edison hadn’t gone West in 1878 to see the eclipse, it is quite likely he would not have been the one to invent the first successful light bulb. In his time in the West, he was with these other academic scientists who were encouraging him to take on the problem of electric lightning. But more than that, when Edison went West for the eclipse of 1878, when he was going to do his own experiments during the eclipse, he was mastering his skills at public relations. He had the newspapermen wrapped around his little finger. And that was a key skill that was critical to his success with the light bulb, to be able to keep the press on his side, to get investors excited about what he was working on during those long, hard months when honestly he didn’t know what he was doing, but he was trying to tell the world that he had solved the problem of electric lighting. I just love Edison as a character. He was such a colorful, folksy genius.
I particularly love your descriptions of Maria Mitchell, and her struggle to be accepted in the scientific community. When did you first hear about her?
I’m embarrassed to say frankly how little I knew of all of the characters in my book, except for Thomas Edison, prior to working on the book. I’d heard of Maria Mitchell but I really knew very little of her. But as I discovered, she was very prominent back in the 19th century and even in the early part of the 20th century. When I learned that she had taken this all-female expedition to Denver in 1878, which obviously was quite remarkable for the time, I was immediately taken by her. I was able to find enough material, because a lot was written about her and her expedition. People were really impressed by what she did. And she gave lectures about that expedition. She brings a whole different context to the 1878 eclipse — that this wasn’t just a scientific event, it really was a cultural event, both in terms of America embracing science and deciding that science was something that this democratic nation should get behind, but also in terms of changing American culture in some way, about how we think about science and scientists. And Maria Mitchell showing what women could do was part of that.
Do you think this year’s total eclipse will be as important as the one in 1878?
That’s a good question. As important, I don’t know. I do think it will be a bigger deal than anyone imagines right now. First of all, it will be a bigger deal in terms of just the press attention it’s going to get, and public attention and tourists going into the path of totality and the number of people who will find it a life-changing experience. I guarantee you, it’s going to be huge.
It’s going to inspire some small but significant chunk of young people to want to become scientists. You reached me on my book tour. At one of my earlier stops in Philadelphia, I spoke at the library there, and after my talk with a young man, probably in his 20s, came up to me. In my talk, I had discussed my experience of the total eclipse in Aruba and what a dramatic, life-changing experience it was for me. He was five years old at the time of the eclipse, he lived in Venezuela and the same eclipse went over Venezuela. And the guy, he was wearing a T-shirt from the European Center for Nuclear Research — CERN — and he said, “You know, that eclipse is what inspired me to become a physicist.” He intentionally wanted to emphasize that the point I made in my talk, that this coming eclipse could really inspire kids to get into science, was absolutely true. That’s what happened to him in 1998.
You’ve seen five total solar eclipses since 1998. Have you missed any?
I’ve missed quite a few. Some I missed for very good reasons, because they just went over Antarctica. After I saw my first two in ‘98 and ‘99, I had other priorities for my life and I kind of put eclipse chasing on hold for a while. So for about 10 years, I was doing other things. And it was as I was getting older, as I was sort of coming to grips with my own mortality, that I decided to take it up again. My mother died very young, at age 48. Obviously that was very hard for me, I was in my early 20s at the time. But it was really surprising [that] as I reached my mid-40s, it really struck me hard. It just really put me in touch with how much of life she missed out and how I can’t take for granted how many years I have left. And it was really because of that, I reflected on what’s important to me. And looking back over the years on what was meaningful, I kept coming back to that experience in Aruba and how that really was one of the most meaningful experiences of my life. And I decided, if I’m going to every eclipse I reasonably can, I’m still not going to see that many in the rest of my life. So I decided in my mid 40s that I was going to make eclipse chasing a priority. If I could reasonably get to a total eclipse with a reasonable chance of seeing it, that I would go. So I really picked it up again starting in 2012, when I went to Australia.
Do you plan to keep doing this?
Oh yeah, absolutely. I definitely intend to go to South America in 2019 and 2020. Those total eclipses will both cross the middle of Chile and Argentina, one in the winter and one in the summer. And then, the next one after that I think it’s not a very convenient one, that one goes to Antarctica. But then after that, the one in 2024 will cross the US, so I’ll definitely see that one. But the one I’m really looking forward to — so I hope I’ll be around for it — it’s August 12th, 2045. That one will cross Colorado. That will last over six minutes, and that would be just great. That’s a darn good one.
It’s so far away in the future it’s hard to think about it.
Normally, in astronomical terms, we talk about next week, next month, next year, but total eclipses happen on a much more leisurely [time scale], and so when you think in terms of total solar eclipses you talk about many years into the future. Eclipse chasing makes you look at time in a whole different way.