Simanaitis Says

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ON JULY 29, 1878, a total eclipse of the sun swept across the western United States, and not without scientific and geopolitical implications. David Baron’s book American Eclipse focuses on three scientists and their involvement with the 1878 eclipse. In some ways, each of James Craig Watson, Thomas Edison, and Maria Mitchell succeeded; in other ways, less so. Internet sleuthing expanded this book review to Part 1 today and Part 2 tomorrow.

Physics professor Jennifer Carson’s “The Sun Spotters” is a review of this book in Science magazine, July 17, 2017, published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Carson writes, “The total eclipse … was an opportunity for the nation’s scientists to prove their prowess, both to themselves and to a Europe dismissive of the country’s scientific potential. In Britain, France, and Germany, private societies, government agencies, and public universities promoted scientific excellence, but science in a nonelitist democracy needs the support of the people.” Indeed, many thought the world’s best scientists were those with European educations.

James Craig Watson, 1838–1880, Canadian-American astronomer, Director of the Ann Arbor Observatory, principal in astronomical observation expeditions supported by the U.S. government.

James Craig Watson was a well-known hunter of astroids who sought in 1878 to prove existence of Vulcan, a planet closer to the Sun than Mercury and causing the latter’s unusual orbit.

During the 1878 eclipse, Watson believed he had two Vulcan sightings, though in retrospect this is not without controversy. Maybe it was an astroid, Watson’s speciality; maybe, as most believe today, Mercury’s odd behavior can be explained by Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity. My money is on Einstein and a non-flat Earth.

According to Wikipedia, Watson “had amassed a considerable amount of money through non-astronomical business activities. By bequest, he established the James Craig Watson Medal, awarded every two years by the National Academy of Sciences for contributions to astronomy.”

So, despite Watson’s Vulcan disappointment, today’s portion of our Eclipse of ’78 tale seems to have a happy ending. Tomorrow we’ll see how Thomas Edison and Maria Mitchell will fare. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2017

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