Book review: Eclipse: The Celestial Phenomenon That Changed the Course of History

Photograph of an Eclipse

Eclipse by Duncan SteelEclipse: The Celestial Phenomenon That Changed the Course of History
by Duncan Steel
Published by Joseph Henry Press (October 15, 2001)
Buy it at: Amazon

The best trivia

  • You’ve seen the trick in bad movies and corny books: using knowledge of an eclipse to appear to have magical powers. It’s not just fiction—Columbus actually used his knowledge of the eclipse to convince Jamaicans that he had incredible powers.
  • We’re losing the moon to space. Each year, the moon recedes about an inch and a half from the Earth.
  • Thomas Edison was an eclipse fan. At 31, he invented a tasimeter to measure infrared radiation emitted by the sun.

The mystery and magic of hidden light

Most of us have two main impressions about eclipses: they’re amazing and they can blind you. Duncan Steel’s book adds historical and scientific context to that childhood wonder.

The eclipse has mystified every civilization in both its lunar and solar varieties, and Steel provides a scrapbook of entertaining stories about eclipses. In one chapter, Columbus is fooling natives; in the next, Tecumseh is putting one over on the Americans. Steel’s broad historical survey of eclipses is fascinating because it touches on the coincidences, guile, and plain old luck that can shape history.

The book is not just a historical survey, however. Steel also fits in scientific information about eclipses (there’s even a glossary in the back). The facts are entertaining, and it’s worthwhile to learn that a blue moon actually happens about every 32 months. Occasionally, the scientific and historical mashup can make the book seem unstructured—this is a comprehensive study rather than a book with a clear shape. But that sense of mystery fits subject matter that has confounded people for centuries and continues to do so today.

What the book is

Eclipse is a collection of historical stories involving eclipses, as well as an overview of the astronomy behind them (from lunar and solar eclipses to those that happen elsewhere in the galaxy).

What the book isn’t

Eclipse is for people who love eclipses and astronomy. It’s not a generalist piece about the cultural effects of eclipses, but rather a collection of interesting stories and information about them.

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