Book review: Sun Moon Earth by Tyler Nordgren

Posted by David Eicher
on Friday, November 04, 2016

The cover of Sun Moon Earth by Tyler Nordgren.

Next year’s total solar eclipse over the United States will probably be the most viewed eclipse in history. Traversing from the Pacific Northwest, diagonally across the country to the South Carolina coast, it will trace a shadow that many millions will enjoy viewing. Whether you’re going to be in Jackson Hole or Casper, Wyoming, near Kansas City, or (please say no) staying home, you might want to be well-read on eclipse history before the event. Stories of eclipses past and all they meant to science and to society paint a tremendous picture of humanity, from the primitive old days to understanding solar physics and relativity. 

Few books have been as valuable to eclipse chasers as this one. In Sun Moon Earth: The History of Solar Eclipses from Omens of Doom to Einstein and Exoplanets (239 pp., hardcover, Basic Books, New York, 2016, $27; ISBN 978–0–465–06092–4), astronomer Tyler Nordgren delivers a comprehensive history of the science and cultural fascination with these almost magical events. 

Currently at the University of Redlands in Southern California, Nordgren is a veteran of the U.S. Naval Observatory and Lowell Observatory. 

The book is written in a conversational style, and yet the informational content — explanations of the science, density of great info on early historical tales — is quite satisfying. We learn about early observations of eclipses and the fear and mythology they engendered among ancient Chinese, Babylonian, Maya, Greek, and Roman observers, among many others. The historical stories set a brisk pace for the remainder of the book that follows. 

Nordgren skillfully whisks through orbital mechanics and the geometry of why eclipses occur, and then describes the relationship of eclipses to modern physics, culminating in the 1919 eclipse that tested general relativity, wherein Einstein won. 

The book then explores the sophisticated relationships between Saros cycles before looking toward the so-called Great American Eclipse of 2017, and even beyond to other future eclipses. 

This is a work that eclipse chasers, particularly those set on experiencing next year’s show, will want on their bookshelves. It is a niftily written narrative that will entertain, inform, and get your juices flowing for next year’s big event. 

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