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Reading List: America, Are you Ready for the Solar Eclipse?

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We’ve got our pinhole cameras ready, the party kits prepared, and all the safety precautions in place. One of the natural world’s most arresting phenomena, a solar eclipse, will unfold over much of North America on August 21, 2017. A wide swath of North America including the US states of Idaho and South Carolina will be treated to a total solar eclipse, where the moon will completely cover the sun, and much of the rest of the country will be in line to see a partial one as well. Given that it’s been hundreds of years since North America was exclusively in the path of such a grand spectacle, many are headed to special viewing parties to witness the once-in-a-lifetime event.

While a total solar eclipse is certainly one of the most dazzling astronomical events, it certainly is by no means the only one that captures writers’ imaginations. In these books, both nonfiction and fiction, natural phenomena and the study of them anchor the plot in unusual and imaginative ways. So whether you’re one of the lucky ones who gets to view the eclipse in its dazzling entirety or will miss the event altogether, you can at least dive into great books that promises to spirit you away to one of the natural world’s many wonders.

American Eclipse

Rewind to more than two hundred years ago when a total solar eclipse once again fired up the imaginations of American astronomers and scientists. It was July 1878 and the nascent American nation was still carving out its identity. Quite a few of the intellectual elite were convinced that scientific ambitions of an equally dazzling kind would be realized by this astronomical event. So it was that a group of intrepid scientists set out to study the eclipse by racing to the top of the Rockies. As the eclipse moved from Montana to Texas, it shed light on naked ambition and pride just as much as it did on the mysteries that lay tucked into the dark recesses of the universe.

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Sun Moon Earth

The 2017 eclipse might have the curious and the excited public booking hotel rooms along the anticipated event’s path but there used to be a time when an eclipse was met with a lot of trepidation and as a harbinger of bad news. This delightful delve into history explores how different cultures from the Mayans to our more contemporary ones interpreted the wonders of the skies. Even the lay reader will find plenty of meaty tidbits here to satiate their appetite for the best of science, including a peek at astronomy in the age of Columbus to the current craze of “coronophiles,” enthusiasts who chase eclipses all around the world.

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The Weather Experiment

As unpredictable as the skies might have seemed to our ancestors when an eclipse passed through, the daily tribulations of the weather were no joke either especially as fortunes rose and fell depending on the vagaries of weather and climate. After the Enlightenment when it seemed like the natural phenomena tied to weather could be reasonably explained, a few brave souls ventured further and argued that tomorrow’s skies could be predicted today. Subject to ridicule and haunted by failure (Admiral Robert FitzRoy committed suicide while his methods formed the basis of today’s forecasts) these scientists laid the foundation of contemporary meteorology. From Luke Howard who classified the clouds to Francis Beaufort who quantified the winds, many were fascinated by the skies as this lively narrative nonfiction account shows.

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The Universe Within

There’s a connection between the cells within our bodies and the planets and the larger universe around us. If this premise gives you pause, you can at least trust that reputed paleontologist and evolutionary biologist Neil Shubin will make his case eloquently and connect the missing dots efficiently. The eclipse might have us looking at the skies with wonder but this book argues that there is wonder within each of us. At times the tour of science from the start of the Big Bang can be dizzying but the connections that are set out so neatly are well worth the journey. Digest as little or as much as you can in one sitting, this is a book that is meant to be savored at leisure.

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The Blind Astronomer's Daughter

Set in Ireland during the Age of Enlightenment, this historical fiction novel focuses on how celestial ambitions can be rooted in the pettiest of emotions. In England, William Herschel is on track to discover a planet but his momentous achievement fans the flames of jealousy in Arthur Ainsworth who has blinded himself staring at the sun and stars to find something of value in the universe. Supporting this team of rivals are two women who are recruited for scientific mapping and tasks that will further knowledge of the stars. Toss in a star-crossed love story into the mix and you have a recipe for a novel that has all the hallmarks of a fun and informative romp.

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Poornima Apte is an award-winning Boston-based writer and editor with a passion for books. She is happiest when her bedside stash of books resembles a Jenga pile.

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