How to capture an eclipse of the sun

Charles Babbage - inventor of the computer - sends out a team to photograph a rare shadow

Shadows have sat in the shade of a dark reputation for a long time. Plato disparages the material world as a mere shadow. The Psalmist promises comfort even in the shadow of the valley of death. We all want to defend our reputations beyond the shadow of a doubt.

But, in fact, we'd be in the dark without shadows. Though so commonplace as to seem unimportant, they help infants develop a sense of spatial dimension. Until recently, shadows were all we had to tell time. Understanding their behavior allowed painters finally to put things in perspective. And they've played a crucial role in the development of astronomy.

The biggest shadow in the world - a lunar eclipse - is the subject of Max Byrd's entertaining new story, "Shooting the Sun." Best known for a series of novels about American presidents, Byrd turns his attention this time to the bombastic British mathematician Charles Babbage (1791-1871).

Among his many projects, Babbage was determined to build a commercially viable computer, a "difference engine," that could automate the tedious and error-prone process of calculating tables used by navigators, astronomers, and engineers. Though he made a number of technological and theoretical breakthroughs, the financing and mechanics of the machine would never compute.

As a novelist, Byrd steps into that struggle and imagines Babbage and a shady partner launching a publicity stunt of astronomical proportions to garner venture capital for their difference engine. Babbage announces that his machine has predicted that a total eclipse will take place at 2:15 p.m. on Sept. 5, 1840, in the unexplored American Southwest.

To prove the accuracy and usefulness of his device, he assembles an international team to sail to America, ride into the wasteland, and photograph this celestial confirmation of his genius.

Most of the plot concerns the risky wagon trail ride from Washington to a spot near Santa Fe, but Byrd takes too long before setting out. Any editor should be suspicious when Chapter 13 is called "Ready to Begin." The exposition is thick with curious historical details about the young nation's capital and politics, photography, astronomy, navigation, mathematics, and art. Much of this is entertaining; some of it is merely stalling.

Also, the explorers arrive one by one for their adventure, but these schematically designed characters don't need such elaborate introductions. Where are Ricardo Montalban and Tattoo when we need them? "Look boss, de wagon, de wagon!"

By the time they finally set off in search of the eclipse, we've got these four men pegged: the dashing leader, who's a little bit of a dandy, with a deadly secret; the effete Harvard professor, who'll do anything to prove he doesn't need Mr. Babbage's newfangled machine; the chiseled guide, who just wants to get back to exploring Africa; and the temperamental painter, who knows the soulless camera could never capture what he sees.

Fortunately, they all revolve around a truly interesting character, a brilliant mathematician and photographer named Miss Selena Cott. Experimenting in France with the newly invented camera of Louis Daguerre, this young woman has invented a secret way to speed up the exposure time (from many minutes to 20 seconds) and take pictures of shadows. And, of course, she's gorgeous.

Several members of the team object repeatedly to her presence, and friends terrify her with warnings of what horrors she'll face in the desert, but she bolsters her courage with "the crisp, cool new word much in use, 'scientist.' " Much of the humor along the way stems from Selena's clever retorts to the tedious chauvinism she endures from these men, whose professional identities are so threatened by her sex. There's a strong feminist theme running through this story that points to social reprogramming more complex than anything calculated by a future "difference engine."

Of course, troubles dog the entire 2,000-mile trip. Some team members are not prepared for anything more strenuous than a voyage to the parlor. The logistics of such a voyage were staggeringly complex, and the odds of success depressingly low. In addition to providing food and water, they must keep their horses alive, navigate with vague maps, repair the wagons, avoid threatening Indians, and somehow maintain state-of-the-art equipment that must work flawlessly for the first time when the heavens align.

Byrd maintains interest not only with a steady stream of fascinating historic detail and some comic sexual tension between these intrepid eclipse hunters, but also by hopping back periodically to Charles Babbage's salon, where the eccentric inventor is continuing to proclaim his machine's wonders. "If you reason by analogy," Babbage tells a crowd of enraptured ladies, "miracles in nature - the parting of the Red Sea, for example, Joshua's halting of the sun in the middle of the sky - are not necessarily violations of natural law, but the carrying out of a higher law, God's law, as yet unknown to us."

Back in the scorching Southwestern desert, five lost adventurers start to hope for a miracle of their own. Bickering and running out of water, they finally realize (or reveal) that the real purpose of their trip is not at all as advertised. As others' dark intentions begin to eclipse Selena's hopes for success, she sees only one risky way out.

Academics might wag a hoary finger at this history as pop corn, but Byrd has great fun with it, and so do we. Besides, all along this fictional adventure, he's left a trail of irresistible tidbits about the development of the territory, the technology, and the culture of the 19th century. And he makes perfectly clear that science has never been any more dispassionate or objective than the people carrying it out.

Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail comments to Ron Charles.

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