What do Newcomb, Twain, Mayr, and Crosby have in common? No, they aren’t a 60s folk rock band. The answer is that they all tell us something interesting about the cultural power of the eclipse.
|28 March 2006 Solar Eclipse, courtesy of NASA|
“Were our knowledge of the whole world, including, including every man in it, complete in every particular, and were we able to apply this knowledge at every moment, we might imagine ourselves to predict all economic phenomena by this method much as the astronomer predicts the motions of the planets.” (272)
Apart from this renewal of Laplace’s demonic(!) dreams, he envisioned organizing American society around scientific thinking. As Stanley puts it, “he thought science was a necessary part of citizenship and social progress. If the American people could be trained in science, the country could be improved immeasurably.”(273)
One of the inheritors of Newcomb’s faith was a passionate reader “in popular science, particularly astronomy,” Mark Twain. (275) In a famous passage from A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, Twain uses an eclipse to advance his plot. The Yankee headlining the book, who magically travels back in time from the nineteenth to the sixth century, happens to have past eclipse dates memorized. This allows him to conjure up a test to confirm what the “lunatics” were telling him, that the year he found himself in was in fact 538. It also provides him with a tool to free himself from a death sentence: he says he will blot out the sun, and then he does. Quaking with fear from his powers, King Arthur grants him the title Sir Boss, and the story goes from there.
Twain, like Newcomb, understood there to be a fundamental difference between scientific thinking and pre-scientific thinking. That’s what makes Ernst Mayr’s later story so wonderful. Here it is, from the Museum of Comparative Zoology’s “informal chronology“:
1928 [Mayr] Leads ornithological expeditions to Dutch New Guinea and German Mandated New Guinea. An experience that fulfilled “the greatest ambition of [his] youth.” Collected ca. 7000 bird skins in two and a half years. Dr. Mayr recently recounted an anecdote concerning these expeditions that illustrates the playful side of the scientist: He tried to increase his standing with the New Guinea natives by using a trick employed in Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Upon learning from his almanac that a lunar eclipse was about to occur, Mayr announced to the tribe, through an interpreter, that the moon was about to totally darken. Unlike Twain’s characters, however, they were not impressed, and the elderly chief said to Dr. Mayr, “Don’t worry, my son, it will soon get light again.”
Mayr inadvertently tested Twain’s ideas about scientific thinking (and maybe Newcomb’s too, although we probably shouldn’t blame Newcomb for Twain). Those ideas failed spectacularly and hilariously.
Mayr relied on an almanac instead of memory, which strikes me as more sensible and plausible. Hollywood must have thought so too. In the movie version of A Connecticut Yankee, Bing Crosby also consults his pocket almanac to discover the timing of the eclipse. Newcomb, an almanac maker, would have approved. Still, I think there’s an important distinction here. Newcomb made a specialized nautical almanac, a self-consciously scientific document—indeed, a kind of proto-Big Science. Crosby’s Sir Boss draws on an older tradition of texts (if my memory serves right), the farmer’s almanac: one part modern science and one part early modern miscellany, an amalgam of new thinking and folk wisdom.