Some Candid Thoughts by R. Peter Broughton, author of 'Northern Star: J.S. Plaskett'

Guest post by R. Peter Broughton, author of Northern Star: J.S. Plaskett

As a retired high-school math teacher, I fall into no particular camp. I’m not a scientist, an astronomer, or a historian. But perhaps, with no particular axe to grind and at my advanced age, I am oddly suited to bring some new viewpoints to bear on writing a historical biography of an astronomer.

As far as astronomy goes, some of my professors, including the renowned Helen Hogg, actually knew Plaskett. The equipment he used as well as the techniques and methods that were familiar to him were still current. But it was only after a course in the history of mathematics that I took as part of a master’s degree a few years later that I began to see the unity of the humanities and the sciences. I began to feel that, by reading extensively, I could learn what interested me. Encouraged by Professor Kenneth O. May, I thought that eventually I might make my own contributions to knowledge.

Fortunately for me there was a means to do so. I had joined the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada as an undergraduate and over subsequent years held virtually every office in the Society, giving me a broader understanding of the great variety of attitudes, backgrounds, and challenges faced by this subset of Canadians. Though I found that the RASC Journal and monthly lectures by experts provided a means of keeping in touch with some of the recent developments in astronomy, I realized that it would be through the history of the subject that I would try to make my mark. Boldly I thought there were few significant developments in Canadian astronomy before the twentieth century, so it would not be a preposterous goal to attain familiarity with the entire history of astronomy in Canada. Of course science really knows no boundaries, so I was inevitably drawn to explore some topics on a broader scale.

Writing for the RASC Journal had its rewards. I was able to address topics that interested me and in the process found at least a few encouraging readers and sympathetic friends. This experience gave me the confidence to write for other journals as diverse as Annals of Science and Journal of Geophysical Research, and eventually to write two books, Looking Up: A History of the RASC and Northern Star: J.S. Plaskett.

My hope is that this biography of John Stanley Plaskett will appeal to a very wide audience. The astronomical community is already familiar with Plaskett as one of a fairly small group of astronomers to make major contributions to the science in the first half of the twentieth century. For such readers, this book will flesh out Plaskett’s personality and provide pertinent illustrations of how he managed to become so highly-regarded at home and abroad. Amateur astronomers, who often like to read (on cloudy nights) about the accomplishments of a former generation, will appreciate Plaskett’s rise from humble roots to international acclaim. He achieved fame for himself and his country by learning on the job, and without ever taking a formal course in astronomy. But I really hope this book will reach beyond those aficionados of astronomy to a broader audience.

I do think the Canadian public thirsts for stories of national heroes. For decades, professional historians have largely derided such figures as elitist, preferring to focus on down-trodden minorities or those whose experience or impact has been localized. So says one of the few notable exceptions, Jack Granatstein in Who Killed Canadian History? Moreover, he writes, these historians in academe often write in a turgid style admired only by their colleagues. Fortunately, there have been counter examples. One shining example is Michael Bliss’s biography of Sir Frederick Banting, published by the University of Toronto Press in 1984 with a second edition in 1992.

Though Plaskett cannot be credited with saving countless lives as did his contemporary, Banting, he did, along with Banting and a handful of others, put Canada on the international radar as a country making serious advances in scientific knowledge. Before the First World War, Canada was a backwater in the arts as well. It took pioneers like Lucy Maud Montgomery and the Group of Seven to bring awareness to the world that important advances were occurring in the vast land north of the 49th parallel.

Finally, and in my opinion, most importantly, I hope that this book will break down some barriers. I would be delighted if humanists realized that they can learn the ways of science from the biography of an astronomer. Scientists may appreciate the value of history when they see how personal, political, and economic forces shape their working lives. Perhaps professional historians may see the value in writing for a broad audience, and writers of creative non-fiction may understand that there is no need to embroider the facts.

I should not kid myself. Five years after Bliss’s second edition of Banting: a Biography came out, an Angus Reid poll found that only 11 percent of Canadians between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four knew that Banting had won the Nobel Prize in medicine for his discovery of insulin. If that’s the best that an outstanding writer and historian could achieve, I will be amazed and delighted if 11 percent of Canadians of any age come to recognize the name of John Stanley Plaskett as Canada’s founding astronomer.

R. Peter Broughton was president of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada from 1992 to 1994. His service and extensive writing on the history of astronomy led the International Astronomical Union to name a minor planet in his honour.