Author Interviews

  • 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.

  • In Conversation with Roberta Johnson and Silvia Bermudez

    Silvia Bermudez and Roberta Johnson are the editors of A New History of Iberian Feminisms

    Interviewer: Tell us more about what inspired both of you to start this project?

    Silvia and Roberta: Neither of us was encouraged to study literature by our families, as they were more practically minded. Fortunately, we persisted and eventually, after studying and publishing mostly on canonical male writers, we in our separate areas of specialization (Silvia in poetry; Roberta in the novel) came to write on female authors. We have known each other for many years and through our mutual participation in the University of California Iberian Studies Working Group hit upon the idea of co-editing a volume on feminism in the Iberian Peninsula that included Portugal and considered the major linguistic territories of Spain--Castile, the Basque Provinces, Catalonia, and Galicia.

    I: When did you start work on it?

    S&R: Thinking about the project began in 2012 when the first UC Iberian Working Group meeting took place at UC, Davis, and continued at the second meeting at UCSB in 2013. By the third meeting at UC, Davis, Silvia had agreed to co-edit, and we set about finding scholars to write on different periods and territories. We ended up with a fabulous team of dedicated and knowledgeable scholars from the US, England, Spain, Portugal, and New Zealand. These scholars were enthusiastic about the project and were instrumental in moving it forward. It was a real sisterhood of scholars that brought the book to fruition.

    I: What do you find most interesting about your area of research?

    S&R: We are fascinated by the stories of women who in other periods when independence for women was not taken for granted managed to live full creative lives despite the many obstacles they faced, especially in conservative, Catholic countries like Spain and Portugal. The differences in women's experiences in Spain and Portugal was also a revelation. We have been able to travel through time and space and "converse" with extraordinary writers from other periods and places.

    I: What do you wish other people knew about your area of research?

    S&R: We think feminist scholars of other national entities--the US, Britain, France, Italy, or Germany--would find Spanish feminism significantly different from that of the countries they study, and we hope they will want to include Spain in their courses and research now that in this book they have the tools to do so. We are passionate about our subject and are anxious to share our work with students, fellow scholars, and the general public.

    I: What’s the most surprising thing you discovered during the course of your research?

    S&R: We were struck by the importance of class issues inherent in the many ideological disagreements among Iberian feminist positions, and we were especially surprised to learn how well organized Basque feminists are and how cohesive and well developed their feminist research is.

    I: What did you learn from writing your book?

    S&R: We learned many details about feminism in other periods and all areas of the Iberian Peninsula that we did not know before, especially women writing feminist essays in the eighteenth century. Contrary to erroneous assumptions, women throughout the Spanish territories and Portugal were committed from early on to equal rights and advancing women's participation in the public sphere.

    I: What do you like to read for pleasure? What are you currently reading?

    S&R: Silvia reads mystery/detective novels and biographies and is currently reading Leonardo Da Vinci and The Silent Wife. Roberta reads current fiction and non-fiction in Spanish and English. Right now she is reading Fire and Fury and Sapiens.

    I: If you weren’t working in academia, what would you be doing instead?

    S&R: Silvia would be a tour guide, and Roberta would run a horse stables or ranch.

    Silvia Bermúdez is a professor in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

    Roberta Johnson is professor emerita of Spanish at the University of Kansas and adjunct professor of Spanish at the University of Kansas.

  • Hanni Woodbury on Documenting an Endangered Language

    Guest post by Hanni Woodbury, author of A Reference Grammar of the Onondaga Language

    Onondaga is one of many extremely endangered Native American languages that survive now mainly because of the dedicated efforts by younger men and women who have memories of learning their ancestors' languages informally from their parents, grandparents, or elders in the community, and who, as English began to become the primary language spoken in their community, have dedicated themselves to keeping their language alive by developing extensive language programs for their communities.

    Why should we document an endangered language? There are many reasons, but here are the main ones:
    • because a language in many ways is a store of its speakers' knowledge;
    • because a language helps to express the cultural system of its speakers;
    • because speakers can use their language to express their identities;
    • and, finally, because teachers and students in language programs – in the absence, increasingly, of the older speakers – must depend on the secondhand record that thorough documentation provides to keep their language alive.

    The data used to document a language should, wherever possible, be a corpus of natural and spontaneous speech that is created by fluent speakers of the language. Because at this time, all speakers of Onondaga are also fluent speakers of English, it is especially important to use textual materials – stories, conversations, performances of speeches, etc. – for the purpose of documentation and to minimize the use of elicited data for fear that there might be interference from speakers' familiarity with English. The goal is to describe the language from data that represent the flow of language uninterrupted by suggestions from English.

    The Iroquoian family of languages divides into two branches, a northern and a southern one. The six surviving northern languages are Onondaga, Mohawk, Oneida, Cayuga, Seneca and Tuscarora. The single language representing the southern branch is Cherokee. Today's two dialects of Onondaga exist in two locations: at Six Nations of the Grand River First Nations Reserve, near Brantford Ontario, Canada and at Onondaga Nation, which is located just south of Syracuse, NY, in the United States.

    I have been involved in the task of documenting the Onondaga language ever since the early 1970s. Writing the reference grammar has been the final step in this effort. Earlier work consists of a dictionary (also published by the University of Toronto Press), and numerous published and unpublished texts with their translations.

    Linguists have various methods of creating a record that will help to describe a language fully. The classic method is the one I have used: it involves a great deal of fieldwork with as many speakers of the language as possible, recording and transcribing the field sessions, asking speakers to tell stories, speeches, and recording conversations among speakers, in addition to gathering detailed information that zeros in on those aspects that are especially distinctive of the language. Beyond fieldwork, it involves scouring libraries for all sorts of published and archived materials. Eventually these records are analyzed linguistically and organized in three major ways, as a group of texts with translations, as a dictionary and as a grammar.

    Numerous special features distinguish the Iroquoian languages from languages that are more familiar to speakers of English, and they impact the process of documentation. Perhaps the most noticeable feature is that the Iroquoian verb is astonishingly expandable with optional prefixes and suffixes that can be added singly or in combination to the verb root, affixes that are ordered in relation to one another. For example, the simple Onondaga verb héhsaks, given as 1 below, consists of three essential elements (morphemes) that are the minimal requirements of every well formed Onondaga verb: a pronominal prefix that references the agent (the performer of the action) and – if present – the patient (the under-goer of the action), an element that names the action itself (a verb root), and a final element that marks whether the activity is static or whether it changes through time (an inflectional element marking aspect). [Note that in the examples below morphemes are separated by hyphens]. As can be seen, this minimal verb form translates into an English sentence 'he is looking for it,' a sentence with a subject and an object:

    1. héhsaks
    h-ehsak-s
    he>it-look.for-aspect
    he is looking for it

    The second and third examples illustrate two of a multitude of possible ways to expanded this verb by adding prefixes and/or suffixes. In example 2 a noun root -nahd- 'comb' is inserted. It specifies the nature of the object referenced in the pronominal prefix that the agent of the verb is searching for:

    2. hanahdíhsaks
    ha-nahd-ihsak-s
    he>it-comb-look.for-aspect
    he's looking for a comb

    The verb with an inserted noun root shows a special feature of the Iroquoian languages, a robust process called noun incorporation.

    In example 3 a suffix -h-, a so-called dislocative, marks the fact that the actor is on his way to perform the action expressed by the verb:

    3. hehsákheʔ
    h-ehsak-h-eʔ
    he>it-look.for-dislocative-aspect
    he's on his way to look for a comb

    Other prefixes and suffixes can be added to a verb root to mark directionality of the action (whether the action takes place towards the speaker or away from the speaker); the speaker's certainty as to the reliability of his assertion (it's what he heard someone say, it's what he saw with his own eyes, etc.); whether or not the statement should be understood in the negative; whether the action is to be repetitive or not; whether the statement should be taken as a command; whether the meaning of the word entails a change of state or involves two people or objects; whether the action coincides temporally with another action; whether the action is on the self (reflexive); whether one of the parties to the action is benefitted by the action; and many more. All of this and more can be signaled within the boundaries of a single word.

    Another feature of the Iroquoian languages is their free word order. Unlike the affixes that expand verbs and nouns which must occur in rigid order in relation to one another, the words in an Onondaga sentence can be moved around fairly freely, depending on what it is the speaker wishes to emphasize. As a comparison, think English: the dog bites the man vs. the man bites the dog – English being a language in which word order changes the meaning of sentences. In Onondaga, who bites whom is made clear by the pronominal prefix within the verb, and the differences in the two cited sentences signal that the first option is a sentence about a dog, and the second is a sentence about a man; but in each it is the dog that bites the man. These features have a direct impact on how information is organized between dictionary and grammar.

    Another distinctively Iroquoian feature is the system of pronominal prefixes that form a part of every verb – recall that they keep straight who is the agent carrying out the action of the verb and who the patient in every sentence. English has sixteen pronouns, Onondaga has fifty-eight! The details of the system are two complex to describe here, but the pronominal include three series, one to reference agents, one to reference patients, and one to reference agent and patient pairs (for verbs with two animate participants, e.g., he's thinking about her). The distribution is in part the result of verbal semantics and in part grammatical. In each of the series pronominal prefixes distinguish person (1st, 2nd, and 3rd as well as inclusion, i.e., whether or not the addressee is included in the reference), number (singular, dual, plural), and gender of animate entities (one masculine gender and two (!) feminine genders).

    An English dictionary and grammar divide up fairly neatly into two functions. The dictionary lists the store of words and is heavy with meanings, and the grammar describes the rules that combine sounds into words and words into phrases and sentences. An Iroquoian dictionary as can be seen from the descriptions above, is heavy on grammar, i.e., information that deals with the construction of words – recall those multiply expandable verbs – in addition to word meanings.

    The many years of studying the Onondaga language in depth have been rich with the pleasure of gaining insights and making discoveries. My hope is that this book will convey to the reader the excitement, surprises, and joys that lie ahead with the study of a language as full of intricacies and puzzles as is Onondaga.

    Hanni Woodbury, Ph.D., is an independent scholar who has been researching the Onondaga language since 1971.

  • Can Japan Lead the Green Growth Movement? Author Carin Holroyd Explores Japan's Efforts to Match its Climate Change Commitments

    Guest post by Carin Holroyd

    Governments around the world are obsessed with the challenge of combining two essential public policy objectives: addressing global climate change and building wealth and national prosperity. The industrial growth of the past half century has caused widespread, perhaps irreparable, damage to the global ecology, ushering in an era of uncertainty and climate paranoia. But no societies have yet indicated that they are prepared to accept a sharp reduction in their standard of living in order to slow, if not reverse, the pace of environmental degradation.

    In this situation, it is not surprising that the pursuit of green growth—economic expansion focused on the production and distribution of climate-saving technologies, products and services—has become an international priority. In the ideal formulation, new industries and businesses, employing thousands of people, would emerge in the environmental technology and new energy sectors with the products contributing far more to the amelioration of climate change than they would consume in energy and other resources. This is obviously attractive to national and regional governments, which seek highly skilled, highly paid work in viable, internationally engaged businesses while also providing leadership on addressing the challenges of global climate change.

    In Green Japan. I explore Japan's efforts to match its climate change commitments, which were transformed by the triple disasters in March 2011 and the near collapse of the Fukushima Nuclear Plant, with its desire for continued economic prosperity and employment opportunities for its citizens. Like most countries, Japan does not have an official "green growth" strategy; rather the country has made formidable investments in a variety of current and future technologies while using an array of public policy instruments to promote environmentally-sound energy and resource use within the country.

    That Japan would be at the cutting edge of environmental technologies is hardly a surprise. The country adapted well to the ecological excesses of the 1950s and 1960s, bringing in dramatic improvements in air and water quality, some of the world's most aggressive recycling and environmental signaling policies, and investing heavily in futurist energy systems from nuclear fusion to a proposed "lunar ring" that would transmit power from stations on the moon to receiving units on earth. Japan has one of the world's best commuter transit systems, with large percentages of the population using subways, buses and trains on a regular basis. Japan’s interest in energy efficient appliances and forms of transportation began after the oil shocks in the 1970s. The country’s lack of its own sources of energy and its resultant dependence on Middle Eastern oil made Japan painfully aware that it needed to diversify its sources of energy, limit energy use and develop new environmental technologies as much as possible. So, Japan has been pursuing strands of a green growth strategy for decades. It is the public policy lessons from this long term pursuit of green growth that I explore in Green Japan.

    Manufacturing standards and consumer awareness campaigns have encouraged and required companies to arrange for full product recycling and major improvements in energy consumption, with the country becoming a world-leader in net positive house construction (homes that produce excess power for the grid) and urban environmental design. Even municipal authorities are active on the green growth file, developing local smart energy grids and encouraging innovations in urban design that they are then marketing internationally through eco-city initiatives.

    In many ways, green growth symbolizes Japan’s attempt to reconcile two often competing elements of its national culture. The country’s penchant for industrial and manufacturing innovation is well-known as is its deep cultural affinity for nature, serenity and living in harmony with the natural world, value systems that were on international display during the 2005 Aichi World Fair. The government of Japan has called for active citizen engagement, through such initiatives as the old Team Minus 6% movement which encouraged/required offices to reduce heating and air conditioning usage, and other public displays of commitment to energy conservations. Japan’s development of its new energy and environmental technology sectors has employed a range of public policy initiatives and investments. There are lessons from these public policies that are useful for other governments, like Canada’s, that are interested in pursuing green growth.

    But the path forward is difficult. Japan is serious about responding to climate change and has made a concerted effort to cut CO2 emissions. But the nation’s plans took a real hit in 3/11 when it was forced to close, temporarily, its entire nuclear power system. While the Japanese public hopes that the plants will remain shut, the government feels it may have no choice but to reopen many of the nuclear facilities to keep up with consumer and industrial demand. Japan’s forward-looking investments are wildly speculative and, at times, breath-taking, but few countries in the world are looking as seriously and systematically at long-term power supplies that could wean the industrial economy away from fossil fuels.

    Japan is one of the world’s leading countries in the field of green growth. They lost an early lead in solar power production to Germany and, more recently, China, but continue to produce new products like energy-saving LED lights, hybrid, electric and hydrogen-fueled cars and trucks, creative large building designs (including the world’s largest wooden skyscraper which they hope will be the foundation for an “urban forest” inside Japan’s cities), and other market-based innovations that will keep Japan’s businesses strong, create international markets for their products and generate sustained national prosperity.

    The world has a great deal at stake in the comparative success of the green growth movement in Japan and other countries. If effective and viable models of industrial and employment growth emerge, producing personal and collective prosperity while improving environmental outcomes and preventing further climate change, the global impact could be significant. Failure to combine environmental sustainability and economic growth would lead to an acceleration of climate change with all of the negative and unpredictable consequences of ecological transformation.

    However, all countries cannot implement full green growth strategies without sparking a competitive industrial flurry that will increase consumption and the international environmental footprint. Japan, however, being one of the first and best in the field could reap sizeable economic and employment benefits, allowing it to dominate the field of environmental technologies as it has done in such sectors as automobiles and consumer electronics. If anything, Japan’s pursuit of green growth reveals the fundamental conundrum in environmental industrial policy, in which the desire for economic prosperity and opportunity continues to clash against the reality of a planet that is approaching its ecological limits.

    Carin Holroyd is an associate professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Saskatchewan.

  • In Conversation with Jim Freedman, Author of 'A Conviction in Question'

    A lively narrative account of the first case to appear at the International Criminal Court, A Conviction in Question documents the trial of Union of Congolese Patriots leader and warlord, Thomas Lubanga Dyilo. Although Dyilo’s crimes, including murder, rape, and the forcible conscription of child soldiers, were indisputable, legal wrangling and a clash of personalities caused the trial to be prolonged for an unprecedented six years. This book offers an accessible account of the rapid evolution of international law and the controversial trial at the foundation of the International Criminal Court.

    The first book to thoroughly examine Dyilo’s trial, A Conviction in Question looks at the legal issues behind each of the trial’s critical moments, including the participation of Dyilo’s victims at the trial and the impact of witness protection. Through eye-witness observation and analysis, Jim Freedman shows that the trial suffered from all the problems associated with ordinary criminal law trials, and uses Dyilo’s case to further comment on the role of international courts in a contemporary global context.

    We spoke with author Jim Freedman about the inspiration, process, and research behind his latest project.

    How did you become involved in your area of research?

    I‘ve always recognized the potential of international law to protect vulnerable populations and promote peace but for years the practice of international law was ineffective, the cases at The Hague were boring and national leaders were afraid of law’s potential. Then came the international criminal tribunals for (previous) Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone and Liberia as well as the international treaty that gave birth to the Rome Statute. It was then that the prospects of a truly international court with prospects for international jurisdiction emerged as an exciting reality. I could not resist.

    What inspired you to write this book?

    I had the good fortune to serve on the UN Panel investigating the roots of the 1996-2002 war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In the course of serving on this panel, I happened to find myself caught in a very unpleasant cross-fire involving child soldiers conscripted by the warlord rebel leader Thomas Lubanga. When the new International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for him and brought him for trial as its first defendant, I felt compelled, personally, to follow the trial.

    How did you become interested in the subject?

    The rapid increase in civil wars and conflict following the end of the cold war has been hard to ignore. It has stymied efforts to address the critical issues of poverty and human rights violations. As an academic and an international consultant, the increasing presence of conflict and its profound impact on efforts to reduce poverty required me to think about remedies to conflict in developing nations.

    How long did it take you to write A Conviction in Question?

    Approximately seven years. I had followed the trial of Thomas Lubanga from its beginning in 2006 but was finishing another book at the time. I began to commit myself fully in 2010. The trial concluded in 2013 and I worked as steadily as possible on the writing until early 2017.

    What do you find most interesting about your area of research?

    Bringing about justice for international crimes of war and crimes against humanity poses very unique challenges that are different from those faced by trials in domestic courts. The Rome Statute and the ICC trials have made a real effort to draw selectively from existing law conventions of various legal traditions and to find legal frameworks that are capable of addressing these very special and very serious international crimes. It is fascinating to follow how principles and practices at the ICC have struggled to find ways of bringing justice to victims of these crimes.

    What’s the most surprising thing you discovered during the course of your research?

    I have realized that it is not just the difficulty of drafting laws and trial procedures for an international court that poses major challenges for the ICC; it is also the lawyers themselves. Some lawyers who come before the court are very committed to justice. But some are just as much interested in showing their prowess in winning cases by manipulating evidence. There might be room for this in domestic law where high profile lawyers can also be celebrities, but it has little place in high stakes international criminal trials.

    Did you have to travel much concerning the research/writing of this book?

    The crimes have taken place in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. Rwandan and Ugandan authorities have also been implicated in the perpetuation of these crimes. The trial itself has been held in The Hague, Netherlands. Extensive and repeated travel has been unavoidable.

    What was the hardest part of writing your book?

    I very much wanted the book to be an exciting read. At the same time, it had to present relatively complex legal issues clearly. Ensuring that the book was both eminently readable and, at the same time, represented the critical legal and academic issues accurately was perhaps the most difficult challenge.

    What are your current/future projects?

    I am currently in the middle of a book on the rise of Moise Katumbi, his unusual parentage and the role he is sure to play in opposing President Kabila and supporting free elections in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

    What do you like to read for pleasure? What are you currently reading?

    I very much like to read non-fiction, especially books that present new ideas. This includes Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, Ashlee Vance’s Elon Musk: Tesla, Spacex and the Quest for a Fantastic Future and Jennifer Doudna’s A Crack in Creation, Gene Editing and the Unthinkable Power to Control Evolution.

    What is your favourite book?

    Lawrence Durrell's The Alexandria Quartet

     

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