Following the workshop, Peter Forsyth provided me with the material found on this page. It is an excerpt of a speech which was to have been presented at the University of Saskatchewan in the summer of 1987. The talk was prepared but (because of an attack of appendicitis) was not given. Peter says that "the whole thing is just a shameless bit of U of S boosterism", but I think it provides us with a fascinating and valuable perspective on the origins of space science in Canada. See also Peter's remarks on the early days at the University of Saskatchewan in the transcript. Don Moorcroft.


by Peter Forsyth

You've all heard about the young freshman at college who wrote home to the farm saying, "You shore learn a lot at college. Before I came here I didn't even know how to spell 'physicist', now, only a short month later I can say, "I are one". I have my own version of that story "Before I came here I didn't even know what a space scientist was, now, only a short lifetime later, I can say ‘I were one'."

Whenever I confess that I am retired, I receive a cautious enquiry as to how I'm feeling, as if retirement were a disease. Who knows maybe it is! I've noticed that most recent retirees suffer an immediate attack of garrulousness. The only known cure for this malady is being forced to stand up in front of your friends and display just how distorted your memories of early events have become. I am grateful to Don McEwen for providing me with an opportunity to take the cure, and to all of you for suffering through it with me.

This is not a history of space science in Canada, it is one man's assessment of how we got here, who made it happen and, possibly, why we didn't get further.

We all know that it started right here in Saskatchewan.

Sometimes, there are competing claims from Toronto, who had the first magnetic observatory. But, I ask you, what good is a magnetic observatory if you live in a town where the sky is always cloudy and where generations live and die without seeing the horizon? So we are all agreed that Canadian space science really started in Saskatchewan. But I'll bet you think that it started here at the University. I think you're wrong.

I think it started when a completely frustrated Saskatchewan farmer picked up a pitchfork and chased an incompetent foreign laborer once around the cowbarn and then off into the sunset. I'm uncertain about the date but it must have been about sixty years ago. The incompetent Welsh laborer, of course, was Frank Davies and the experience convinced him that he really wasn't cut out to be a farmer, that he had better find a university where he could continue his studies in physics. The university that he found was this one in Saskatoon and the rest is history.

It is appropriate to start the story with Frank Davies because it was the interaction between Frank Davies and Balfour Currie that is important to the story. They met first here at the University, and then after Davies had been to the South Pole, they worked together at Chesterfield Inlet during the Second Polar Year. That interaction is what ensured that studies of the aurora would become a continuing theme in the Physics Department.

And we should also look at the external ‘drivers' that brought this about. Why was a young, scientifically unsophisticated, country like Canada interested in taking part in the Second Polar Year? For more than fifty years the myth has been that it was some kind of scientific awakening a 'coming of age' for Canada. I admit that sometimes, when it suited my purpose, I have helped to propagate this myth. Now I confess that it is absolute garbage.

The government of Canada did provide the miserable supply of food and instruments that Currie and Davies had at Chesterfield Inlet. What made them do it? Not scientific curiosity, but avarice. The government of the day was becoming aware that gold was not the only wealth to be found in the arctic. A lot of hard- headed business men were anxious to invest in companies to exploit the northern resources. The major impediments to such investment were difficult transportation and difficult communications. The airplane was starting to overcome the transportation problem but radio and, where wires could be strung, telegraph and telephone all suffered from this mysterious malady associated with the aurora.

And so it came about that several hundred parallactic photographs of the aurora, taken at Chesterfield Inlet, came to reside here at Saskatchewan. And again, here's another heretical suggestion. If times had been good and Currie had been able to get support for the more normal kinds of physics, I believe that the fate of those glass plates would have been just the fate of so many of the records taken twenty-five years later during the International Geophysical Year. That is, they would have mouldered to extinction, untouched by human hands. Someone recently guessed that each active space scientist produces between five and ten times as many data as he can analyze in a lifetime. So I am forced to conclude that the establishment of Saskatchewan as a focal point of space research owes much to the Great Depression.

We can leave Currie and an endless stream of graduate students carefully analysing the Chesterfield auroral plates and jump on to the end of World War II. Here again the dewy eyed sentimentalists among you will tell me that it was a time of reawakening, that a country newly returned from war felt that it could afford the luxury of good universities, doing good scientific research.

I'm afraid not. The universities had proven to be unexpectedly useful as technical training centres during the war and immediately afterward were required to undertake the enormous task of teaching every ex-serviceman who wanted a degree. The politically motivated program of educating the veterans was such a burden on the universities that it was easy for them to bargain for enough support to start up research activities. This they did, but the government was still confused about how the aid should be given to the universities and by which departments.

At this point the military stepped in. Wartime experience had shown that all the problems that had sparked the interest in aurora during the Second Polar Year were still there. To communicate in the arctic you just had to know more about aurora. And tucked away in a back room of the Department of National Defence was one Frank Davies. He had been with the military all through the war. He knew the problems and what is more, he knew that the military in the USA had suffered all the same problems and they should be ripe for a 'co-operative venture with Canada. In those days when we said ‘co-operate' we really meant "your money -- our muscle." And we still do!

Enter two more players in the game; Don McKinley of the National Research Council, who had worked with the military during the war and Nate Gerson from the US Air Force. Frank Davies called in his old pal Balfour Currie from Saskatchewan. At that time Currie was probably the only man in Canada who had been working on aurora continuously for the previous fifteen years. The four of them sat down in Ottawa and laid it all out. The US Air Force would put up a lot of money, the Department of National Defence and NRC would each put up a little money and Saskatchewan would do all the work.

Currie was in a good position to promise the expanded research effort. He had just recruited a bright young Ph.D. who had been teaching at Manitoba. That was Bill Petrie who had a background in spectroscopy and was immediately fascinated by the prospect of working on the aurora. Compared to snaring Bill Petrie, recruiting me to work on radar was easy. I had temporarily given up Physics and was all set to become a medical doctor. I allowed myself to be persuaded that a lifetime spent studying the upper atmosphere would be more rewarding. Can you imagine what havoc I would have created in the medical profession with that kind of logic!

I remember Bill Petrie sitting in my little room at the top of the physics building telling me what a fascinating enigma the aurora was, how solving it might well take a lifetime but it would be a lifetime well spent.

It almost ended before it began. A few weeks later Bill came back to the little room. His voice betrayed the mixed elation and envy we experience when we hear of a major breakthrough by a colleague. "Guess what!" he said, or words to that effect, "Meinel's solved it! He's measured the Doppler shift of protons coming down in the aurora and the speed is just right to explain the time it takes for them to get from the Sun to the Earth."

As we all know now it turned out to be just a little more complicated than that, but in those rather heady days it really wouldn't have surprised any of us if someone had solved the whole problem with one lucky observation or one clever calculation. Many other people joined the Canadian struggle with aurora. Many, if not most, of them are sitting in this room now. I won't try to name them all but we all know that those who started at Saskatchewan, or paused briefly at Saskatchewan in mid career, had a terrific advantage over those who didn't.