Thursday, March 01, 2012

In the beginning...there was Lightman

Thursday, April 08, 2010 09:35AM is the timestamp from an email I received from Dr. Kenton Kroker with the subject: “Van de Graaff...”

At the time, Kenton was the incoming Graduate Program Director for the Science and Technology Studies (STS) program at York University - taking over on July 1 from Dr. Bernard (Bernie) Lightman, the inaugural director, and who is now the Director of the Institute for Science and Technology Studies (ISTS) here at YorkU. Bernie is a professor I knew fairly well from the undergraduate program in Science & Society, my minor focus versus my major in Professional Writing, but I had not yet met Kenton (not that I can recall) so his email was both a mystery and a bit of a surprise.

Bernie knew of my interest in late 19th and early 20th century electrical inventors like Nikola Tesla and we chatted briefly about it and about Van de Graaff and if I had an interest in researching the latter because an interesting opportunity had surfaced and he thought I would be interested and the right person to make an investigation of the man and his machine. Van de Graaff was a familiar name but I did not know a great deal about him. His name was Dutch so that was cool (my heritage is Dutch). Like Tesla, he was famous and make big, noisy, sparky machines that fired off bolts of man-made lightning, so that was cool, too. Very cool. Van de Graaff was a physicist and atom smasher which was also cool. So, not knowing much more than that I said that I would be very much interested in hearing more about it. I am not sure how much time had passed but it could not be more than a couple of weeks when Kenton emailed me.

Kenton was back from sabbatical in Paris, France where he was doing some research (he is a historian of science and medicine). In the same apartment building lived an older man with whom he befriended and came to the understanding that the man was John Van de Graaff, the elder son of the late American physicist Robert J. Van de Graaff. John was retired and spending the winter with his wife in Paris seeing the sights, enjoying the culture, and indulging in his passion for photography. One thing led to another and John mentioned to Kenton that he had lots of his father's papers and wondered if they would be of interest to somebody in the STS program. Kenton said it sounded interesting and before emailing Bernie and, presumably, some other STS professors about it did a quick bit of online footwork. Strangely, there was not a whole lot out there on Robert J. Van de Graaff. Bits and pieces in popular media, obituaries, a mention here and there, a fond at MIT, but not a lot of scholarly stuff which surprised him.

Long story short, my name came up at least twice, so I have been told, once from Bernie - that I was the grad student for the job and that this was a fabulous opportunity – and once from someone else, I know not whom. Thus, Kenton sent me an email which is paraphrased above. He also told me a bit about researching personal archives and that John had to confirm his interest in having someone looking over his collection of materials of his father before we could go further. I was to understand that I was not under any commitment to take on this research project but Kenton did need to know if I was agreeable to it.

Since one does not look a gift horse in the mouth, I responded that I was most agreeable and immediately started my own online investigation to see whom exactly it was I had agreed to research and pick up on Kenton's trail. 

It was April. My first course in STS was not to start until September – still five months away – and already I had a subject to study for my Major Research Paper (MRP) and, very likely, a book after that.

This was a fantastic opportunity for me. I could hardly believe my luck! 


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