a Subject for a Biography
A biography is one of the
most challenging jobs a historian can undertake, committing the scholar
to long years of work. So the choice of a subject is crucial. Consider,
for example, George Biddell Airy, British Astronomer Royal from 1835
to 1881, one of the towering figures of nineteenth century astronomy.
Airy conducted a staggeringly voluminous correspondence, wrote a huge
number of papers and reports, and was a central player in various scientific
societies and institutions. He kept copies of practically everything
he wrote. He has, however, never been the subject of a biography. Indeed,
Sir William Hunter McCrea (1904-1999) was one of the leading astronomers and cosmologists of the Twentieth century. His scientific researches and engagements in various scientific debates were very important, and these activities continued far beyond his retirement in 1972. He had turned to cosmology around 1930, a time when it was not really a respectable field of inquiry, and lived to see it become one of the most esteemed and exciting areas of inquiry in the physical sciences, with several of his students playing crucial roles in its development. McCrea was centrally involved too with a range of British and international scientific institutions. Later in his life he wrote some significant historical works, including a history of the Royal Greenwich Observatory. McCrea was also a witness to some of the critical moments in Twentieth century Astronomy and Cosmology. For example, in the early 1930s Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, then a fellow at Cambridge, would lunch with McCrea at Imperial College, London, before they walked to meetings of the Royal Astronomical Society. Thus it was that in January 1935, McCrea had a ring-side view of A.S. Eddington’s now infamous attack on his friend Chandrasekhar’s ideas on relativistic degeneracy inside stars.
In 1978, I was fortunate
enough to interview McCrea as part of a project run by the Center for
History of Physics on the history of Astrophysics and Cosmology, a project
that led to a remarkably extensive collection of oral history interviews.
At that time I certainly did not imagine tackling a biography of McCrea.
But by late 2004, the idea had begun to seem an attractive one as a
way to explore not just McCrea’s life but how Astronomy and Cosmology
changed during his lifetime. Before committing myself, however, I needed,
like any potential biographer considering a possible subject, to find
out, first, what kinds of correspondence and manuscripts were in the
records left after his death, and if these were rich enough to make
a biography feasible. Then, second, I needed to check if the collection
was in fact usable and in particular if it had
There is, it turns out,
a substantial collection of McCrea papers. It is housed at Royal Holloway
College of the University of London, where McCrea had been a professor
of mathematics from 1944 until 1966. Moreover, with the essential help
of an Archival Processing Grant from the Center for History of Physics,
the collection has been excellently cataloged by the National Cataloguing
Unit for the Archives of Contemporary