AIP History Center Newsletter
Volume XXXVIII , No. 2, Fall 2006

 

Finding a Subject for a Biography
by Robert W. Smith, University of Alberta

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,
the astonishing extent of Airy’s records seems to have frightened off potential biographers. But far more common problems for would-be biographers are a paucity of worthwhile evidence on which to base a study. Even if a good body of records exists,
they can be practically unusable if they are not carefully cataloged, organized,
and accessible.

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
been cataloged.

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
Scientists, housed at the University of Bath. With anxieties dispelled about spending years hunting through a thin or disorganized collection of records, and the encouragement of the McCrea family, I am now at work on a McCrea biography.

 


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