Edward Fenner, a part-time YorkU graduate student and the web communications and publications assistant at York International, was awarded a $2,000 grant-in-aid by the Friends of the Center for History of Physics, American Institute of Physics (AIP).
Fenner says this grant, in addition to a £350 grant from the Scientific Instrument Society, “will go a long way to offsetting the cost of travel” necessary for his current research.
A part time-student in the Master of Arts in Science and Technology Studies (STS), Fenner is delving further into the personal and family history of Robert J. Van de Graaff than ever before. A pioneering American nuclear physicist, Van de Graaff invented an early particle accelerator, a high-voltage electrostatic generator, in 1929. “His name and atom smashers are famous,” says Fenner, “but nobody has really ever investigated the family’s personal archives to understand Robert himself and how he went about his work.”
Fenner’s research includes photographing and piecing together over 8,000 (and counting) photographs of Van de Graaff’s personal papers and other materials at Van de Graaff family homes near Boston and Chicago, plus visiting the archives at MIT and, soon, a visit to AIP in Maryland.
“Everybody who has been to a science centre knows Van de Graaff because of the shiny metal ball that makes your hair stand on end when you touch it,” says Kenton Kroker, graduate program director for STS. "This machine was once a real contender as the apparatus of choice in the study of high-energy particles. Its failure to achieve this status and instead reappear as a sort of parlour trick can tell us a lot about the history of 20th-century physics and its popularization, he says, but there has been almost no historical study of the man or the device,” he says.
Fenner plans to write a biography of Van de Graaff upon completion of his MA because, “nobody has done one and Robert is a significant contributor to science, physics, and cancer treatment, so there is plenty of material to create a biography.” “I’m looking forward to writing it, but first, my MRP,” Fenner says.
Kroker was on a research sabbatical in Paris, France when, in a conversation with an American living next door, he discovered his neighbour was the elder son of the famed scientist. The younger Van de Graaff soon offered up his stockpile of documents and family records, now the key component in Fenner’s research.
Kroker actively encourages students to pursue an MA in STS at YorkU part-time, saying “the integration of learning and original research for part-time students has been an STS tradition since the 1970s.” He wants prospective part time students to read about Edward, see the incredible opportunity he’s found, and think, “that could be me.” On Fenner’s accomplishments, Kroker says, “he’s is a great example of what students, and especially part-time students, can accomplish here.”
Already a YorkU alumnus and staff member at York International, Fenner is no stranger to a packed schedule and the demands of balancing full-time work and scholarly research. He founded the York University Mature Student Organization (YUMSO) in 2004, and the Canadian Assembly of Mature Student Organizations (CAMSO) in 2009, and he continues to publish YorkU’s Existere - Journal of Arts and Literature, which he revived in 2007.
Fenner, recipient of multiple awards during his time at York, was awarded the President’s Medal (Murray G. Ross Award) in 2010 and was made a Fellow at Vanier College in 2008.
Edward Fenner can be found online at yorku.ca/efenner.