A part time-student in the Master of Arts in Science and Technology Studies, Edward 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,” Edward says, “but nobody has really ever investigated the family’s personal archives to understand Robert himself and how he went about his work.”
Edward’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 Science and Technology Studies. “But we know very little about the history of the man or the device,” he says.
Edward 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.”
Prof. 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 Edward’s research.
Already a York alumnus and staff member at York International, Edward 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.
Edward, recipient of multiple honours during his time at York, was awarded the Deborah Hobson Student Leadership Award in 2007, the President’s Medal (Murray G. Ross Award) in 2010 and was made a Fellow at Vanier College in 2008. Spotlighting his talent and skill as a writer, he won the Kent Haworth Playwriting Prize in 2006, 2007 and 2009.
Raised in the countryside near Schomberg and later in downtown Toronto, Edward now makes his home in Aurora, Ontario with his wife, Linda. In addition to his full-time job at YorkU, and his scholarly research for Science & Technology Studies, he is writing a couple of books and reworking several plays. He has spent his 25 year career thus far as a writer, editor and publisher, and he hopes to write more about science and scientists and to teach writing and publishing across disciplines.
Edward Fenner can be found online at yorku.ca/efenner.
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