Sic itur ad astra: Several observations on the stellar career of Canadian astronomer Carlyle Smith Beals, part 1

Carlyle Smith Beals, Dominion Astronomer. Raymond Taillefer, “Tant qu’il y aura des étoiles – L’observatoire fédéral assure au Canada un brillant rôle scientifique.” Le Droit, 2 August 1947, 1.

Ave, mi amice qui legit, salve. Quid agis hodie? Gaudeo te audire quod bene facis.

Do you not love the sound of Latin in the morning, my reading friend? Increasingly accurate online translators allow inadequately educated boors like yours truly to sound, well, civilized / couth / cultured. When they work properly that is.

A case in point. What is a proper translation of the word several in French? Plusieurs or quelques? My tiny mind consistently gravitates toward quelques, because it is convinced that plusieurs means many. What say ye? (Hello, EP!)

Incidentally, Sic itur ad astra means Thus one journeys to the stars / Thus one goes to the stars / Such is the way to immortality / Such is the pathway to the stars.

Yours truly hopes that you too will think that these words, put on papyrus or parchment between 30 and 20 before the common era by Publius Vergilius Maro, a Roman poet better known as Virgil, as part of his epic poem Aeneis, were / are most appropriate to introduce one of the luminaries of 20th century Canadian astronomy, Carlyle Smith Beals.

Beals came into this world in late June 1899, in Canso, Nova Scotia, and…

What is it, my reading friend? That name rings a bell? You are indeed correct. Canso was / is the name given by the Royal Canadian Air Force, during the Second World War, to its American-designed but Canadian-made Consolidated PBY Catalina maritime patrol / antisubmarine patrol amphibians. An aircraft of that type can of course be found in the stupendous and tremendous collection of the Canada Aviation and Space Museum, in Ottawa, Ontario, but I digress. Your fault.

Beals enrolled at Acadia University, in Wolfville, Nova Scotia, during the First World War. The bachelor’s degree he obtained in 1919 was in physics and mathematics. Health issues forced Beals to temporary put aside his plans to continue his studies. To make ends meet, he taught at a small school in rural Nova Scotia during the winter of 1920-21.

Beals enrolled at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1921, in order to obtain a doctorate, I think. Health issues soon forced him once again to temporary put aside his plans to continue his studies. Beals switched universities in 1922. He attended the University of Toronto, in… Toronto, Ontario, and obtained a master’s degree in physics in 1923.

In need of a job, Beals went to Québec, Québec, to Quebec High School to be more precise, where he was in charge of science teaching for a year or so.

In 1924, Beals went to London, England, where he enrolled in the doctoral programme in physics at the Royal College of Science of the Imperial College of Science and Technology. He graduated in 1926.

It was seemingly in London that Beals familiarised himself with observational astronomy, thanks to the instruments mounted in the small observatory of the college.

Beals was soon back at Acadia University, where he became an assistant professor of physics. A year or so later, in 1927, he left that position to become an assistant astronomer at the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory, on Little Saanich Mountain, a hill really, north of Victoria, British Columbia.

The Dominion Astrophysical Observatory was Canada’s foremost astronomical observatory at the time. And yes, it was arguably more important than the Dominion Observatory, located in Ottawa, in the Central Experimental Farm, and…

Indeed, my reading friend, the Canada Agriculture and Food Museum, a sister / brother institution of the aforementioned Canada Aviation and Space Museum, is located in the Central Experimental Farm. (Hello, WK!) But back to our story.

Beals soon joined the Victoria Astronomical Society of … Victoria. Indeed, he served as President of that group at least once, around 1930. Yours truly cannot say if that group was distinct from the Victoria Centre of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, a centre in which Beals successively served as Secretary, Vice-President and President.

Incidentally, the society in question, yes, the royal one, was indeed mentioned many times in our blog / bulletin / thingee, and this since December 2018.

Would you believe that, in 1933, Beals completed an exhaustive study of the sounds produced in northern regions by the aurora borealis / northern lights / polar lights, the elusive and enchanting light displays predominantly seen in said regions of planet Earth? Yes, yes, the sounds.

Beals apparently got hooked on sonics after coming across a paper published in the December 1927 issue of an American magazine, Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, by a certain James Halvor Johnson, a long retired Alaskan mining operator and (retired?) attorney from the looks of it, who had himself heard the sounds made by at least one aurora borealis while in Alaska.

Johnson was by no means the first person to hear something. Nay. The earliest reference to auroral sounds that Beals could find dated from 1770-71, when an English explorer / fur trader / author, Samuel Hearne, saw and heard at least one aurora borealis as he explored the lands to the west of Hudson Bay, in what is now Nunavut.

It goes without saying that the people who had lived in the northern regions of North America for hundreds and thousands of years were very familiar with the aurora borealis.

Incidentally, Beals was not the first Canadian scientist interested in “The Audibility of the Aurora,” to quote the title of an article published in the September 1923 issue of the Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada. Indeed, the author of that text, Clarence Augustus Chant, the one and only astronomer at the University of Toronto at the time, began to collect evidence on that topic in the late 1910s. Deemed by some / many to be the father of Canadian astronomy, that gentleman was of course mentioned in April 2019, July 2019 and June 2021 issues of our blog / bulletin/ thingee

In any event, Beals sent a circular letter with several questions to many reputable / reliable people who had lived or travelled in northern Canada. No less than 145 or so of the 185 or so people who sent in answers claimed they had heard the sounds made by an aurora borealis at least once, and this at various times, including summer, and this in different years. These people were almost unanimous in their testimonies. Auroras, they stated, produced a swishing / rustling / hissing / crackling sound.

Beals’ conclusion was that the auroras produced 2 distinct types of sounds: a hissing / rustling / swishing sound and a crackling one.

This being said (typed?), the sounds were seemingly far from common. A respondent indicated that 95 % or so of the auroras he had seen had been silent. Others who had spent 20 or 30 years up north had heard the sounds only once or twice.

While some / many members of the scientific community agreed with Beals’ conclusions, published in the May 1933 issue of the Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, many / most did not. Some / many thought that witnesses had an overly active imagination. Others thought that, while the sounds were real, they had nothing to do with the auroras.

Would you believe that, as of 2022, even though the scientific community readily admits that a great many people of various ethnic origin have been consistent in their description of the sounds they have heard over a period of several, if not many centuries, while the northern lights were clearly visible in the sky, the link between said auroras and the sounds, if there are indeed sounds, has yet to be demonstrated to the satisfaction of said community?

At the risk of sounding like a poop disturber, yours truly has to wonder if the scepticism of the scientific community, a scepticism very much needed to weed out delusions, errors and frauds, a scepticism like the one expressed whenever certain popular beliefs linked to vaccines, unidentified flying objects, life after death, lake monsters, creationism, etc., are mentioned, does not turn off a great many people for whom scientists make up a condescending yet tax funded elite more interested in, for example, saving the habitat of some critter only they care about than in saving the working class folks who happen to earn a living through the development of the resources located in the habitat in question. Just sayin’.

It should be noted that an aspect of Beals’ auroral research proved to be in error. Contrary to what he and several / many witnesses, including Johnson, thought, elements of certain auroras were not / are not to be found very, very close to the surface of our blue planet.

Mind you, Beals also conducted well received studies on the gases present in the space between the stars during the 1930s. He also studied a couple of types of rare and unusual stars.

As well, Beals designed a few instruments, including a microphotometer used to analyse the light of distant stars. The device in question was one of the best of its type anywhere in the world. Several of these microphotometer were put together by S.S. Girling of Victoria, the gifted individual who put together many, if not most of the instruments used by the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory during the 1930s and beyond. Incidentally, one of the microphotometers was made for the famous Yerkes Observatory, the birthplace of modern astrophysics, operated by the University of Chicago.

And yes, over the years and decades, Beals made countless presentations in front of various groups.

As you may imagine, Beals did well for himself at the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory. He became a full astronomer in 1936. Better yet, Beals was named Assistant Director of the observatory in 1940.

Beals and his spouse were on an ocean liner on its way back to Canada when the country entered the Second World War, in September 1939. He had just taken part in an international conference on astrophysics held in Paris.

During the conflict, Beals spent a couple of years, or more, working on means of defence against chemical weapons. In May 1942, for example, he demonstrated the improvised gas masks / respirators he had designed, using hot water bottles, at the Air Raid Protection kiosk of the United Nations Victory Fair held in Victoria. By then, 25 or so Saanich air raid wardens had put together their own respirators using Beals’ designs. Would you believe that one of said designs had at its core the inner tube of an automobile tire?

The need to develop homemade gas masks was due to the fact that, as late as July, if not August 1942, factory-made gas masks were not available in British Columbia in any significant number to protect the 830 000 or so people who lived there.

Why were gas masks and air raid wardens needed in British Columbia, you ask, my concerned reading friend? You see, the good people of that province had been shaken to the core by the December 1941 Japanese attacks against American, British and Dutch colonies and territories in Asia and the Pacific Ocean.

Their fear and, let us be blunt here, a lack of political backbone, wartime hysteria and exacerbated racism led to the internment, in 1942, of more than 20 000 Japanese Canadians – and approximately 120 000 Japanese Americans – who had done nothing wrong, and had no intention of doing anything wrong, people, children indeed, like Canadian activist / author / broadcaster / zoologist David Takayoshi Suzuki, and like Takei Hosato, better known as American activist / actor / author George Takei, the first Hikaru Sulu of the Star Trek television and movie franchise.

And yes, the great Canadian that Suzuki is was mentioned in a November 2018 issue of our blog / bulletin / thingee, which remains as awe inspiring as ever.

Would you believe that Japanese Canadians were deprived of their right to travel as they pleased until April 1949? By then, of course, their homes and businesses had long been confiscated. The mind boggles.

Japanese Americans and Japanese Canadians had to wait until 1988 to receive apologies and a meagre financial compensation from the governments of the United States and Canada. Let us move on before my brain explodes.

Beals’ gas warfare work was appreciated to such an extent that he was named Provincial Gas Officer, for British Columbia of course, in February 1943. He thus became responsible for organising civilian anti-gas services, supervising training and coordinating all gas warfare related activities. Beals occupied that post on top of his work at the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory. Yours truly cannot say when his gas warfare work came to an end.

And this is as good a place as any to end the first part of this article. See ya later.

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Rénald Fortier