Sic itur ad astra: Several observations on the stellar career of Canadian astronomer Carlyle Smith Beals, part 2

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The Manicouagan Reservoir, also known as the Eye of Québec, as photographed from space by the Sentinel 2-A satellite of the European Space Agency’s Copernicus Programme, January 2017. https://scihub.copernicus.eu/ via Wikimedia.

Hello there, my reading friend. You caught me in the middle of something. I will be right with you. […]

Hello there, again. Are we ready to complete our examination of the stellar career of Canadian astronomer Carlyle Smith Beals? Wunderbar!

Well, Beals, his spouse and their daughter left British Columbia in early November 1946. The First Assistant at the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory, on Little Saanich Mountain, north of Victoria, British Columbia, was beginning a new career at the Dominion Observatory, in Ottawa, Ontario.

Beals became Acting Dominion Astronomer in November 1946. He was filling the very large shoes left behind by Canadian astronomer and mathematician Robert Meldrum Stewart who had retired in July, after 22 years spent occupying the position. Indeed, the new residence of the Beals family was Observatory House, which was adjacent to the observatory building.

Further recognition of Beals’s contribution to Canadian astronomy came in January 1947, when his peers made him one of the two vice-presidents of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada. In January 1951, he was elected president of that august institution. Beals held that position for 2 years. In addition, Beals served as president of the Ottawa Centre of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada from 1950 to 1952.

Beals was appointed Dominion Astronomer in May 1947. In November, he became the first head of the astronomical bureau of the Department of Mines and Resources, the federal government outfit which oversaw the activities of the Dominion Observatory.

As the weeks turned into months and years, Beals spruced up the scientific programme of the observatory, which had been greatly affected by budget cuts during the Great Depression of the 1930s and a lack of personnel during the Second World War. He attracted many young researchers to Ottawa, for example. Mind you, Beals also improved the facilities of various departments of the observatory, seismology being a case in point. He also supervised the modernisation of a crucial service offered by that institution, Canada’s official time. Over the passing years, Beals supervised the installations of new observation instruments in Alberta, British Columbia and Ontario.

And yes, during the days which followed the epoch-making sighting of 9 unidentified flying objects, soon described as flying saucers, moving at very high speed near Mount Rainier, in the state of Washington, by Kenneth Albert Arnold, on 24 June 1947, Beals was one of the individuals interviewed by journalists. He doubted that the objects seen in Canada and elsewhere were meteors.

As we both know, Arnold was mentioned in July 2022 issues of our stupendous blog / bulletin / thingee.

Beals was interviewed yet again in March 1950. He was polite, as he unfailingly was, but firm. Beals had yet to hear about a flying saucer sighting made by a reputable scientist. Canadians should not take flying saucer sightings seriously. Indeed, newspapers would be of greater help to the general public if they refrained from publishing wild stories which only led to further sightings by people with overactive imaginations. Flying saucers? All nonsense, stated Beals.

On a more conventional note, Beals’ contribution to Canadian and Terran astronomy was deemed to be of such importance that he was elected a fellow of the prestigious Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge in March 1951. Yes, that London. The one in England.

The identification, in the early 1950s, of a couple of craters caused by the impact of meteorites, in the Ungava peninsula of northern Québec, on the one hand, and near Cedar Lake and the (seasonal?) village of Brent, in Algonquin Provincial Park, in northeastern Ontario, on the other hand, intrigued Beals to such an extent that, in 1955, he initiated a comprehensive research programme to identify additional meteorite impact craters / meteorite craters / astroblemes located on Canadian soil.

And yes, the work involved analysing thousands of aerial photos taken over the years by the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) and civilian aerial survey firms – firms like Spartan Air Services Limited of Ottawa, one of the largest and most active aerial survey and photography firm in Canada, a firm known both locally and globally, a firm mentioned in November 2019, December 2020 and November 2021 issues of our blog / bulletin / thingee. Said analysis was followed by detailed examinations of promising sites.

The quality of Beals’s comprehensive research programme was recognised around the globe. Indeed, one could argue that it led to the Impact Earth database, a truly remarkable planetary educational tool created in the late 2010s by the Impact Earth initiative, a large-scale, dare one say (type?) planetary-scale, project set up by the Centre for Planetary Science and Exploration of the University of Western Ontario, in London, Ontario.

Yours truly would be remiss, however, if I did not mention the pioneering article by British (English?) geologist Leonard James Spencer. Said article, “Meteorite Craters as Topographical Features on the Earth's Surface,” was published in the March 1933 issue of The Geographical Journal, the official mouthpiece of a British institution, the Royal Geographical Society. Spencer’s list of more or less certain examples of impact craters, the first to be published, do not forget that, included but 5 locations, but back to our story.

The aforementioned Québec crater, initially known as the Chubb Crater, was formed 1.4 or so million years ago by a meteorite which left behind a 3.4 or so kilometre (2.1 or so miles) diameter crater. Although photographed from the air in 1943 (United States Army Air Forces) and 1948 (RCAF), the water-filled crater attracted attention only when said photographs became accessible to the general public. An Ontario diamond prospector by the name of Frederick W. “Fred” Chubb was intrigued when he saw one or more photographs of the lake, in early 1950, for example.

Could the crater be of volcanic origin and, thus, potentially a source of diamonds, as was / is the case in South Africa, he asked a geologist and, seemingly, director of the Royal Ontario Museum of Geology and Mineralogy? Also intrigued, Victor Ben Meen was pretty sure the lake was in fact a meteorite impact crater. Still, just to make sure it was not in fact a treasure lake, Meen organised a privately funded expedition which was on site in June 1950. The feature identified by Chubb was a meteorite impact crater all right. Yay! Sorry.

Meen named the meteorite crater after its discoverer, namely Chubb. The Canadian Board on Geographic Names seemingly did not get the memo because it christened that same geographical feature the Ungava Crater. The Commission de géographie de Québec seemingly did not get either memo because it christened that same geographical feature the Cratère du Nouveau-Québec, or New Quebec Crater, and this no later than 1953.

Would you believe that the name found on current maps was / is yet another one? Well, that is true. The moniker Pingualuit Crater has been in use since 1999.

Incidentally, the first edition of the map of the area surrounding the Chubb / Ungava / New Quebec Crater published after its discovery did not clearly show the border between Québec and the part of the Labradorian territory of Québec transferred in 1927 to Newfoundland, which was then a dominion, by one of the highest British courts, the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council – a decision rejected by every government of Québec since that date.

The map in question, published in 1953, seemingly by the Ministère des Terres et Forêts of Québec, did, however, show the recent mining settlements established on Québec soil, at Burnt Creek and Knob Lake. And yes, my deciduous, sorry, assiduous reading friend, the mining activities linked to these settlements were indeed mentioned in December 2021 issue of our you know what, but back to our story.

The aforementioned Ontario crater, known as the Brent Crater, was formed 450 or so million years go by a meteorite which left behind a 3.8 kilometre or so (2.4 or so miles) diameter crater. Its extraterrestrial nature was first proposed, in early 1951 I think, by John A. “Johnny” Roberts, president and founding member of Spartan Air Services. Incidentally, Roberts was mentioned in a November 2021 issue of our blog / bulletin / thingee.

Looking at one or more aerial photographs of the Cedar Lake region, photos taken by his crews, Roberts was struck by the similarity of a circular feature with the Chubb Crater. He forwarded his thoughts to the powers that be, who agreed with him. The first team of investigators was on site in July 1951. The feature identified by Roberts was a meteorite impact crater all right. Yay! Err, sorry.

The small (?) number of Canadian meteorite impact craters identified as a result of Beals’ comprehensive research programme include

- the 2.4 kilometre (1.5 mile) diameter Holleford Crater, near the village of Holleford, Ontario, and

- the 9.5 kilometre (6 mile) diameter Deep Bay Crater, in Reindeer Lake, Saskatchewan.

Another meteorite impact crater that Beals’ research program looked at no later than 1957 was / is the one known today as the Manicouagan Crater, 300 or so kilometres (185 or so miles) north of the city of Baie-Comeau, Québec. Formed 215 or so million years ago, that crater originally had a diameter of 100 or so kilometres (60 or so miles).

The construction of a hydroelectric dam, near-mythical in the 1960s and 1970s, Manic-5, later renamed the Daniel-Johnson dam, raised the water level around the crater, linking the pair of crescent shaped lakes located on either side and forming the Manicouagan Reservoir. That annular body of water and the landmass at the centre of it, René-Levasseur Island, formed / form a geographical feature visible from space, the eye of Québec.

You will be pleased, I hope, to hear (read?) that Beals’ research project led to a July 1965 article by Michael R. “Mike” Dence, a geologist at the Dominion Observatory and a true pioneer in impact crater research. Published in Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, said article listed 10 potential impact craters located on Canadian soil. All of these potential impact structures turned out to be impact craters.

It goes without saying, but I will say it anyway, just to annoy you, that Dence went on to publish other equally important articles, as did Beals of course.

A brief digression if I may. As of 1950, less than 20 meteorite impact craters had been identified on our planet. By 2022, that total had risen to about 190, including about 30 in Canada – a number that far exceeds what one would expect given the size of the country (about 7 % of land area). The actual total number of meteorite impact craters on out planet is undoubtedly (a lot?) higher than that. Sweet dreams, my reading friend, sweet dreams.

A longer digression if I may. Brilliant individual that you are, you will not be surprised to hear (read?) that the impact of a meteorite or comet has inspired a number of movie directors over the years. The following list may well be a partial one:

1958             La morte viene dallo spazio - Earth saved

1979             Meteor - Earth saved

1997             Asteroid

1998             Deep Impact

1998             Armageddon - Earth saved

2007             Futureshock: Comet Impact

2009             Polar Storm

2012             Seeking a Friend for the End of the World

2014             Asteroid vs. Earth - Earth saved

2016             Ice Age: Collision Course - Earth saved

2020             Greenland

2021             Don’t Look Up

If the title of the 1958 motion picture rings a bell, it is undoubtedly because you read the September 2018 issue of our stunning blog / bulletin / thingee, which was focused on said motion picture, known to English speaking audiences as The Day the Sky Exploded.

And yes, 10 of the 12 motion pictures in our list were released between 1997 and 2022. And people I know say I have dark thoughts…

As you may well imagine, Beals was one of the individuals interviewed by journalists when the first artificial satellite, the Soviet Sputnik 1, mentioned several / many times in our blog / bulletin / thingee since February 2018, went into orbit, in October 1957. He was interviewed yet again when other Soviet satellites and probes did their thing later on.

It is well worth noting that Beals oversaw the creation of the Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory, located at White Lake, near Penticton, British Columbia. That research centre, the largest radio astronomy observatory in Canada, officially opened its doors in June 1960.

Would you believe that, in February 1962, Beals was approached by journalists eager for a comment when a conjunction / alignment of the 5 planets visible to the naked eye (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn), combined with a solar eclipse visible in certain regions of the globe, unnerved millions of people, and freaked out more than a few? While several / many North American newspapers reported how fearful a lot of people in India, ignorant / superstitious non-white people as the newspapers apparently implied without actually saying so, were, the truth was that thousands, if not tens of thousands, of North Americans also feared that the end of days was neigh.

Unsurprisingly, and quite accurately, Beals stated that there was nothing to worry about. The conjunction and eclipse were actually an interesting phenomenon to observe, provided that certain precautions be taken. Staring at the sun during an eclipse for too long a period, either before or after the Sun’s disappearance behind the Moon, could seriously and permanently damage one’s vision.

It should be noted that Beals was elected President of the American Astronomical Society in August 1962. He held that prestigious position until January 1964. Beals was the first Canadian president of the society. As of 2022, he was / is still the first and only one.

Beals retired in late June 1964, seemingly on his 65th birthday.

The Dominion Observatory lost its name in early July as part of a reorganisation effort launched by the Department of Mines and Technical Surveys, as the federal government outfit which oversaw its activities was called at the time. It became one of the observatories of a departmental branch. The founding director of said branch was a renowned Canadian seismologist and head of the Dominion Observatory’s seismology division, John H. Hodgson.

Beals’ successor as Dominion Astronomer was a renowned Scottish Canadian astronomer who, up to then, had been the Dominion Astrophysicist and the Director of the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory. Interestingly, Robert Methven Petrie did not move to Ottawa. Nay. He remained in British Columbia, quite possibly in his old office. Whether or not Petrie’s new title remained in use for any length of time is unclear, at least to me.

A digression if I may. One has to wonder if Beals knew what the Department of Mines and Technical Surveys was planning. If he did, one has to wonder if he chose to retire when he did because he did not like what he was hearing. If he did not, well, he might not have been amused by the secrecy observed.

In any event, the observatory formerly known as the Dominion Observatory continued to operate, until 1970 that is, when its astronomical and time keeping activities were transferred to the National Research Council of Canada (NRC). The other activities of the observatory, on the other hand, went to what was then the Department of Energy, Mines and Resources.

Once retired, Beals did not put a stop to his scientific activities. Nay. He did some consulting work, for example. Beals also continued his research on meteorite craters. In that regard, the observations and photographs of Moon craters from the Apollo missions proved rather useful to him.

Beals edited a two-volume book entitled Science, History and Hudson Bay which was published in 1968 by the Department of Energy, Mines and Resources. Indeed, he was one of the 55 or so individuals, all of them (?) anglophones. who provided content for that 1 050 or so page endeavour. An endeavour which was seemingly not translated into French, which was / is a tad curious. Anyway, let us move on.

Beals’ paper, “On the possibility of a catastrophic origin for the great arc of eastern Hudson Bay,” dealt with the possibility that the near circular segment of said bay’s coastline was part of a 450 or so kilometres (280 or so mile) meteorite impact crater. Yikes!

And if you think that was / is a big crater, well, it was / is. The largest officially recognised meteorite crater on planet Earth is the 2-billion-year-old Vredefort crater, in South Africa, which originally had a diameter of 300 or so kilometres (about 185 miles). Number 2 on the list is the 1.85-billion-year-old crater in Sudbury, Ontario, with an original diameter of up to 260 kilometres (160 or so miles). The extra-terrestrial origin of both craters has been suspected since the early 1970s, if not the 1960s, at the latest.

By comparison, the 65 million year old Chicxulub Crater, in Mexico, identified in 1991, has a diameter of only 180 or so kilometres (110 or so miles). Even so, the meteorite which crashed there wiped out 75 % of the plant and animals species on planet Earth. Do you feel safe, my reading friend?

Yours truly would be delighted, and a tad terrified, to state that the largest meteorite crater known to exist on our big blue marble was / is in Québec / Canada. Sadly enough, it looks as if the Nastapoka arc, as the near circular segment of Hudson Bay’s coastline has been known since the 1960s, was not formed by the impact of a meteorite. Phew.

Beals passed away in early July 1979. That gentleman of gentlemen was 80 years old.

In 1981, the Canadian Astronomical Society, a learned society formed in 1971, created the Carlyle S. Beals Award. Originally designed to allow an individual to travel to a general assembly of the International Astronomical Union, a very important event held every three years, the award evolved, in 1988, into a recognition of the outstanding research achievement (specific project or overall career) of a Canadian astronomer or of a foreign astronomer working in Canada. Awarded in 1982 and 1985, the Carlyle S. Beals Award has been awarded every two years since 1988, but I digress.

Did yours truly mention that a meteor made its way through the protective atmosphere of our planet on 30 June 1908? The object in question exploded in mid air. The blast flattened / knocked over gazillions of trees over a sparsely inhabited 2 150 or so square kilometres (830 or so square miles) area of Eastern Siberia, Russian Empire. Several / many people died in what is commonly referred to as the Tunguska event / incident.

And yes, Beals talked with Soviet scientists about that very topic, and impact craters in general, during the 2+ weeks he spent in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) during the summer of 1962. All in all, he spent 7 weeks in Europe (Finland, France, United Kingdom and West Germany) during the spring and summer of that year. The quire rare opportunity to visit the USSR followed in the footsteps of the signing of an exchange agreement between the aforementioned NRC and the Akademiya Nauk Sovestskogo Soyuza, in other words the USSR’s academy of sciences, an organisation mentioned several times in our you know what since May 2019.

Incidentally, the meteor responsible for the Tunguska cataclysm, the largest of its kind in recorded history, was a mere pebble compared to the boulders which created the Chicxulub, Manicouagan, Sudbury and Vredefort craters. Sweet dreams, my reading friend, sweet dreams. (Ominous music playing in the background)

This writer wishes to thank all the people who provided information. Any mistake contained in this article is my fault, not theirs.

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Rénald Fortier