Part-time student awarded American Institute of Physics grant

picture of a VanDerGraff generator

Part-time York graduate student Edward Fenner, a web communications and publications assistant in the Office of the Associate Vice-President 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 student in the Master of Arts in Science & Technology Studies (STS), Fenner is delving further into the personal and family history of Robert J. Van de Graaff than anyone has before. Van de Graaff was a pioneering American nuclear physicist who in 1929 invented an early particle accelerator, a high-voltage electrostatic generator. “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.”

Edward Fenner Head ShotLeft: Edward Fenner

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, but there has been almost no historical study of the man or the device.”

Fenner plans to write a biography of Van de Graaff after completing his studies. “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,” he says.

Kroker was on a research sabbatical in Paris when in 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 York 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 Fenner, 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 York 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 in 2004 and the Canadian Assembly of Mature Student Organizations in 2009, and continues to publish York’s Existere, Journal of Arts & 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.

For more information, visit Fenner’s website.

For more information about the grant, visit the American Institute of Physics website.