In the Tradition of the Great
By William Morris (University College, Aberystwyth) 30.09.1936
To have gained the highest distinction that the science of astronomy has to offer, namely, Fellowship of the Royal Astronomical Society, with the only scantiest training in education and general culture, is something of which one may be justly proud. But Mr. John R. Owens, F.R.A.S., Llanrhystyd, Cardiganshire, during an interview, was quietly modest and unassuming concerning his achievement.
Mr. Owens is a man in his thirties who burns the candle at both ends, and this fact largely accounts for his delicate physique and pallid features. For the last twenty years he has worked hard on his Cardingshire farm during the day, while at night he takes out his telescope to survey the heavens. If the weather forbids the use of the telescope Mr. Owens applies himself assiduously to abstruse problems in higher mathematics and astro-physics, which to the uninitiated are entirely meaningless.
It amazed me to hear this “child of the soil” expatiating on the profundities and mysteries of celestial phenomena, as he called them. As far, as his knowledge of stars and planets, comets and meteors was concerned I was at a loss to understand; but I admired the integrity, the zeal, and the wholehearted enthusiasm which he displayed for scientific truth and astronomical progress.
I asked him how and when his interest was aroused.
“It was first kindled,” he said, “by the appearance of Halley’s Comet in the western heavens in 1910. Ever since then the heavenly bodies have attracted me with increasing awe and wonder. I determined to observe them, to find out the laws which govern their movements and to ascertain what influence they exert on each other and on the earth.”
After this awakening of interest – he was 11 years of age at the time – he began to study astronomy conscientiously. His grandfather supplied him with his first text-book, “Wonders of the Heavens,” by Sir Richard Phillips, published in 1827. This was followed by more recent books, such as Dr. Lardner’s “Handbook of Astronomy” and Sir Robert Ball’s “Story of the Heavens.”
£5 for Book
Having mastered these and more advanced modern works, he soon gained a thorough grounding in general astronomy. Later he decided to pursue original research work. He chose as his subject that of calculating the orbits of comets and meteors. For this purpose; he bought a rare and costly treatise, “Theoretical Astronomy,” by Professor Watson, of the University of Philadelphia. He ordered this book direct from a New York publisher, paying £5 for it.
Mr. Owens, at my request, took me into his private study-room. A table in the centre was littered with books, newspapers, journals and mathematical instruments. He showed me a sheaf of correspondence which he kindly allowed me to read.
Many of the letters were from well-known scholars and men of science praising his work and the Pont Llyfni meteorite, about which he has written in this newspaper. Two of these letters were outstandingly eulogistic; one was from the late Dr. John Mastin, Principal of Kenyon Hall College, Manchester, who came down to visit Mr. Owens, and the other was from Mr. Gerald Heard, author of “Ascent of Humanity.” Here are three sentences from Mr. Heard’s letter:
“Your researches interested me because it seems that in them is once again illustrated the distinctive character, of British Science. I think, if you will allow me to say so, that you may look upon yourself as in the tradition of the great amateurs of the new understanding which three hundred years ago in this island began again the history of science which had been arrested since the time of the Greeks.”
“As I looked through your work I could not help being reminded of the work of another amateur, the great Herschel, who also collected carefully, and actually made his astronomical instruments.”
Any comment of mine on these pregnant statements would be superfluous. Mr. Owens, however, was quite unmoved when I congratulated him on being coupled with the illustrious Herschel. But that maybe, is a characteristic of the scientific mind.
Three Years of Research
I then asked him if he was engaged in any particular study at the moment.
He answered that he had recently completed a thesis entitled “The Theory of Comets and Meteors,” which had occupied him three years of intensive research. He is shortly to present this work for a doctorate of science of the University of London.
He also informed me that during the past few years he had found time to make a special study of modern sound waves, in collaboration with the Director of Kew, Observatory.
He showed me a copy of the above-mention thesis. It was carefully and legibly written and interspersed with numerous diagrams, maps, and tables of his own construction. The object which had inspired this treatise was encased in an air-tight glass box which stood on the mantlepiece. It was the carbon-coloured meteorite he had discovered in North Wales in 1931.
The future researches of Mr. Owens will be largely confined to a branch of astro-physics, namely, radio-activity. He is attempting to discover a formula by which he can prove that atoms which are naturally radio-active can be made into radio-activity. If successful, he added, this experiment may have important scientific repercussions, particularly, in the art of radio-therapy.
To my questions what was his ultimate goal in life, he answered that his ambition was twofold – to contribute to the advancement of science and to be admitted to a Fellowship of the Royal Society, the highest honour the world of science has to confer.
A Full Life
Apart from his work in astronomical research, this young scientist is a keen student of the humanities. He is deeply versed in the ancient classics, possessing a working knowledge of Greek and Latin; is conversant with history, literature and philosophy, and has a desire to master one or two modern languages to enable him to keep in touch with scientific inquiry on the Continent.
Add to this the fact that he follows closely the political, economic, and social trends of the day and your astonishment is excusable. Yet Mr. Owens does not allow his studies to interfere with the daily routine of farming, which he pursues with all the diligence and care that it demands. Neither has he allowed the scientist in him to impair or affect in any way his more human qualities. He is always cheerful, courteous and sociable.
Before leaving him, I was desirous of knowing what science had taught him about life in general. “I strongly believe,” he remarked, “that science not only enriches life, but it also exalts the human mind to higher and more ennobling levels of truth, perception, and understanding.”
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