Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Astronautics is my life

Archie Edmiston Roy, a Scottish astronomer, was born 90 years ago today. Although successful and widely published as an astronomer, he was better known to the public for his investigations of psychic phenomena, being dubbed the ‘Glasgow Ghostbuster’. He died less than two years ago; and at a memorial service, one of his sons chose to read extracts from a diary showing his father was already obsessed by ‘astronautics’ as a teenager.

Roy was born on 24 June 1924, the son of a draughtsman at a shipyard in Clyde, Scotland. He was educated locally, and at Glasgow University. He became a teacher before joining the university’s astronomy department in 1958, rising to a professorship in 1977. He married Frances and they had three sons.

In the 1960s and 1970s, as a consultant to Nasa, Roy was involved with the moon-landing project. He was the author of several world-renowned textbooks and over 70 scientific papers on astronomy, as well as on neural networks and models of the brain. He was a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, the Royal Astronomical Society, and the British Interplanetary Society; and he was honoured with having an asteroid - (5806) Archieroy - named after him.

However, Roy became better known for his psychical research, especially after the release of the Hollywood film Ghostbusters which led to the media labelling him ‘the Glasgow Ghostbuster’. He was often invited to investigate supposed haunted houses in Scotland and sometimes to banish ghosts or poltergeists. He became president of the Society for Psychical Research and Founding President of The Scottish Society for Psychical Research. In 2004 he was awarded the Myers Memorial Medal by the Society for Psychical Research. One of his last books, The Eager Dead - A Study in Haunting with a foreword by Colin Wilson, was published in 2008.

In addition to his two main professional interests, Roy also tried his hand at fiction, and published several novels during the 1970s. He died in December 2012. Further biographical information is available from Wikipedia, The Scotsman, The Guardian, The Telegraph, or the Association for Evaluation and Communication of Evidence for Survival.

In March last year (2013), a memorial service was held for Roy at the Glasgow University Chapel. A full report was published in Frontiers magazine. The Astronomer Royal for Scotland, Professor John C Brown, spoke on Roy’s achievements, not least that he had remained a university tutor for nearly 60 years. ‘He had an ability to focus - to penetrate deeply into something he was fascinated by,’ Brown said, whether an astronomical problem or issues in psychic research and the paranormal. His investigations convinced him that existence did not end with death, and he used to enjoy summing it up by saying: ‘If I die and I find out I have not survived, I will be very surprised!’

One of Roy’s sons, Ian, also spoke, and he referred to a diary kept by his father when still a teenager. Ian explained that, at the age of 17, his father had contracted tuberculosis and was subsequently interned at Bridge of Weir sanatorium. It was there that he started to keep a journal: ‘What was most striking from his writing at this time - aged only 19 - was his complete commitment to his chosen science and his determination to return, against all odds, to Glasgow University to pursue his passion, at a time when TB was more than likely to claim the life of sufferers and when his primary interest in ‘astronautics’ was considered little more than fantastical by the mainstream. So, I’d like to share a couple of entries from this diary which I feel best illustrate this part of his life and which I have found both fascinating and humbling.’

10 August 1944
‘On Saturday, Mother, when we were walking along the Bottom Avenue, asked me whether I would not like to enter business, and certainly I feel myself that I have a business mind, although I am simultaneously so romantic in temperament. Mother’s idea was that, as the possessor of a shop or two, I would be my own employer and, if I felt at any time, not entirely fit, I could take a rest from work. It appears to me that there are several flaws in Mother’s argument but at the same time, the prospect of building up a successful business has its appeal.

My mother, of course, has no idea as yet, of my own plans and it with these ambitions before me that I have been debating the usefulness of taking her advice. I have come to the conclusion after some thought, that the course of returning to the university, and studying maths, physics, chemistry and astronomy, is the more certain way of furthering my astronautical career. If I entered business, I might in that way, run the lower risk of breaking down in health again, but I cannot see how it helps my plans. I might find spare time enough to make astronautics my hobby, but the idea has no appeal. Astronautics is my life, and returning to my studies being the best way of serving that science, I shall go back to the University.’

16 January 1945
‘I am home. I arrived here yesterday at five, and even now, on Tuesday evening, I find it hard to believe that I am awake. Bridge of Weir seems to be a dream, though I shall never forget it or the people I met there.

Before I left, I had a long talk with the Chief. He was very kind, wanting to know my plans for the future. I told him I wanted to go back to study Maths, Science and kindred subjects. I did not tell him I meant to devote my life to astronautics. I wanted him to let me home, not send for a mental specialist.’

2 September 1945
‘Father paid the bills but only after the telephone was cut off. He was asking me about my fees for the Varsity. He didn’t seem too happy about them.

I had a letter from the Registrar saying that a place has been kept for me so if all goes well, I start in October. Strewth! How unsettled I feel at times. At others I think of the goal I have set myself and decide that nothing will stop me.’

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