Thor Peak on Baffin Island. Our route crossed the glacier on the left and followed to the skyline to the summit, bypassing the intermediate peak. Later climbers ascended the overhanging face on the right in multi-day efforts.

Q&A #5 – Donald Morton (6 Feb 2023)

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For the past 50 years, the Canadian Scientific and Christian Affiliation has facilitated discussions about science and Christian faith in Canada. As part of our 50th-anniversary celebrations, we asked 50 CSCA members to comment on their personal connections to science, scripture, and Canadian scenery. We will share these contributions throughout 2023 in hope that you will find them engaging and encouraging.

CSCA member of the week: Donald Morton, Researcher Emeritus at the Herzberg Institute of Astrophysics, National Research Council in Canada

1. Why did you choose your scientific discipline?

From an early age, I was interested in engineering and all of the physical sciences including astronomy, but I never thought I could earn a living in that specialty. However, in June 1952, when I had finished writing the examinations required for matriculation into the University of Toronto and had time to think about a summer job, I wondered if something might be possible at the University’s David Dunlap Observatory, 15 km north of my home. Dr. Heard, the Director, told me the Observatory normally does not hire students until they have completed at least one university year. but he was short of summer staff and would take a chance with me. When I arrived for my first day of work, I expected to be given simple tasks, but instead was immediately shown how to operate the 1.9 m telescope and photograph stellar spectra. During my daytime shifts, I measured these spectra, so I was delighted to be doing science and contributing new astronomical information.

With future employment in mind, I had enrolled in Engineering Physics, but Dr. Heard encouraged me to consider the Mathematics and Physics program which had an astronomy option in the fourth year. So, after about a month as an engineering student, I made the change. I spent five wonderful summers working at the Dunlap Observatory and then in September 1956 moved to Princeton University for a PhD in astrophysics, though still with the uncertainty of employment afterwards. Very fortunately the Soviets launched Sputnik into orbit at the beginning of my second year resulting in many countries providing major new funding for astronomy.

Consequently, after completing my PhD, in 1959, I learned how to do rocket science during two years at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D. C. Then Lyman Spitzer, Chairman of the Princeton Department, invited me back to put small spectrographs on rockets to observe the far-ultraviolet spectra of stars. In 1976, I moved to Australia to direct the recently completed 3.8 m Anglo-Australian Telescope, and in 1986, after 30 years, I returned to Canada to be responsible for all government-operated astronomical facilities at the National Research Council.

2. What is one of your favourite Bible verses and why?

“In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth.”
Whether Moses intended heaven as in the King James version or heavens as found in later translations, the clear message is that God was the ultimate creator of everything, both spiritual and physical.

As an astronomer, I consider Genesis 1:1 the first step in interpreting the wonderful Universe that we observe with our telescopes and speculate about the Big Bang and subsequent evolution.

3. Which Canadian city or landscape do you love exploring and why?

For me, the most spectacular Canadian landscape is what is now Auyuittuq National Park astride the Arctic Circle on Baffin Island with its long glaciers and rock peaks with sheer walls, including the flat-topped Mt. Asgard (2015 m), named for the home of the Norse gods. I had the privilege of joining two exploratory expeditions there in 1963 and 1965 when I climbed several of the mountains including Asgard both times and added the names of others to the map. The second expedition included Lyman Spitzer from Princeton. Together we made the first ascent of Thor Peak (1675 m), which overhangs the valley below making the world’s highest free drop of 1250 m. (See the featured image at the top of this post, with its caption.)

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