I first rode the gondola lift to the top of Sulphur Mountain overlooking the town of Banff. There, at 7500 feet above sea level, you find an awesome vista of majestic peaks in every direction as far as the eye can see, the products of immense geological and meteorological forces over enormous stretches of time.
You also find the Sulphur Mountain Cosmic Ray National Historic Site, which consists of a large plaque (in English and French) and a small, one-story stone building. It commemorates a research station established in 1956 as part of Canada's contribution to the International Geophysical Year (IGY) of 1957-58, a worldwide effort to understand our planet and the forces that created it and continue to affect it. Sulphur Mountain was one of nine cosmic ray stations Canada built for the project, among 99 devoted to the subject around the globe.
But Sanson was not the only autodidact to enrich science's knowledge of the Rockies, as I learned by visiting the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies in Banff. Sanson's close contemporary George Vaux VIII (1863-1927), a Quaker lawyer from Philadelphia, along with his children William, Mary and George IX, visited the area repeatedly between 1887 and 1911. This was the era when construction of railroads first made the Rockies accessible--and chic--as a destination for tourism.They initially came simply to see the sights but returned to photograph the glaciers.
The Vauxs were no ordinary tourists. Lugging the cumbersome cameras and photographic plates of the era, they together produced many meticulously labeled pictures and were the first to prove, over a period of years, that the glaciers were receding. Mary participated in the project in long skirts and high button shoes. Then in the early years of this century, another intrepid Vaux relative, George VIII's great grandson Henry Vaux, decided to continue the family's work by retaking the photographs--in black and white to permit comparison to the black-and-white originals--from the exact same spots. Both Henry's photos and those of his ancestors are on display at the Whyte Museum. The change in the glaciers that they document is, to put it mildly, quite shocking.
At the Whyte Museum, I also learned of the work by Mary Schaffer Warren (1861-1929), another Philadelphia Quaker as it happens, who visited the Canadian Rockies with her first husband, Charles Schaffer, who was studying the flora of the region. After his death (and those of her parents, all within a 6-month period in 1903), the new widow returned to the mountains in search of solace. She decided, however, to finish Charles's project. This resulted in Alpine Flora of the Canadian Rocky Mountains, written by botanist Stewardson Brown, illustrated with detailed botanical paintings by Mary, and published in 1907. Later, the Canadian government broke all precedent by hiring Mary--the first woman ever so employed--to survey Maligne Lake near Lake Louise.
So a hundred years ago, the frontier of scientific research was reached by men and women toiling up mountains on foot or horseback, hauling bulky, awkward equipment. In 1956, after a road was built up Sulphur Mountain to allow transporting and servicing the instruments used to study cosmic rays, reaching the frontier involved more sophisticated instruments and internal combustion engines. And just two weeks ago, as we unforgettably witnessed, the frontier of science has moved to Mars.
The vast majesty of the Rockies leaves no doubt that the last fifty years, or even a hundred, are the merest blink of an eye in the history of our planet. But in the history of science, it has been an epic period. I have no doubt that such dedicated inquirers as Norman Sanson, the Vauxs, and Mary Warren would also have been watching in fascination. Who can even imagine where the frontier of science will be fifty or 100 years from now?