Tag Archives: bibliophile

Intersections with John Brent Musgrave


Intersections with John  Musgrave, on learning from his Colombian born wife Consuelo of his sudden death of a heart attack August 11, 2015 (by Richard Gordon)

I met John probably in my last (3rd) year of high school at the University of Chicago Laboratory School. He was then an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, and a member of the Astronomy Club (still in business). The president Tom was the older brother of a girl who was a year ahead of me in the Lab School. Tom made me recite some constellations (a difficult task for me, allergic to memorizations) to join the club. I learned them once and promptly forgot most, though Big and Little Dippers, Cassiopeia and Orion still stick. By the time I entered UC in 1959 as a 16 year old student, skipping the senior year in high school, John was President, I became Treasurer, and there were no other members and no membership fees. It was typical of John’s wry humor, which I went along with, that he gave me this null responsibility for all our money. I enjoyed the irony.

John lived in the crawl space between the roof and the ceiling, just high enough to sit up on the mattress he set up in there, above our club room atop the Ryerson Physics Building, accessed by a narrow helical staircase. John kept his personal belongings locked in the club room, explaining that the purpose of locks was to keep honest people honest. Above the club room, from which we could look east across the campus, was the observatory on the roof containing a 6 inch refracting telescope. Daytimes I would occasionally sketch projected images of the sun’s spots. At night I sometimes brought a date up there. I tried simultaneously photographing the same meteorites with my brother, with him at our home in southwest Chicago and me at UC. I had built a strobing device consisting of a fan blade on a motor that went in front of the camera, so that the images of meteorites would be a sequence of dashes, allowing calculation of their velocity But the film cracked in the cold of night when advanced in the camera, and I didn’t think about how to overcome that problem. Dan later became an excellent amateur astronomer with his own observatory, and a prize winning astronomy photographer. He still volunteers at McDonald Observatory in Texas.

Astronomy overnights with John meant we played with an ancient brass calculating machine we had, listened to classical music on WFMT (a radio station still on, now available on Internet), and browsed through negatives of galaxies photographed by previous members. That space became my second campus home, my first being my own lab over the central lecture theater in the Kent Chemistry Building, where I kept a cot and cooked canned spaghetti in a beaker. I prepared specimens for students to analyze for the quantitative chemistry course, after taking that course my first summer before I entered UC. Ed Anders taught it. I later worked with him on organic matter in meteors.

John majored in history of science, and via him I gained an appreciation for that history. I recall sitting in on a course on modelling in science, undoubtedly because of John. John questioned everything, especially having to do with authority, and I owe much of my professional and daily skepticism to discussions with him. He told me about Vulcan, the planet deduced from its perturbations of Mercury’s orbit, and that was sometimes observed, between Mercury and the sun. It was later explained away by relativistic effects on Mercury’s orbit. We discussed phenomena such as people seeing lights on the Moon. John told me that when he was a kid, in broad daylight he used his telescope to watch something in the sky that had parts twirling around and going in and out, unlike any aircraft with which he was familiar. He later wrote a short book on UFO sightings in Canada. Again, I learned from him open-mindedness about things, raising questions, but not jumping to conclusions based on scant evidence. He was not a believer in UFOs, just open to their possibility. After a visit 5 years ago that Natalie and I paid to the UFO museum in Roswell, New Mexico, I made sure they got a copy of his book into their extensive library.

John came to my home, where my parents Jack and Diana Gordon got to know and like him. This probably made it easier on them when at 17 I moved out and shared an apartment with John and one other fellow in Hyde Park, north of the University. He also got to know George and Susan Meschel. Susan was a grad student in Quantitative Chemistry, who along with Jim Dwyer looked after me. I was younger than everyone else in my class, so it was these people, along with Helmut Hirsch and later Victor Fried, a prodigy in Biophysics, also my age, who formed my world.

I went off to graduate school at age 19 to the Institute for Molecular Biology at the University of Oregon. John’s pacifism wore off on me: “Do you believe in the use of force? Well, I do use a can opener.” Always a wry point of view. At UO I was kept out of the army draft “in the national interest” and joined many of the discussions pro and con about the Vietnam War. But this is John’s story.

John visited me once in Oregon, driving up from California, where his parents lived. His father, a laborer as I recalled, in the San Diego area, had done a lot of reading on witchcraft, which influenced John. (My father, a home remodelling salesman, was likewise a collector of all books on Franklin D. Roosevelt.) On a visit to John down there, he made a remark about my moustache looking like Hitler’s. When I mentioned this to him 50 years later, he said it showed how cruel kids can be to one another. The bad memory was laid to rest. In retrospect his remark was just his observation of the incongruity of a Jew bearing such a moustache. Although not Jewish himself, he did observe that most of his friends were Jewish.

On one visit John and I drove to and stayed with an old friend of his, who lived on the coast of northern Oregon. We caught razor clams on the beach, overcoming their amazing speed through sand with a half meter long sheet metal pipe capped at one end to let air out, with thumb over the hole to pull out a core of sand with clam. His friend couldn’t pay the taxes on his tiny home, so it went up for auction, and he bought it. More wryness.

For a year or two I kept a diary of sorts in the form of long, handwritten letters to John. Unfortunately, in his wanderings he had to lighten his load, and they were gone.

John collected books, amassing over 3000 of them, for which Consuelo now needs a buyer. He had rare books of interest to historians of science, and an eclectic variety of others. When I sold mine to begin full time RVing with Natalie, I had only 2000 to my name, much the same in kind, but focussing on biology instead of physics and astronomy. He moved to Edmonton, was in graduate school at the University of Alberta for a while, and I visited him there with his newly wed Consuelo, our young sons Chason and Justin in tow. When later he was short of cash, I bought a shelf of books from him on religion and science.


John’s beloved wife Consuelo Sanclemente Musgrave in a playful moment

Natalie and I visited John and Consuelo during our two stays in Osoyoos, British Columbia, winter 2013/14, seeing them at their home in Oliver and in restaurants. I attended a meeting of the local historical society with John. He was much the same, but had drifted far from science, the two of them having fostered many First Nations kids, and he getting involved in the history of local First Nations affairs. The last I saw him was when he came to our RV camp site (run by the Osoyoos Indian Band with whom John worked) to try to help me with a bolt on our trailer hitch, which would not budge with the tools we had between us.

John was one of those fine intellects who could never have made it in academia. I squeaked through, despite the attitudes I learned from John and concurred with. In retrospect, though I didn’t think of him that way, he was a fine, exemplary big brother. I’m off shortly to a conference on the origin of life, where I will be trying to tempt people to join me in a book on The Habitability of the Universe Before Earth, which if it comes to fruition will be dedicated to John’s memory.


Some of John’s Publications:

Musgrave, J.B. (1979). UFO Occupants & Critters: The Patterns in Canada. New York, Global Communications.

Musgrave, J.B. & J. Houran (2000). Flight and abduction in witchcraft and UFO lore. Psychological Reports 86(2), 669-688

Musgrave, J.B. & J. Houran (2003). The Witches’ Sabbat in legend and literature. Lore and Language 17, 157

Musgrave, J.B. (2003). Smallpox as a weapon of genocide in the Okanagan and Similkameen? Report of the Okanagan Historical Society 67, 41-43.