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Renaissance Man

He's a scientist, arts aficionado and acclaimed editor who brings success to seemingly everything he undertakes. What will Queen's do if he ever really retires?

BY ANITA LAHEY | MAR 12 2007

Boris Castel, nuclear physicist and editor of the Queen’s Quarterly academic journal, eases his sleek, taupe sedan alongside the curb outside the Agnes Etherington Art Centre at Queen’s University. He turns, adjusting his black brimmed hat. “There’s something I want to show you,” he says.

Inside, Dr. Castel marches toward a portrait of Frances Hyland, in costume for a 1954 performance of Measure for Measure at the Stratford Festival. “What do you think? For the next cover of the Quarterly?”

Though we’ve only just met – what does he know of my credentials? – I feel a weight being placed on my response. He’s just told me the issue will have an arts theme. I tell him I don’t think the demure Hyland would be as effective as the William Shatner nearby, wearing a come-hither expression, in the Taming of the Shrew. “Ah, yes!” he exclaims. “You have a good aesthetic sense.”

I leave the gallery – as it turns out, a particularly appropriate setting in which to spend time with Dr. Castel – feeling I’ve somehow been recruited to the Quarterly team.

When he joined the physics department at Queen’s about 30 years ago, Boris Castel set about hanging art in his office and in the hallways. His concern went beyond décor. “When I think of living without the arts, I would say I admire people who do. They must have an enormous sense of their own inner art, to survive.”

We are sitting on comfortable rattan furniture in his office at the Queen’s Quarterly, the 114-year-old journal that Dr. Castel has edited since 1992, when he was still a physics professor. He is widely lauded for transforming the journal into one of the finest publications in the country.

Though emeritus since 2002, he also teaches a popular fourth-year course called Physicists in the Nuclear Age that attracts more than 200 students, many from outside the sciences. He recently co-wrote a well-received book, The Art of Science, with Queen’s philosopher Sergio Sismondo.

He’s also the man credited with a dramatic turnaround in the fortunes of the Queen’s 50-year-old performing arts office. Before he took over 10 years ago, the annual concert series was struggling. Today, for $60 ($35 for students), anyone can buy a series pass to see the National Arts Centre Orchestra, violinist Lara St. John and other internationally acclaimed artists who wouldn’t in the past have bothered stopping in Kingston. And the tickets all go.

With such a track record, it’s no surprise that Dr. Castel also functions as the hand-picked representative of Patrick Deane, vice-principal, academic, during negotiations to convert some local historic property into a new Queen’s performing arts complex complete with a concert hall.

“He’s the ideal person to represent my office,” says Dr. Deane. “He has a very practical intelligence in dealing with these things, but of a kind that never loses sight of the value in the arts themselves.”

Often seen cycling through town, or sitting in a local café, or reading on the Quarterly’s inviting verandah, Dr. Castel is a talented pianist and energetic father of five (all grown). With his disarming, grandfatherly demeanour and sharp, inquisitive eyes, he is the great enigma of Queen’s, the campus’s own Renaissance man, and a figure university officials see as indispensable to their efforts to reach beyond academe to the wider world.

“He’s what we want our students to emulate,” says Queen’s Principal Karen Hitchcock. “He’s a role model of what I think a liberal arts education is all about.”

Dr. Castel’s presence is felt in so many ways at Queen’s that one wonders what will happen when he finally retires for real. Not that the 69-year-old is going anywhere just yet. His Quarterly office, on the main floor of a charming red brick house with a pointed roof and decorative trim, has the feel of a well-used study. It contains filing cabinets draped in Persian- style rugs, a windowsill crowded with plants, and walls lined with books on history, science, politics and philosophy.

And, of course, art.

From the wall behind us, a David Hockney poster stares across at a watercolour by local artist Erika Olson, whose still life paintings are featured in full colour over eight pages in the Fall 2006 issue of the Quarterly. “You can see [she] must have been in a happy, creative mood,” says Dr. Castel. “I admire that inner sense of creativity, since we don’t know where it comes from.”

Two sculptures on the mantle – one a huddled figure, the other desperately holding a child – please him in a different way. “I find real beauty in this reminder of the human condition,” he says. “There is a degree of aesthetic enjoyment to know that we belong.”

His appreciation of the aesthetic led Dr. Castel, perhaps counter-intuitively, into science. Raised in Paris from a Polish-Jewish background, he started his working life teaching piano in Paris in the 1950s. It didn’t go so well. “If your students didn’t get first prize, it wasn’t their fault that they didn’t work hard enough – it was the teacher, of course! I realized that a lifetime of this, well, it can’t be done.”

His other talent lay in mathematics, which led him to the only alternative he could imagine: physics. “Theoretical physics embodies the need for an aesthetic representation of the world. It also tries to be at the forefront of science. Which is the only spot to be of course, yes?”

At the time, nuclear physics was at the forefront of what he fondly calls “our search for the very small.” So the nucleus became the focus for the future Dr. Castel, who studied at the prestigious Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen and was hired as a professor by the Nuclear Physics Institute in Paris. His proposal to represent the nucleus as a liquid drop – which, like the nucleus, would change shape with oscillation – was quickly overtaken by other theories, but contributed to a deeper understanding in the discipline.

“That’s the change of shape that has puzzled me for many years, and puzzled a generation of physicists in my time.” He pauses, then proposes softly, “We might have been inspired by the art of the time. The arts are in my opinion ahead of the sciences. It’s not like most people think, that science advances and then the poets follow.”

Talking with Dr. Castel engenders a sense of familiarity in anyone who has spent time reading the Quarterly. That’s because, says Cathy Harland, English professor and chair of the Quarterly‘s editorial board, his spirit of relentless inquiry has been injected into the magazine itself. “The Quarterly is meant to appeal to the general reader with intellectual curiosity,” she says. “That’s something Boris has to the nth degree.”

Seventeen years back, the Quarterly was a different creature, seldom read by anyone who wasn’t a scholar. “It was the best intellectual journal in the country,” says Dr. Castel. “But one issue was like the other. People had to buy it knowing it was a predictable exercise. Such an enterprise won’t survive the 21st century.”

He introduced a new design into the journal, the size of a trade paperback, incorporated full-colour visuals, and mixed up the length for articles, which previously were uniformly 7,000-plus words. Content was made more international with an emphasis on Europe, and themed issues were introduced on subjects ranging from film to sport to war to memory. Dr. Castel recruited a stable of prestigious contributors who would appeal to a smart lay readership, including Robert Fulford, Michael Ignatieff and John Ralston Saul.

“Every issue is to be a surprise,” says Dr. Castel. “We try to show the world the way it is, but also the way it could be if you or I had a vision which was a little closer to idealism.”

Since he took over, the Quarterly has doubled its circulation, won five gold National Magazine Awards and been described by John Fraser, journalist and master of Massey College at the University of Toronto, as “a source of some jealousy at other institutions.” It has been exuberantly praised in national media, and its former subscription-only distribution model has been expanded to include newsstand sales. The Quarterly crew has even adopted target marketing: copies are sent to embassies and to Kingston B&B operators who keep them on hand for their guests – often visiting professors, smack-dab in the magazine’s readership profile.

“The Quarterly is now read by what Gore Vidal calls ‘voluntary readers'” says Clarke Mackey, head of the department of film studies at Queen’s and also a member of the editorial board. “People read it because they like to, not because they have to.”

Joan Harcourt, its literary editor, remains amazed by the journal’s transformation. “I’ve come to trust him completely,” she says of Dr. Castel. “He must obviously live in this marvelous world inside his own head. Often I will see him hunched over the telephone talking. On the other end could be the King of Bulgaria for all I know. And suddenly we’ll have an article from the King of Bulgaria and you don’t know how it got there.”

“How” is the big question surrounding Dr. Castel. How, for example, does he attract authors such as Fulford and Saul to a publication that pays them a fraction of their more commercial gigs? How does he lure the NAC Orchestra to Kingston to perform in the lovely but hardly world-renowned Grant Hall?

His breadth of knowledge – kept current in part by his habit of reading everything from Vanity Fair to Granta to his favourite magazine, a French publication called Senso – certainly helps. “There are not many subjects you could raise that he wouldn’t have some general idea about,” says Dr. Harland. “One of my colleagues says, ‘Boris knows what he knows, he does not need to spend time Googling.'”

His breadth of knowledge combined with his own modesty and creativity may be part of his magic in attracting other creative people, be they musicians or writers – the NAC Orchestra has performed three times at Queen’s.

“We always feel welcome and appreciated.” says Christopher Dearlove, manager of the NAC Orchestra. Because Dr. Castel is a pianist, adds Steve Anderson, associate editor of the Quarterly, he “understands what musicians need when they come to town.” Plus “he loves the performing arts, the concert series and, you know, hanging out with Pinchas Zukerman.”

Dr. Castel is also gifted as a “very deft manager,” according to Queen’s VP academic Dr. Deane. “He manages the budgets and staffing issues with tremendous aplomb,” he says, resulting in a quarterly and a classical music series that, beyond in-kind support from the university (and grants from the Canada Council and Ontario Arts Council for the Quarterly), pay their way. He also functions as an “interface” between the academy and the culture at large. And yet, says Dr. Deane, “He’s a very low-key person. That’s one of his defining attributes, which I think is at the root of people’s astonishment at what he’s able to accomplish.”

When it comes to the Quarterly, Dr. Castel is intensely engaged with the ideas and the articles inside – a key attraction for Robert Fulford, a regular columnist. “He’s the kind of editor,” says Mr. Fulford, “you run into about one in 50, who is really excited about what appears in their magazine. They talk about the possibilities of this article and that article and they get quite worked up. It’s terrific.”

The loyalty of national award- winning writers is one way Dr. Castel has built up the Quarterly‘s assets with an immense cache of contacts. “If you can attract two good writers,” explains Mr. Fulford, “then other pretty good writers are going to be reading it and saying ‘why aren’t I in there?'” In Dr. Hitchcock’s words, “He has continued a legacy, which is the Queen’s Quarterly, and advanced it.”

But what happens when he’s gone? “The key thing will be to build on what he’s achieved,” says Dr. Deane. “It will be extremely difficult to find someone with the same kinds of gifts. But as a tribute to what he’s achieved, we’d have to make sure we did.”

That sounds in keeping with Dr. Castel’s own explanation of how to make it work. Two simple words: team spirit. “I very much believe that we can all think together. I hope it is my nature to make sure that people in our team feel that whatever turns out to be great is part of their enterprise.”

It sounds a little Management 101 but, as it’s from Dr. Castel, it’s part philosophy as well, even part aesthetic. “The best test,” he says, recalling our trip to the gallery, “is what we did together with the cover. You not only have to respect other people’s opinion, you have to entice them, to make them feel it’s their responsibility. Because if it’s always my opinion, after three months I’ll repeat it, and then you will continue presenting Haydn as played by this orchestra, over and over, which is not what people want.”

If the next issue of the Quarterly has William Shatner on the cover, and works brilliantly, it will be Dr. Castel’s “deft” management skills that put him there. Yet I will own a little bit of that achievement as well; I’ll be keen to take part again. There, then, is the clue to the mystery of a tiny, remarkable, academic journal. That is how Dr. Castel does what he does.

Anita Lahey is an Ottawa-based journalist, poet and art enthusiast who knows how to pick magazine covers. Her first collection of poems, Out to Dry in Cape Breton, was published last year by Véhicule Press.


A Queen’s Quarterly sampler

Fall 2006 | Theme: History, the Ultimate Road Map?

History as antithesis, by Modris Eksteins, renowned U of T historian, on how America became a symbol of what Europe was not.

Anniversary, a 50th-year memoir of the Hungarian revolution by Hungarian-born Toronto writer George Jonas.

Summer 2006 | Theme: In Art and Life

Leonardo’s Mystery, an interview with Umberto Eco by Thomas Regnier, discussing the Italian philosopher’s views on the enduring fascination of Leonardo da Vinci.

Spring 2006 | Theme: Sports, the New Faith

“Those Imbecilic, Stultifying Games”: Notes on the Age of Sports, by Robert Fulford

Slipping the Surly Bonds of Earth: Discovering Hockey’s Elusive Reality, by Queen’s head of sociology, Rob Beamish.

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