Albertus Magnus as scientist


Albertus Magnus 2

Can you imagine having all the theological, philosophical and scientific knowledge at your fingertips? Nowadays, you may be an expert in one discipline, or most likely, in a small part of your discipline. To know everything that was known, was possible in the 13th century, or better said it was possible to one person: a Dominican monk, Albertus Magnus (1193 (?) – 1280). Many may know him as teacher and later friend of Thomas Aquinas. He started to incorporate Aristotle into philosophy and theology, thus starting the Scholastic school, an effort that was completed by Aquinas.

But there is more. He was also called the Doctor Universalis, “Universal Doctor”. After joining the Dominican Order, he studied and taught at Padua, Bologna, Cologne and other German convents in Hildesheim, Freiburg, Ratisbon, Strasbourg, and Cologne. He then came to Paris around 1241, completed his Master of Theology In 1245 and remained there as teacher. While in Paris, he started to write on the entire body of knowledge, natural science, logic, rhetoric, mathematics, astronomy, ethics, economics, politics and metaphysics. In 1248, he returned to Cologne to direct and shape the newly instituted Studium Generale (General Studies). In 1254, he was nominated as a provincial of the Dominican Order in the German-speaking area and fulfilled the duties of the office with great care and efficiency. He visited all monasteries in the area — more than 40 – and in all of this he proceeded in accordance with the Dominican rule: he learned from nature by careful observation during these long journeys. In his book De mineralibus, he even describes that he visited stone quarries for purposes of study. In 1260, Pope Alexander IV appointed him Bishop of Regensburg (Ratisbon) in Germany. It was a difficult assignment, since the previous bishop had been so hopelessly corrupt that the pope had removed him from office. Albert restored order and governed the diocese until 1262. Then, after the acceptance of his resignation, he volunteered to resume the duties of a professor in the Studium Generale at Cologne. The announcement of the death of Thomas Aquinas at Fossa Nuova was a heavy blow to Albert, and he declared that “The Light of the Church” had been extinguished. Albert died on November 15, 1280, in the Dominican convent in Cologne.

Albert was the first to comment on virtually all of the writings of Aristotle, thus making them accessible to wider academic debate. The study of Aristotle brought him to study and comment on the teachings of Muslim scholars, notably Avicenna and Averroes, and this would bring him into the heart of academic debate.

He applied experimental methods to the Alchemy of his time. In his time, alchemists were mainly interesting in magic and in finding the “Philosopher’s Stone”, which would be able to transform other metals into gold. Albertus Magnus, in contrast, emphasized that gold can be purified and enriched from minerals, but cannot be derived from other metals, since gold has its own specific substantial form:

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Niels Steno: From Scientist to Bishop


Niels_stensenOn 25 November 1686, Niels Stensen died in Schwerin, at the age of 48. He was a Danish anatomist, palaeontologist and geologist. The mineral stenonite was named in his honour. He was ordained a Catholic bishop in 1677 in Italy and moved to the Lutheran part of Germany.

In October 1666 two fishermen caught a huge female shark near the town of Livorno, and Ferdinando II de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, ordered its head to be sent to Steno. Steno dissected the head and published his findings in 1667. He noted that the shark’s teeth bore a striking resemblance to certain stony objects, found embedded within rock formations, that his learned contemporaries were calling glossopetrae or “tongue stones”. Ancient authorities, such as the Roman author Pliny the Elder, in his Naturalis Historia, had suggested that these stones fell from the sky or from the Moon. Others were of the opinion, also following ancient authors, that fossils naturally grew in the rocks. Steno’s contemporary Athanasius Kircher, for example, attributed fossils to a “lapidifying virtue diffused through the whole body of the geocosm”, considered an inherent characteristic of the earth – an Aristotelian approach. Fabio Colonna, however, had already shown in a convincing way that glossopetrae are shark teeth, in his treatise De glossopetris dissertatio published in 1616.Steno added to Colonna’s theory a discussion on the differences in composition between glossopetrae and living sharks’ teeth, arguing that the chemical composition of fossils could be altered without changing their form, using the contemporary corpuscular theory of matter.

Steno’s work on shark teeth led him to the question of how any solid object could come to be found inside another solid object, such as a rock or a layer of rock. The “solid bodies within solids” that attracted Steno’s interest included not only fossils, as we would define them today, but minerals, crystals, encrustations, veins, and even entire rock layers or strata. He published his geologic studies in “De solido intra solidum naturaliter contento dissertationis prodromus”, or “Preliminary discourse to a dissertation on a solid body naturally contained within a solid” in 1669. Steno was not the first to identify fossils as being from living organisms; his contemporaries Robert Hooke, John Ray, and Leonardo da Vinci also argued that fossils were the remains of once-living organisms.

Graphic: Illustration from Steno’s 1667 paper comparing the teeth of a shark head with a fossil tooth. Sources:, wikipedia

Father John Augustine Zahm: Evolution and Providence


john augustine zahm 1

On 10 November 1921, Father John Augustine Zahm (1851-1921), a Holy Cross priest, author, scientist, and South American explorer died in Munich en route to the Middle East. He was one of the first Catholic theologians writing about evolution. He accepted the fact of evolution and found it compatible with the faith, but had some reservations, as many scientists at that time with Charles Darwin’s slowly and gradual change over time.

He was a strong promoter of a harmony between science and Catholic theology, and was deeply concerned to let ‘‘science have its say’’ in these matters, and he was not interested in altering the science to fit his theology. If he does not embrace the theory of natural selection, it is because a very large portion of the scientific community did not do so at that time.

Zahm’s  inspiration was largely taken from George Jackson Mivart (1827–1900)’s “Genesis of Species” (1871), a book Zahm put on his list of the 100 most important books for Notre Dame students to read. According to Mivart, a concept of creation that operated over time could be found in the writings of the early Christian Fathers of the Church, especially Gregory of Nyssa and St. Augustine, and in the writings of the great Scholastics, especially Thomas Aquinas and Francisco Suarez. Mivart, and Zahm following him, attribute considerable importance to the writings of St. Augustine as the foundation of this concept.

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Ferdinand Verbiest and the First Automobile Vehicle


On 9 October 1623, Ferdinand Verbiest (1623–1688) was born in Pittem, Belgium. He was a Jesuit priest, explorer, translator and inventor.

349152997_2-astronoom-v-d-keizer-ferdinand-verbiest-en-zijn-sterrekuIn 1658, Verbiest left Europe to go on a mission to China, where the Roman Catholic Church was attempting to compensate for the loss of believers to the emerging Protestantism in Europe. In the Chinese Empire he became known under the name Nan Huairen (南懷仁) and gained himself merits as mathematician and astronomer. Verbiest also worked as a diplomat, cartographer and translator as he spoke Latin, German, Dutch, Spanish, and Italian. Throughout his life he wrote more than thirty books and became close friends with the Kangxi Emperor, who frequently requested his teaching, in geometry, philosophy and music.

Amongst Verbiest’s many interests were also experiments with steam. Around 1672 he designed – for the Chinese Emperor’s entertainment – a steam-propelled trolley which most probably was the first working steam-powered vehicle, realizing ‘auto-mobility’. It is described in Verbiest’s work Astronomia Europea. It was only 65 cm long and not designed to carry human passengers, nor a driver. Steam was generated in a ball-shaped boiler, emerging through a pipe at the top, from where it was directed at a simple, open steam turbine (like a water wheel) that drove the rear wheels. It is not known if Verbiest’s model was ever built at the time. Another of his inventions is a steam engine to propel ships. [1]



Verbiest died in Beijing on 28 January 1688. His remains were buried near those of two other famous Jesuits – Matteo Ricci and Johann Adam Schall von Bell – on 11 March 1688. Verbiest was the only Westerner in Chinese history to ever receive the honour of a posthumous name by the Emperor.

[1] Ferdinand Verbiest: Early Visionary of Auto-motionThe First Automobile Vehicle

Give Credit where credit is due!


or: Hubble Law renamed to Hubble-Lemaitre Law

In the XXX General Assembly of the International Astronomical Union (IAU) that took place in August 2018 in Vienna, astronomers approved a resolution on changing the name of the Hubble Law to the Hubble-Lemaitre Law, in order to get historical facts right.

In 1927, Georges Lemaitre published his findings.  He rediscovered Friedman’s dynamic solution to Einstein’s general relativity equations that described an expanding universe. He also derived that the expansion of the universe implies the spectra of distant galaxies are redshifted by an amount proportional to their distance. Finally, he used published data on the velocities and photometric distances of galaxies to derive the rate of expansion of the universe. Written in French in a not-well known journal, his paper remained rather unknown although it took precedence over Hubble’s paper.

In 1929, Edwin Hubble provided evidence that the further away a galaxy from earth, the faster it is moving away, a property now known as “Hubble’s law”.

In 1931, on invitation by the Journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, Lemaitre translated in English his original 1927 paper, the expansion rate, however, is missing. There has been some controversy whether the equations in question were censored in the English translation, but it is now established that Lemaitre himself deliberately left them out. Lemaitre’s attitude is acknowledged in the resolution: the General Assembly desires “to honour the intellectual integrity of Georges Lemaitre that made him value more the progress of science rather than his own visibility.”

It will take more time to implement the renaming, since the IAU decided that in addition to the acceptance by the General Assembly, all members will be asked to electronically vote in the last quarter of 2018 to ensure an even broader consensus.

Addendum 02 Nov 2018: Members have agreed (via e-voting) to pass the resolution to renaming the “Hubble law” as the “Hubble–Lemaître Law”.


Press release of the International Astronomical Union, 31 August 2018
IAU 2018, Resolution B4: the renaming of the Hubble law.
Image: Edwin Hubble and Georges Lemaître (Artist’s Illustration) on HubbleSite

More on George Lemaitre on our blog:
Georges Lemaitre – the Big Bang Cosmology and its metaphysical implications (I) and (II)

Wolfhart Pannenberg: Trinitarian Evolutionist


wolfhart-pannenbergWolfgang Pannenberg died on 5 September 2014. He has been one of the greatest Protestant theologians in the second half of the 20th century. Pannenberg’s staunch defense of the historicity of the resurrection made him a champion among American evangelicals. His extensive involvement in the ecumenical movement and his unsurpassed knowledge of the history of theology were crucial to the most important ecumenical breakthroughs in the World Council of Churches. Taken together, Pannenberg’s extensive writings, including his three-volume systematic theology, offer a theological program unrivaled its comprehensiveness, depth, and rigor.

Here is a quote from “Confessions of a Trinitarian Evolutionist”:

“God as a Creator is working in His creation through His creatures. This doesn’t distract from the immediacy of the relationship between the Creator and His creatures. God always used creatures to bring about other things. Think of the function of the earth in the first part of Genesis. The earth is addressed by God to assist in His act of creation. First, the earth is addressed to bring about vegetation. So we may wonder, ‘How can the earth, an inorganic reality, bring about an organic reality, vegetation, and then bring about the self organization of organisms from inorganic materials?’ Yet, this is the Christian creation story. The second address of the earth is even bolder than that! God addresses the earth to bring about animals. And the text means higher animals. Such boldness does not really characterize even Darwin’s theory of evolution. Darwin wouldn’t have dreamed to have higher animals spring immediately from the earth, from inorganic matter. Darwin is much more moderate than that. In criticizing the doctrine of evolution, our creationist friends among Christian theologians should read their Bibles more closely.“

pannenberg creation

Confessions of a Trinitarian Evolutionist, Interview with W. Pannenberg by J.T.Oord, 2001 on metanexus

a longer post on Pannenberg can be found on my personal blog: WOLFHART PANNENBERG (1928-2014)

Marin Mersenne: Communication is Key


Père Marin Mersenne

On 1 September 1648, Marin Mersenne (1588-1648) died in Paris. A French philosopher, physicist, and ordained priest, he acted as a liason between a number of the scientists and thinkers of his time, such as Fermat, Gassendi, and Pascal. He defended Descartes and Galileo against criticism from theologians and fought against pseudo-sciences such as astrology and alchemy. Mersenne is also remembered today thanks to his association with the Mersenne primes. The Mersenne twister, named for him, is frequently used in computer engineering, and in related fields such as cryptography. However, Mersenne was not primarily a mathematician; he wrote about music theory and other subjects. He edited works of Euclid, Apollonius, Archimedes, and other Greek mathematicians. But perhaps his most important contribution to the advance of learning was his extensive correspondence (in Latin) with mathematicians and other scientists in many countries. He also performed extensive experiments to determine the acceleration of falling objects by comparing them with the swing of pendulums, reported in his Cogitata Physico-Mathematica in 1644. He was the first to measure the length of the seconds pendulum, that is a pendulum whose swing takes one second, and the first to observe that a pendulum’s swings are not isochronous as Galileo thought, but that large swings take longer than small swings.