Arthur Holly Compton: a Physicist on the God, Science and the Freedom of Man

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Arthur Holly Compton (10 September 1892 – 15 March 1962) was an American physicist. In 1927, he won the Nobel Prize in Physics for his discovery of what is called the Compton effect, in which a photon can interact with an accelerated particle. From 1941 to 1945, he directed a program to produce plutonium for military use within the scope of the Manhattan Project. He had ethical and religious doubts about continuing the project; yet, he did go on to participate with Enrico Fermi in achieving the first nuclear reactor, deciding that producing the atomic bomb would bring the war to a close more quickly. His work The Atomic Quest (1956) delves into the issues surrounding the production of the atomic bomb.

He was also interested in philosophical problems involving science, becoming vice-president of the American Philosophical Society. Among his interdisciplinary works are The Freedom of Man (1935) and The Human Meaning of Science (1940). He was the son of a Presbyterian pastor from whom he inherited a deep religious faith.

From 1938 to 1947, he was Protestant Co-Chairman of the National Conference of Christians and Jews, an important interfaith organization founded in 1927 as a united front to combat bigotry and promote understanding, and he served three terms on its Board of Directors after the war.

In his book The Freedom of Man, he said:

“We could, in fact, see the whole great drama of evolution moving toward the making of persons with free intelligence capable of glimpsing God’s purpose in nature and of sharing that purpose. In such a case we should not look upon consciousness as the mere servant of the biological organism, but as an end in itself. An intelligent mind would be its own reason for existence. “ (p. 140)

In 1957, he stated in :

“The great task is nothing less than developing a civilization in which men grow in true liberty, in order to be worthy of their magnificent heredity as sons of God”

“Lebengestaltung und Menschheitsziele im Atomzeitalter,” in Universitas. Zeitschrift für Wissenschaft, Kunst und Literatur, Stuttgart 1957, 6, p. 613.

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Recommended further reading:

Edward B. Davis, Three part series: Prophet of Science: Arthur Holly Compton on Science, Freedom, Religion, and Morality (available on ResearchGate)

Abbé Henri Breuil, “Father of Prehistory”

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Abbé Henri Breuil studying the collections of the Moravian Museum in 1923. Photo: Archives of the Anthropos Institute, Moravian Museum.

Abbé Henri Breuil (28 February 1877 – 14 August 1961) was a French Catholic priest, archaeologist and paleontologist, sometimes called “Father of Prehistory” and famous for his studies of prehistoric cave art. He was the first to record the first cave art discovered in the Dordogne region in France in 1901 and 1902. He authenticated them as late Paleolithic (Magdalenian) and then copied the images, engraved onto the wall.

He was also the first to render color illustrations from the paintings in the Altamira caves (near Santander, Spain), presented to the public in 1906. The paintings in the cave had been discovered already in 1879, but the archaeological community considered them as forgery. Only in 1902, it was finally realized, that the Altamira cave paintings were genuine and the earliest paleolithic cave paintings. 

Through his recording of the details of such art he was able to develop a system, which has continued to be useful, to analyze the styles of art and the time periods in which they were produced, as well as interpret the meaning underlying the images. His imaginative writings, combined with beautiful illustrations, inspired readers and were instrumental in bringing the art of ancient peoples to the attention of the world.

Double-page spread from the Illustrated London News, showing eight Breuil drawings of animal paintings at Altamira, 1912 (Linda Hall Library)

Among his many important contributions to the field was a system of classification and chronology that he assigned to objects of art from the Ice Age. In particular, his paper “Les Subdivisions du Paléolithique supérieur et leur signification” (1912; “The Subdivisions of the Upper Paleolithic and Their Meaning”) established for the period a classification system that is of enduring value.

In 1940, the Lascaux caves were discovered and Abbé Breuil was asked to visit and investigate. He provided a summary description of the paintings, working there in 1940, and again in 1949 and following years.

Abbé Breuil also was a good friend and mentor of Dorothy Garrod.

Figures:

Portrait: Upload by Petr Kostrhun in: Karel Absolon (1877-1960) and the research of signigicant Paleolothic sites in Moravia

Cave paintings: Linda Hall, Henri Breuil

Scientists reflect on their faith (IX)

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Gayle Woloschak, born in the United States in 1955, is a lecturer in Radiation-Oncology, Radiology and Molecular Biology at the Feinberg School of Medicine of Northwestern University in Chicago, and adjunct professor of Religion and Sciences at the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago and at the Pittsburgh Institute of Theology. A scientist of world renown, she directs a research laboratory. Orthodox and an expert in bioethics, she is interested above all in biological evolution, stem cell research and ecology. From 2014 to 2016 she was President of the Orthodox Theological Society in the United States and is currently Vice-President of the Zygon Centre for Religion and Science.

Read the interview in the Osservatorio Romano.

John Dalton – Science of interpreting the real

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On 27 July 1844, John Dalton died in Manchester (England). An English chemist and physicist, he studied the causes of color blindness, from which he and his brother suffered. (For this reason, color blindness is sometimes referred to as Daltonism.) His most important contribution, however, was regarding atomic chemistry and atomic theory, particularly the proposal that each element has its own corresponding atom. His work New System of Chemical Philosophy, published in 1808, was fundamental to the foundation of atomic theory in chemistry. In it, he refers to “natural philosophy” (chemical philosophy) as the science of interpreting the real. Dalton was a Quaker.

A Spanish chemist as role model for Christian woman scientists

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Guadalupe Ortiz de Landazuri

On 16 July 1975, Guadalupe Ortiz de Landazuri died in Pamplona, Spain. She was born in 1916 and started to study Chemistry in 1933. One Sunday in 1944, while she attended Mass, she felt “touched by the grace of God”. She got to know St. Josemaría Escrivá, founder of Opus Dei, who taught her that Christ can be found in professional work and ordinary life. She joined Opus Dei a few months later, went to Mexico and Rome to help set up apostolic and educational initiatives and returned to Spain in 1958. She then worked on her PhD in Chemistry. She taught Chemistry in different high schools and institutions to advance professional formation in young professionals. She suffered from heart disease for many years, and died at the age of 58.

And on 18 May 2019, she was beatified in Madrid. Her life is a testimony that everybody, also ordinary lay people, are not only called to sanctity, but can also live up to this call. As Pope Francis wrote on this occasion: “Holiness means opening one’s heart to God and allowing Him to transform us with His love; it also means going out of ourselves so as to meet others where Jesus awaits us, to bring them a word of encouragement, a helping hand, a look of tenderness and consolation.”

Most female scientists have no straightforward career, and need a remarkable commitment to combine relationships, family and work in an integrated way. Guadalupe’s career path was no different:  In June 1933, she enrolled in chemical science and was just one of five women in a class of 70 students. During the Spanish Civil War, she had to move from Madrid to Valladolid and upon her return to Madrid, she started teaching Chemistry. While in Mexico, she enrolled in a PhD program but only back in Spain, she could focus on a research project and defend her thesis, and continue teaching.

In addition to the commitment to Science, her courage is another strong characteristic. During the Civil War, her father was taken prisoner and condemned to execution, she accompanied her brother, Eduardo, and their mother to bid a final farewell, just hours before his death. Her brother emphasized that it was Guadalupe who remained strong and calm when talking to her father and provide consolation to her family. 

A truly remarkable lady. Blessed Guadalupe Ortiz de Landazuri may help us to find and honor God and serve others in our scientific enterprises!

A detailed biography is here.

John William Strutt, Lord Rayleigh: a Nobel prize, humility and faith

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John William Strutt, 3rd Baron Rayleigh, OM, PC, PRS (12 November 1842 – 30 June 1919), was a British scientist who made extensive contributions to both theoretical and experimental physics. He spent all of his academic career at the University of Cambridge. Among many honours, he received the 1904 Nobel Prize in Physics “for his investigations of the densities of the most important gases and for his discovery of argon in connection with these studies.” He served as President of the Royal Society from 1905 to 1908 and as Chancellor of the University of Cambridge from 1908 to 1919.

Rayleigh provided the first theoretical treatment of the elastic scattering of light by particles much smaller than the light’s wavelength, a phenomenon now known as “Rayleigh scattering”, which notably explains why the sky is blue – and why the moon is red during a lunar eclipse like the one we have seen on 22 January 2019.

Revd Professor David Wilkinson brought to us the following thoughts on BBC and later published on the Science and Belief blog:

“Most of the sunlight is blocked by the Earth but some of it is refracted by the Earth’s atmosphere and reaches the Moon. The red color is caused by so-called Rayleigh scattering of sunlight through the atmosphere, the same phenomenon that makes the sky blue.

This scattering is named after one of the great leaders of British experimental and theoretical physics, John William Strutt, Lord Rayleigh. He made contributions to understanding waves in solids, the flow and stability of fluids as well as optics and the theory of sound. His work in radiation was key in the birth of quantum theory. Alongside many other honours, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1904 ‘for his investigations of the densities of the most important gases and for his discovery of argon.’

Yet for all this, it was said of him that ‘no man ever showed less consciousness of (his own) great genius’. Part of this natural humility came from his Christian faith. When his Scientific Papers were published he prefaced them, against some opposition, with a quotation from the Psalms, ‘The Works of the Lord are great, sought out of all them that have pleasure therein’. He spoke also of his faith in Jesus Christ as looking ‘to a power beyond what we see’.

Rayleigh is one of many scientists contemporary with and after Darwin who challenge the widely accepted myth of the conflict in history of science and religious belief. He is also an example to me of humble leadership which can come from the recognition that the whole creation is gift and that there is a higher power. Perhaps in this way, the blood Moon might be a reminder to other leaders this week of such humility.

And by the way I was up at five to see the eclipse, and I can report in Newcastle it was cloudless and beautiful.” [1]

[1] David Wilkinson: Thought for the Day: Humility, Faith and the Super Blood Wolf Moon

Picture: George Reid, Portrait of John William Strutt. 3rd Baron Rayleigh (1842-1919), royalsociety.org

Maria Mitchell, the first American discovering a comet

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Every formula which expresses a law of nature is a hymn of praise to God.

Maria Mitchell (August 1, 1818 – June 28, 1889) became the first American woman to discover a comet when she observed what became known as “Miss Mitchell’s Comet”. The first professional female astronomer in America, Mitchell was raised by Quaker parents who believed, contrary to the practice of the time, in giving girls the same quality of education as boys. She later adopted Unitarianism. Her father, a school principal, taught her the basics of astronomy and, at age 12, she helped him to calculate the moment of an annular eclipse.

In the autumn of 1847, her discovery of the comet — made her famous worldwide and she was awarded a gold medal prize for the discovery from King Frederick VII of Denmark. In 1865, she became a professor of astronomy at Vassar College and was named the Director of the Vassar Observatory.

Among her many honors, Mitchell became the first woman member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1848 and of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1850. She also co-founded the American Association for the Advancement of Women. Today, her legacy lives on at the Maria Mitchell Observatory, named in her honor in Nantucket, Massachusetts.

The Maria Mitchell Observatory in Nantucket is named in her honor. The crater Mitchell on the Moon is named after her. In 1902, the Maria Mitchell Association was founded in her memory. 

Picture: Maria Mitchell, US astronomer and pioneer of women’s rights, from a portrait by H. Dassell, 1851

Sources:

A Mighty Girl on fb
Wikipedia
Day 13: Maria Mitchell (1818-1889) on the blog Women Who Have Made History