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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Theodor Schwann: Schools of Teleology


theodor schwann

On 7 December 1810, Theodor Schwann (1810–1882) was born in Neuss, Germany.

He was a physician and physiologist known for his research on cell theory, enzymes and metabolism. His original discoveries included the Schwann cells in the peripheral nervous system and the digestive enzymes pepsin and yeast. Educated at the Jesuit college of Cologne, he became friends the Fr. Wilhelm Smets, a priest and novelist, whose writings emphasized the individuality of the human soul and the importance of free will. While much of Schwann’s writings were left unpublished during his career, his work’s value was recognized years later by Louis Pasteur (1822–1895).

“The principle result of my investigation is that a uniform developmental principle controls the individual elementary units of all organisms, analogous to the finding that crystals are formed by the same laws in spite of the diversity of their forms.”

Late in his career, Schwann began to explore some of the theological aspects of his work in biology. The book Thinking About Matter: Studies in the History of Chemical Philosophy (1995) describes some of the theological aspects of his research as follows:

The 19th-century cell-theorist Theodor Schwann resorted to a similar argument in his exclusion of vital forces. Schwann’s target was a vital force that allegedly formed the organism in the same way as an architect might construct a building according to a plan. But is the vital force conscious of the plan? Schwann suggested that the idea only made sense if it is. How can a simple force change its action in order to realize an idea, unless it does have the characteristics of an intelligent being? At that point in his argument, Schwann had recourse to theological considerations. He wrote that he had always preferred to seek in the Creator rather than in the created the cause of the finality to which the whole of nature bore witness. He even drew a parallel between the vital force and the horror vacui of the scholastic philosophers, which for Robert Boyle had epitomized a vulgar theological error. If this argument did real work for Schwann, then we should perhaps be cautious before driving too complete a wedge between German and British styles of teleology… It should now be clear that there has been no simple correlation between vitalism and natural theology. It would be more accurate to say that where theological arguments have intruded into debates about the nature of living processes, the divisions have reflected divisions within natural theology itself.”

“Theodor Schwann.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation.
Brooke, John Hedley. Thinking about Matter: Studies in the History of Chemical Philosophy. (Aldershot, UK: Variorum and Ashgate Press, 1995), 93.
Image: Cloudinary-dot-com

Émile Meyerson: Seeing Natural Phenomena in the Limit → Science / The Limit → Theology


On 4 December 1933, Émile Meyerson (1859–1933) died at Paris, France. Trained in chemistry under several significant 19th century chemists, including: Wilhelm Bunsen (1811–1899), Hermann Kopp (1817–1892), Carl Liebermann (1842–1914) and Paul Schützenberger (1829–1897), he was most known for writings on the philosophy of science.

After serving the director of a dye factory in Argenteuil, France in the 1890s, he began studying philosophy and authored notable works including ‘Identité et réalité’ (1908), ‘De l’explication dans les sciences’ (1921), ‘La déduction relativiste’ (1925), and ‘Du cheminement de la pensée’ (1931). Through his philosophical writings, Meyerson became acquianted with Albert Einstein (1879–1955), who visited him when in Paris. In 1897, Meyerson received an appointment to serve as a director of the Jewish Colonization Association (JCA) and worked to establish an independent state in Palestine.

Meyerson’s most important contribution to chemical philosophy was his delineation of the two alternative approaches used in chemistry writings: “On the one hand, chemists aim at reducing the qualitative diversity of substances to identity… Chemical equations balancing inputs and outputs of chemical reactions are the expression of this effort towards identification… However, the diversity of substances and their idiosyncratic behaviors are the raison d’être of chemical practices… So chemists… sense that it is useless to get to the bottom, and hopeless to try to reduce them.”

A similar philosophical view was utilized by Meyerson to outline a theory of the respective domains of science and religion. Translation of a passage from ‘Identité et réalité’ (1908):

“The truth is that science is forced to consider matters as determined, if it deals with a particular movement. But it does not say, it can not say that it is. To suppose the existence of free phenomena, entirely removed from the domination of the law and our prediction, is in no way detrimental to the principles of science. Neither is it contrary to its conclusions, since determinism is a fundamental postulate of science, which limits its activity in advance to what is likely to be expected. It is certain that, whatever the results which it will reach, they can not teach us anything about what is, by prior agreement, remained outside the field of our research. In order to better define the scope of this affirmation, we have only to momentarily transfer from the basis of the science to penetrate that of religion

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Choh Hao Li: Faith and Fate in Research


choh hao li 2b
On 28 November 1987, Choh Hao Li (1913–1987) died. After studying at Nanjing University, he carried out postgraduate studies at the University of California, Berkeley and then later joined the faculty of Academia Sinica in Tapei, China.

He was a biochemist known for discoveries including the isolation and determination of the amino acid sequence of human pituitary growth hormone (somatotropin), adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), and melanocyte-stimulating hormone (MSH).

In a 1979 article “Afterthoughts: Faith and Fate in Research” published in Research Management, Prof. Li wrote on some of the differences (and also complementary aspects) of faith and fate: “Faith and fate form a continuing dialectic in each person’s life… Faith enhances possibility, enlarges one’s horizons, and helps one to face the most difficult problems… Fate, on the other hand, is a privilege which makes one individual (or group) luckier than the next.”

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The article concludes with a quote from German physicist Max Planck (1858–1947):

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“Choh Hao Li.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation.
Li, Choh Hao. “Afterthoughts: Faith and Fate in Research.” Research Management 22.6 (1979): 42-42.  Image: NIH-National Library of Medicine.

Athanasius Kircher: Jesuit in Perpetual Motion



On 27 November 1680, the Jesuit Athanasius Kircher (1602–1680) died in Rome.

He is remembered for his writings on Egyptology, geology, biology, magnetics and combinatorial mathematics. An archaeologist and phenomenal linguist, he was an avid collector of scientific experiments and geographical exploration.

He probed the secrets of the subterranean world, deciphered archaic languages, experimented with alchemy and music therapy, optics and magnetism. Some commentators regard him as the founder of Egyptology. He is known to have read the work of Ibn Wahshiyya, who had proposed the link between ancient and Coptic Egyptian centuries earlier. Kircher was also fascinated with Sinology and wrote an encyclopedia of China, in which he noted the early presence there of Nestorian Christians.

A recent reference to Fr. Kircher at the 2010 Geological Society of America meeting noted his efforts toward an early theory of evolution:

“Kircher’s evidence for an evolving Earth were drawn from observation, collection, experimentation, and received testimony of others… Kircher argued that the Earth in ancient times was of a wholly different character from today… He states that nothing is perpetual, but all things are fleeting and subject to the fates of fortune. He substantiates his claim of an evolving Earth by citing (1) global sea level changes, (2) rising and falling of mountains, and (3) occurrence of fossils… Kircher maintained that the ultimate natural forces behind these changes are a perpetual heat engine within the Earth and the external opposing forces of the Sun and Moon.

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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

Edwin Grant Conklin: Belief in the Organization


On 21 November 1952, Edwin Grant Conklin (1863–1952) passed away in Princeton, NJ. He was a developmental biologist whose research on Urochordata (tunicate) embryos led to his discovery of patterning regions and developmental organizers, initially characterized through the non-uniform colors of zygotes. His published works discussed not only embryology, but also evolutionary theory and its implications.

His National Academy of Sciences biography (1958) notes:

“He was especially interested in education and in the philosophy of religion. His commencement addresses and published pamphlets present an original approach in this field. Always a liberal in outlook, he was a great believer in freedom and, like most scientists, was vehemently opposed to any sort of regulation and regimentation…

“Professor Conklin’s ethical standards were high. His childhood life was normally but not excessively religious. His parents were leading members of the Methodist church wherever they lived. He went to church with them and attended Sunday school, learning long passages from the Bible by heart, thus gaining a background of intimate knowledge of Biblical lore from which he frequently drew for lectures and addresses. At one time he considered becoming a preacher, but gave up the idea and was never ordained, although he did pass a perfunctory examination on the Bible and received what was known as a ‘local preacher’s license.’

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