Ira Remsen: Faith in Natural Laws & Faith in Scientific Doctrines

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Photo: Ira Remsen (1846–1927), left, with Constantin Fahlberg (1850–1910).  Exhibit at the National Museum of American History, Washington, DC.

On 04 March 1927, Ira Remsen (1846–1927) passed away in Carmel, CA. He was an American chemist who served as the first president of Johns Hopkins University. After completing his education at Columbia University (MD, 1867) and University of Göttingen (PhD, 1870), he discovered the artificial sweetener saccharin (C₇H₅NO₃S) while working with a graduate student, Constantin Fahlberg (1850–1910). Many years later, he was awarded the 1923 Priestley Medal for this research.

His National Academy of Sciences biography notes that: “In his boyhood Remsen was reared in a very strict, religious atmosphere and he retained a simple religious faith throughout his life.” An interesting story recounts an event which inspired his vocational path in chemistry:

“While reading a text-book of chemistry I came upon the statement, ‘nitric acid acts upon copper’ … Having nitric acid and copper, I had only to learn what the words ‘acts upon’ meant. Then the statement, ‘nitric acid acts upon copper’ would be something more than mere words. All was still. In the interest of knowledge, I was even willing to sacrifice one of the few copper cents then in my possession. I put one of them on the table; opened the bottle marked ‘nitric acid’; poured some of the liquid on the copper; and prepared to take an observation. But what was this wonderful thing I beheld ? The cent was already changed, and it was no small change either. A greenish blue liquid foamed and fumed over the cent and over the table. The air in the neighborhood of the performance became colored dark red. A great colored cloud arose… Taking everything into consideration, that was the most impressive experiment, and, relatively, probably the most costly I have ever performed. I tell it even now with interest. It was a revelation to me. It resulted in a desire on my part to learn more about that kind of action. Plainly the only way to learn about it was to see its results, to experiment, to work in a laboratory.’”

In 1902, Prof. Remsen was appointed the president of the American Chemical Society. The following is an excerpt from his ACS presidential address, Washington, DC (20 Dec 1902):

“The first great generalization that was reached after the method of weighing was generally adopted by chemists was what we sometimes call the law of the indestructibility of matter, or, in more refined language, the law of the conservation of mass. Then followed the laws of definite and multiple proportions. Now a law of nature is quite a different thing from a doctrine. A law once discovered does not wither and die. It is eternal. Such a statement cannot be proved to be true. It calls for faith, but faith is called for at every turn in scientific matters as well as in spiritual. Without it progress would be impossible. As I am trying to deal with doctrines and not with laws, let me say that doctrines call for even a larger faith than laws. The very essence of a doctrine is ‘faith in things unseen’. The discovery of the laws of definite and multiple proportions led to the thought of atoms— not the evasive atoms of the Greeks, but atoms that could in a way, be made the subject of experiment — the Daltonian atoms…

“ … J.J. Thomson gives me faith in the thoughts suggested by him. As I understand, it the worst that can be done for chemistry by the corpuscle is to change the atom so slowly that it would take something like a million years to enable us to detect the change by the balance. Perhaps the atomic weights of the elements, or of some of them, are undergoing change. Whether in the course of geological ages the atoms are becoming simpler or more complex is a question that appears idle at first, and yet when we bear in mind the fact that the atoms of our day have already been subjected to a great variety of influences for ages past, and that the atoms that we know are comparatively complex, we may at least suspect that the tendency so far is towards complexity.”

As an educator, he would author eight textbooks and laboratory manuals, several of which exerted an important influence on chemistry education in the following decades. He also founded the American Chemical Journal, which he edited for 35 years. Additionally, he was known for his “lectures on the history of chemistry… In these lectures Remsen proved himself to be a philosopher as well as a scientist.” In response to his teaching and research, it has been said: “Much had been accomplished by a few gifted men in America before Remsen’s day, but he opened up a life work in chemistry as a career to many, and developed a spirit of research that spread over the country.”

Noyes, William Albert, and James Flack Norris. “Biographical Memoir of Ira Remsen (1846-1927).” (Washington, DC: National Academy of Sciences Press, 1931), 207-209.
Remsen, Ira. “The Life History of a Doctrine.” Journal of the American Chemical Society 25.2 (1903): 115-132.
Image: National Museum of American History, Washington, DC.


Billy Graham on Faith and Science


Billy Graham, known as “America’s pastor”, passed away on 21 February 2018. Here at Science meets Faith, we share two of his testimonies on the interaction between faith and science.

The first comes from his book Billy Graham: Personal Thoughts of a Public Man (1997):

“I don’t think that there’s any conflict at all between science today and the Scriptures. I think that we have misinterpreted the Scriptures many times and we’ve tried to make the Scriptures say things they weren’t meant to say, I think that we have made a mistake by thinking the Bible is a scientific book. The Bible is not a book of science. The Bible is a book of Redemption, and of course I accept the Creation story. I believe that God did create the universe. I believe that God created man, and whether it came by an evolutionary process and at a certain point He took this person or being and made him a living soul or not, does not change the fact that God did create man. … whichever way God did it makes no difference as to what man is and man’s relationship to God.

The second is a TEDtalk from 1998 titled “Technology, faith and human shortcomings” (February 1998):

“…How do we change man, so that he doesn’t lie and cheat and our newspapers are not filled with stories of fraud in business, or labor, or athletics, or wherever? The Bible says the problem is within us, within our hearts and our soul. Our problem is that we are separated from our Creator, which we call God… we need to have our souls restored…

“The British philosopher Bertrand Russell was not a religious man, but he said: ‘It’s in our hearts that the evil lies, and it’s from our hearts that it must be plucked out.’ Albert Einsteinmade this statement: ‘It’s easier to denature plutonium than to denature the evil spirit of man.’ ….

“You’ve seen people take beneficial technological advances, such as the internet we’ve heard about tonight, and twist them into something corrupting. You’ve seen brilliant people devise computer viruses that bring down whole systems. The Oklahoma City bombing was simple technology, horribly used. The problem is not technology, the problem is the person or persons using it. King David said he ‘knew the depths of his own soul.’ … Yet King David sought God’s forgiveness and he said: ‘You can restore my soul.’ You see the Bible teaches that we’re more than a body and a mind, we are a soul. And there’s something inside of us that is beyond our understanding. That’s the part of us that yearns for God, or something more than we find in technology.”

Video source and transcript online.

Rittenhouse Orrery: In God We Live and Move and Have Our Being



David Rittenhouse (1732–1796) was best known as the first Director of U.S. Mint (1792—1795). However, he was also an astronomer, a mathematician and an inventor, who built very intricate “orreries” (scale models of the solar system).

From an Oration he delivered February 24, 1775, before the American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia, PA:

“Our religion teaches us what philosophy could not have taught; and we ought to admire with reverence the great things it has pleased divine Providence to perform, beyond the ordinary course of Nature, for man, who is undoubtedly the most noble inhabitant of this globe. But neither religion nor philosophy forbids us to believe that infinite wisdom and power…

“Nothing can better demonstrate the immediate presence of the Deity in every part of space, whether vacant or occupied by matter than astronomy does. It was from an astronomer [i.e. Epimenides of Knossos, 7th-6th century, Cretica/Κρητικά] St. Paul quoted that exalted expression, so often since repeated; ‘In God we live, and move, and have our being.’ His divine energy supports that universal substratum on which all corporal substances subsist, that the laws of motion are derived from, and that wings light with angelic swiftness.”

For the St. Paul reference to Epimenides of Knossos, see:, or

— Barton, William. Memoirs of the Life of David Rittenhouse: Late President of the American Philosophical Society. (Philadelphia, PA: Parker, 1813), 565, 569.
Image online: “Rittenhouse Orrery” at the University of Pennsylvania,


Jethro Tull: Agriculture and the Seeds of Creation



On 21 February 1741, Jethro Tull (1674–1741) passed away in Berkshire, England.

In the early 1700s, he became known for inventing the horse drawn seed drill & planter, helping to initiate the British Agricultural Revolution. His methods were adopted by large landowners, and their agricultural and technological methods established the basis of modern farm practices. According to some histories, his technological innovation was in part inspired by the practices of vine-dressers of the south of Europe, where he traveled for a medical visit in the late 1690s. Later in life, Tull also invented the mechanized horse-drawn hoe.

His publication A Treatise on the Principles of Tillage and Vegetation (1st edition, 1731) had included a few paragraphs of theological reflections.

“The first rudiments of animals and plants being organical, can be the work of none but the infinite Creator, though they are augmented and produced by the secretions, &c. of the aliment.

“But the opposers of this doctrine make no distinction between creation and production; nor seem they to have any notion of infinite division, or infinite smallness; if they had, they would not make the objections they do against the creation of all animals or plants at once contained within one another.

“Neither is the multitude of animalcules (microscopic animals) that are lost any objection; for if the Creator had not known it necessary there should be an overplus of them, he would not have made them so numerous.”

He was buried in the churchyard of St Bartholomew’s Church, Lower Basildon, Berkshire, where he had been baptised.

“Jethro Tull (agriculturalist).” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation.
Tull, Jethro. A Treatise on the Principles of Tillage and Vegetation. (London, GB: John M. Corbett, 1822), 289.
Image: Posted at Intriguing History(dot)com.


Johannes Stöffler: Reformational Astrology and the Gregorian Calendar


On 16 February 1531, Johannes Stöffler (1452–1531) passed away in Tübingen, Germany. Educated at the Blaubeuren Monastery school and at the University of Ingolstadt, he was a German instrument-builder, astrologer, mathematician, and priest. His published works included Almanach (1499), Elucidatio fabricae ususque astrolabii (1512), Astrolabiumsschrift (1513), Tabulae astronomicae (1514), Calendarium Romanum magnum (1518), Ephemeriden (1531), Commentary on the Sphaera of pseudo-Proclus (posthumous, 1534). He was buried in Collegiate Church (Stiftskirche) in Tübingen.

From the compendium Geographers: Biobibliographical Studies (Ed. T.W. Freeman, 2015):

“[D]uring his work as a clergyman, even with his additional duties later as the dean of the national chapter of Ehingen, he used well, true to his status as a private scholar, to undertake intensive mathematical studies and research. He performed astronomical observations of his own and calculated, on the basis of Ptolemy’s world conception, the daily planetary constellations including the sun and the moon, for a period of over thirty years in advance (1499–1531); in his own workshop he made several celestial globes, in all probability one terrestrial globe, and also sundials and excellent mechanical astronomical clocks. By these feats he achieved, in the course of approximately twenty years, the qualifications of a major authority in the mathematical/astronomical field.

“Stöffler saw himself primarily as a Christian astrologer… His astrological researches led him to turn away from ancient traditions and brought him to a view of the reality, indeed the validity, of his own standpoint. Stöffler went beyond astrology to become a mathematical astronomer. By patient calculations he uncovered the reasons for the mistakes of the ancient Church that caused the controversy about Easter. Though anxious to avoid conflict with ecclesiastical authorities, he developed principles for a new determination of the date of Easter. When in 1582 Pope Gregory XIII finally accomplished the overdue reformation of the calendar, Stöffler’s research was a decisive influence on all essential points. Stöffler’s geography can be understood, to a great extent, in the light of astrology. Since the latter, besides depending on the celestial movements, also requires the knowledge of longitudinal/temporal differentials he could not avoid dealing with the determination of geographical coordinates by astronomical measurement… In principle, like Ptolemy, he contended that it was the mission of geographia to portray the world as far as it is inhabited or known.

“Stöffler remained linked to the classical world concept, in all scientific ideas and, as an eminent astronomer, astrologer and geographer, he accomplished a great deal, though of a nature (as least in geography) that still glorified Antiquity, in spite of considerable corrections and critical comments. Nevertheless he promoted (mainly through his students) the development of geography to a level that would not have been possible without his efforts… By his outlook on the Maker’s works in Creation, he had probably personally endowed Melanchthon with the natural piety that later became the germ of the latter’s own theologically (in effect Lutheran) orientated geography.

“When Stöffler’s influence as a geographer, with the fading concept of the geocentric world concept, declined, even though his accomplishments in geography, astrology and calendar-making were still appreciated, he disappeared from the memory of the geographical world … As one of the leading geographers of his era, this unassuming scientist from Tübingen is still waiting for a more just appreciation of his merits.

—Hoheisel, Karl. “Johannes Stöffler (1452–1531).” in Geographers: Biobibliographical Studies. Vol. 12. Ed. Thomas Walter Freeman. (London, UK: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2015), 123-124; 125-126.
Images: Deutsche FotothekHimmelsglobus by Johannes Stöffler (1493); Landesmuseum Württemberg, Stuttgart.


Fr. Roger Joseph Boscovich: Quantum Theory


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On 13 February 1787, Fr. Roger Joseph Boscovich, SJ (1711–1787) passed away in Milan, Italy. Educated at the Collegium Romanum (1740), he was a Croatian mathematician, physicist, astronomer, philosopher, theologian, poet, and diplomat. The Boscovich crater on the moon is named in his honor. His theory of atomic resonant modes in discrete quanta was influential in the development of modern QM theory.

Both Lord Kelvin in Lectures on Molecular Dynamics and the Theory of Light (1904) and J.J. Thomson in The Corpuscular Theory of Matter (1907) made reference to the atomic theory of Boscovich; these are full text books on

Fr. Boscovich in Lord Kelvin’s book (1904):
Fr. Boscovich in J.J. Thomson’s book (1907):

Around the time that J.J. Thomson had deduced the charge/mass ratio of the electron and outlined the +/- “plum pudding atomic model,” his lab was joined by Fr. Henry Vincent Gill, SJ (1872–1945), a Jesuit who had completed his masters of physics degree at the Catholic University of Louvain in the 1890s and took up residence at Cavendish Lab from 1906 to 1908. Quote: “The son of H.J. Gill, head of the publishing firm, M. H. Gill & Son, Henry was educated at Clongowes Wood College and University College Dublin. He possessed an acumen for mathematics and science and studied in Louvain and under Professor J.J. Thompson, Cavendish Laboratories, Cambridge (1906-1908). Fr. Gill had a special interest in seismography: ‘Experiments with Spinning Tops to Illustrate Earthquake Reactions’ was the title of a lecture given by Henry Gill at the Cavendish Laboratory, 16 June 1908.”

An article in the The Mathematics Teacher 61:2 (1968), pp. 167-175, argues how Fr. Gill’s later work on the history of science was foundational to the interpretation of Thomson’s early experiments. Specifically, Fr. Gill’s writings on the historical development of atomic theory and the work Fr. Roger Boscovich SJ, a book Fr. Gill asserted had exerted a definitive influence on the atomic view of matter as being composed of points in a vacuum, interacting via forces comparable to quantized modes (normal eigenmodes) of a compressible spring.

Another source states: “Therefore, bearing in mind that in the period 1903-1907 ‘J.J. Thomson deducted his hypothesis directly from the Theory and curve of Boscovich, and showed that the notion of ‘allowed’ and ‘forbidden’ orbits follows from it,’ Gill points out that Boscovich made an ‘essential element of the modern concept of the atom’ and ‘where Boscovich planted two hundred years ago others have reaped.’ Hence, Gill called this model ‘The Boscovich-Thomson’ atom and indicates that ‘when the history of atomic theory is being written, it is right that the part played by Father Roger Boscovich should not be overlooked.’”

Irish Jesuits Album. “Fr. Henry Gill S.J., M.C., D.S.O.” Acct:
Fitzpatrick, Mary M., and Antonietta Fitzpatrick. “Roger Joseph Boscovich Forerunner of Modern Atomic Theory.” The Mathematics Teacher (1968): 167-175.
Stoiljkovich, Dragoslav. Roger Boscovich: The Founder of Modern Science. Trans. Roger Anderton (Petnica, Serbia: Petnica Science Center, 2010), 4-4.


Emanuel Swedenborg: Growing in God’s Truth



On 29 January 1688, Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772) was born in Stockholm, Sweden.

The son of a Lutheran pastor, he was an influential 18th century chemist, geologist, archaeologist, astronomer, and later in life, a theologian.

His published works included Prodromus principiorum rerum naturalium (“Principles of Chemistry”, 1721), Miscellanea de Rebus Naturalibus (“Miscellaneous Observations”, 1722), Opera Philosophica et Mineralia (“Philosophical and Mineralogical Works”, 1734), Prodromus Philosophiz Ratiocinantis de Infinito, et Causa Finali Creationis (“The Infinite and Final Cause of Creation”, 1734), Regnum animale (“The Animal Kingdom”, 1744-1745 ), Arcana Cœlestia (“Heavenly Mysteries”, 1749-1756), De Telluribus in Mundo Nostro Solari (“Earths in the Universe”, 1758), De Commercio Animæ & Corporis (“Interaction of Body and Soul”, 1769), and others.

The Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography (2008):

“He submitted empirical proof–sedimentary deposits, gravel ridges, fish in landlocked lakes without outlets, and the raising of the land along the Baltic coast–that Scandinavia had once been covered by an ocean from which the land had slowly risen. With the chemist Urban Hiärne [(1641–1724)], who strongly influenced him, he thus initiated the eighteenth-century debate in Sweden about ‘water reduction.’ Swedenborg was very interested in fossils as evidence of a prehistoric flood. He was convinced of their organic origin; and during a journey in 1721–1722, he examined many fossils of plants found near Liège and Aachen. His descriptions of them were published together with other geological papers in his Miscellanea observata circa res naturales (Leipzig, 1722).”

“In his Principia rerum naturalium (Leipzig, 1734), probably conceived as a counterpart to Newton’s Principia, he sought a comprehensive physical explanation of the world based on mathematical and mechanical principles. While remaining faithful to the general principles of Cartesian natural philosophy, which he had learned while studying at Uppsala, Swedenborg elaborated upon them. According to his cosmogony the physical reality has developed from the mathematical point, which was an entity between infinite and finite.”

Several theological reflections from Dr. Swedenborg:

God is the absolute reality underlying everything… It manifestly appears that in the created universe nothing lives, except God Man alone, that is, the Lord, and that nothing is moved, but by life from Him; and that nothing is, but by the sun from Him; thus that it is a truth, that in God we live, move and are …”

Conscience is a new will and a new understanding from the Lord. Thus it is the Lord’s presence in man; and this so much the nearer as man has more of an affection for good and truth…”

“The truths, which are in the external man, are called scientific truths; but the truths, which are in the internal man, are called the interior truths of faith; scientific truths are in the memory of man, from which when they are pressed forth, they come to perception; but the interior truths of faith are truths of the life Itself, inscribed on the internal man, of which little appears in the memory; but on this subject, by the divine mercy of the Lord, we shall speak more fully elsewhere. Scientific truths and the interior truths of faith were signified by the waters bee neath the expanse and the waters above the expanse (Genesis 1:6-7). For the subject treated of in the first chapter of Genesis, in the internal sense, is concerning the new creation or regeneration of the man…”

Lindroth, Sten. “Swedenborg, Emanuel.” Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography. © Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2008.
Swedenborg, Emanuel. Angelic Wisdom Concerning the Divine Love and the Divine Wisdom. (Boston, MA: The New-Church Press, 1835), 144.
Swedenborg, Emanuel. The Path of Life: Compiled from the Writings of Emanuel Swedenborg. (New York, NY: The New-Church Press, 1913), 161.
Swedenborg, Emanuel. Arcana Cœlestia. (Boston, MA: Harvard Divinity School, 1846), 205. Image: © Swedenborg Foundation.