James Clerk Maxwell: Light in Nature and in Faith

Standard

The Scotch physicist James Clerk Maxwell FRS FRSE (13 June 1831 in Edinburgh – 5 November 1879 in Cambridge) was one of the chief figures among 19th century physicists. His most notable achievement was formulating the classical theory of electromagnetic radiation, bringing together for the first time electricity, magnetism, and light as manifestations of the same phenomenon.  Maxwell’s equation for electromagnetism have been called the “second great unification in physics” after the first equations by Isaac Newton. He saw great significance in a universe where the laws of nature fit together like pieces in a puzzle. In those links, he saw the existence and goodness of God and the mystery of the divine.

His Christian faith permeated his scientific work and, according to his own testimony, was at times a source of inspiration. One of his prayers was:

“Almighty God, Who hast created man in Thine own image, and made him a living soul that he might seek after Thee, and have dominion over Thy creatures, teach us to study the works of Thy hands, that we may subdue the earth to our use, and strengthen the reason for Thy service; so to receive Thy blessed Word, that we may believe in Him Whom Thou hast sent, to give us the knowledge of salvation and the remission of our sins. All of which we ask in the name of the same Jesus Christ, our Lord.”

He favored a world-view which includes ideas like the ones in the modern chaos theory such as ‘sensitive dependence to initial conditions‘. In his 1873 lecture on determinism and free will, he says:

“The subject of the essay is the relation to determinism, not of theology, metaphysics, or mathematics, but of physical science,—the science which depends for its material on the observation and measurement of visible things, but which aims at the development of doctrines whose consistency with each other shall be apparent to our reason…

Lorenz_butterfly

Maxwell can be seen, together with Poincaré, as a forerummer of Lorenz’ Butterfly effect (1963) . Image credit

For example, the rock loosed by frost and balanced on a singular point of the mountain-side, the little spark which kindles the great forest, the little word which sets the world a fighting, the little scruple which prevents a man from doing his will, the little spore which blights all the potatoes, the little gemmule which makes us philosophers or idiots. Every existence above a certain rank has its singular points: the higher the rank the more of them. At these points, influences whose physical magnitude is too small to be taken account of by a finite being, may produce results of the greatest importance. All great results produced by human endeavor depend on taking advantage of these singular states when they occur.

There is a tide in the affairs of men
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune.

The man of tact says “the right word at the right time,” and, “a word spoken in due season how good is it!” The man of no tact is like vinegar upon nitre when he sings his songs to a heavy heart. The ill-timed admonition hardens the heart, and the good resolution, taken when it is sure to be broken, becomes macadamised into pavement for the abyss.

It appears then that in our own nature there are more singular points,—where prediction, except from absolutely perfect data, and guided by the omniscience of contingency, becomes impossible,—than there are in any lower organisation. But singular points are by their very nature isolated, and form no appreciable fraction of the continuous course of our existence. Hence predictions of human conduct may be made in many cases. First, with respect to those who have no character at all, especially when considered in crowds, after the statistical method. Second with respect to individuals of confirmed character, with respect to actions of the kind for which their character is confirmed.”

Gregor Mendel – the Father of Genetics

Standard
%eb%a9%98%eb%8d%b8

Gregor Mendel

The title “Father of Genetics” can be attributed to Gregor Mendel in two capacities: he laid the groundwork for the new discipline of Genetics and he was an ordained priest and Augustinian monk – therefore, he was called “Father”, like all priests.

Gregor Johann Mendel was born in Hyncice, Moravia on 22 July 1822 in what is now the Czech Republic. The only son of a peasant farmer, Mendel attended local schools and the Philosophic Institute at Olomouc. In 1843, he entered the Augustinian Order at St. Thomas Monastery in Brno (German: Brünn) and began his theological studies at the Brünn Theological College. He was ordained to the priesthood on 6 August 1847.

The Augustinians had been established in Moravia since 1350, and St. Thomas Monastery was a center of creative interest in the sciences and culture. Its members included well-known philosophers, a musicologist, mathematicians, mineralogists and botanists who were heavily engaged in scientific research and teaching. The library contained precious manuscripts and incunabula, as well as textbooks dealing with problems in the natural sciences. The monastery also held a mineralogical collection, an experimental botanical garden and a herbarium. It was in this atmosphere, Mendel later wrote, that his preference for the natural sciences was developed.

Continue reading

Mary Ellen Boole’s Letter to Charles Darwin

Standard

mary-everest-boole

 

Mary Everest Boole, a committed Christian,  wrote to Darwin seeking clarification that his theory might be compatible with her religious faith on 13 December 1866:

Dear Sir
Will you excuse my venturing to ask you a question to which no one’s answer but your own would be quite satisfactory to me.
Do you consider the holding of your Theory of Natural Selection, in its fullest & most unreserved sense, to be inconsistent,—I do not say with any particular scheme of Theological doctrine,—but with the following belief, viz:
That knowledge is given to man by the direct Inspiration of the Spirit of God.
That God is a personal and Infinitely good Being.
That the effect of the action of the Spirit of God on the brain of man is especially a moral effect.
And that each individual man has, within certain limits, a power of choice as to how far he will yield to his hereditary animal impulses, and how far he will rather follow the guidance of the Spirit Who is educating him into a power of resisting those impulses in obedience to moral motives.
The reason why I ask you is this. My own impression has always been,—not only that your theory was quite compatible with the faith to which I have just tried to give expression,—but that your books afforded me a clue which would guide me in applying that faith to the solution of certain complicated psychological problems which it was of practical importance to me, as a mother, to solve. I felt that you had supplied one of the missing links,—not to say the missing link,—between the facts of Science & the promises of religion. Every year’s experience tends to deepen in me that impression.
But I have lately read remarks, on the probable bearing of your theory on religious & moral questions, which have perplexed & pained me sorely. I know that the persons who make such remarks must be cleverer & wiser than myself. I cannot feel sure that they are mistaken unless you will tell me so. And I think,—I cannot know for certain, but I think,—that, if I were an author, I would rather that the humblest student of my works should apply to me directly in a difficulty than that she should puzzle too long over adverse & probably mistaken or thoughtless criticisms.
At the same time I feel that you have a perfect right to refuse to answer such questions as I have asked you. Science must take her path & Theology hers, and they will meet when & where & how God pleases, & you are in no sense responsible for it, if the meeting-point should be still very far off. If I receive no answer to this letter, I shall infer nothing from your silence except that you felt I had no right to make such inquiries of a stranger.
I remain
Dear Sir
Yours truly
Mary Boole

Charles Darwin answered the next Day:

Continue reading

Antoinette Brown Blackwell, first female evolutionary biologist

Standard
abb

Antoinette Brown Blackwell (1825-1921)

Antoinette Brown Blackwell (18 May 1825 – 05 November 1921) became the first woman in the United States ordained by a congregation in a major Christian denomination, although she resigned only one year later seeing her position not in line with the expectation of her congregation. She was a well-versed public speaker on the paramount issues of her time, and distinguished herself from her contemporaries with her use of religious faith in her efforts to expand women’s rights. Antoinette Brown Blackwell lived long enough to vote in the presidential election of November 1920, woman suffrage having taken effect earlier that year.

She was fascinated by Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” and implemented the evolutionary viewpoint into her philosophical and theological thinking, mainly in her book “Studies in General Science”. Some researchers like Asa Gray easily slipped into the intelligent design argumentation, much to Darwin’s chagrin. Not so Antoinette Brown Blackwell: she sees a Creator, but not in the beautiful design here and there, but in the whole connectivity and economy in nature:

“If there is no rational cause manifested in the vegetable and animal economy of this earth, no design shown in the growth of new vegetation from the decayed tissues of the old, and of the higher animal tissues from the low, then there can be no design indicated in anything, for there is no evidence more conclusive of anything in nature! … I claim, therefore, immediately to perceive that Creation had, and must have had, a rational Creator. But rational powers, as we have already seen, can only pertain to a personal mind; and if God is a rational being, then He is a real and true person. He thinks, feels, and acts; possessing a living, sentient nature of his own and however different may be his type of mind from ours, however above and beyond us, and therefore to us incomprehensible, yet his nature like ours must be indivisible and indestructible.“ [1]

She was rather not pleased, though, with Charles Darwin’s “Descent of Man”, and the inferior role he assigned to the female sex. In her book “The sexes throughout nature”, she drawed attention to male fish who helped their female partners build nests and gestate eggs and to female insect rulers who took charge over the organization of their communities. Blackwell offered authoritative proof direct from the natural world that female inferiority – as claimed by Darwin and Spencer – was neither inevitable nor natural.

She concluded from her investigations that the behavior of peacocks or deers should not be regarded as role models for human behavior. Especially in species with shared responsibility and intensive, longer care for the offspring between the sexes, establishing partnerships can also be a success model for evolution. She thus was also a still unrecognized precursor of the “Parental Investment”-theory described by Robert Trivers that made his mark in evolutionary biology only in the 1970ies [2].

In 1856, she married Samuel Charles Blackwell who shared his wife’s beliefs in reform, including women’s rights. They had seven children, two of whom died in infancy. Of the remaining five daughters, Edith and Ethel became doctors, while Agnes became an artist and an art teacher.

[1] Antoinette Brown Blackwell, Studies in General Science, Chapter “The Nature of the Creator Inferred from the Creation”, New York: G.P. Putnam and Son, 1869.

[2] Michael Blume, Antoinette Brown Blackwell – Die erste Evolutionsforscherin, Sciebooks, 2013. (The book was THE inspiration for this blog post)

Georg Ohm

Standard

Georg Simon Ohm (16 March 1789– 06 July 1854) was a German physicist known for his statement of Ohm’s law (V=IR, voltage equals current times resistance) and its related forms. He was also credited with Ohm’s phase law in acoustics.

And he was a man of faith:

In 1849, Ohm published Beiträge zur Molecular-Physik, (in English: Molecular Physics). In the preface of this work he stated he hoped to write a second and third volume ‘and if God gives me length of days for it, a fourth.’ However, on finding that an original discovery recorded in it was being anticipated by a Swedish scientist he did not publish it, stating: ‘The episode has given a fresh and deep sense for my mind to the saying “Man proposes, and God disposes.” The project that gave the first impetus to my inquiry has been dissipated into mist, and a new one, undesigned by me, has been accomplished in its place.’ He died in Munich in 1854, and is buried in the Alter Südfriedhof. A collection of his family letters would be compiled in a German book, which shows that he used to sign some of his letters with the expression ‘Gott befohlen, G S Ohm,’ meaning ‘Commended to God.’ [1]

“The Renaissance Mathematicus” tells the story of Georg and his brother Martin:

This is the story of two brothers born into the working class in a small town in Germany in the late eighteenth century. Both of them were recognised as mathematically gifted whilst still teenagers and went on to study mathematics at university. The younger brother was diligent and studious and completed his doctorate in mathematics with a good grade. There followed a series of good teaching jobs before he obtained a lectureship at the then leading university of Berlin, ten years after graduating. In due course, there followed positions as associate and the full professor. As professor he contributed some small but important proofs to the maths cannon, graduated an impressive list of doctoral students and developed an interesting approach to maths textbooks. He became a respected and acknowledged member of the German mathematical community.

read on – it is worthwhile.

[1] “Georg Ohm.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Web 16 March 2016.

Picture: Detail – The first record of Ohm’s law in Georg Simon Ohm’s lab book, today at the archives of the Deutsches Museum.

Eduard Heis, astronomer for God’s glory

Standard
imagesEduard Heis (18 Feb 1806–30 June 1877), a mathematician and astronomer, was the first to record a count of the Perseid meteor shower in 1839, which has been recorded yearly ever since. Heis published a significant number of astronomical treatises, including “De Magnitudine” (1852), and “Sternschnuppen-Beobachtungen” (1875), among others. The most important one is “Atlas Coelestis Novus” (1872, dedicated to Pope Pius IX): here, Heis described 5.421 stars visible to the naked eye and classified according to their light intensity, seen in Central Europe and caredfully catalogued.

From the Catholic Encyclopedia (1910): “Shortly before his death he prepared the design of the Scriptural and symbolical constellations (Orion, Ursa, Pieces, Virgo, Crux) for the ceiling of the choir in the cathedral of Münster. Heis was an excellent teacher, a fatherly friend to his students, charitable to his neighbour, especially the poor, and an exemplary husband and father. During the I Vatican Council and the Kulturkampf he stood faithfully by the Church. In 1869 as rector he offered the jubilee congratulations of the Academy of Münster to Pius IX, and in 1872 he received from the same pontiff a precious medal with a Latin Brief for the ‘Atlas Coelestis’ which he had dedicated to the pope through Father Secchi. Heis died of apoplexy, three months before his golden jubilee as teacher. He had his own tombstone prepared in the proportions of the ‘golden section,’ with the symbol of the dove and olive-branch from the catacombs.” [1]

[1] Hagen, John. “Eduard Heis.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 7. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910. accessed: 30 Jun. 2015

 

Edward Hitchcock and the first “tree of life”

Standard

250px-Edward_HitchcockEdward Hitchcock (24 May 1793 – 27 Feb 1864) was an American geologist and the third President of Amherst College (1845–1854). In 1821 he was ordained as a Congregationalist pastor and served as pastor of the Congregational Church in Conway, Massachusetts, 1821-25. He left the ministry to become Professor of Chemistry and Natural History at Amherst College. He held that post from 1825 to 1845, serving as Professor of Natural Theology and Geology from 1845 until his death in 1864.

He tried to reconcile science and religion, focusing on Geology. His major work in this area was The Religion of Geology and Its Connected Sciences (Boston, 1851). In this book, he explained that vast timespans during which the earth was formed do not contradict the first chapters of Genesis. Continue reading