Maria Mitchell, the first American discovering a comet


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


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Day 13: Maria Mitchell (1818-1889) on the blog Women Who Have Made History

Pierre Duhem, an uneasy genius

Pierre Duhem

Pierre Maurice Duhem (9 June 1861 – 14 September 1916) was a physicist, epistemologist, and historian of science. He maintained that the history of science and ideas is important for a correct scientific epistemology. He contributed to a reexamination of the role Christian theology played in the formation of the Western scientific spirit, chiefly through his monumental work “Le système du monde. Histoire des doctrines cosmologiques de Platon à Copernic” (10 volumes), whose publication was completed after his death. Duhem criticized the claims of the mechanist and materialist philosophies, stating that they operated on illegitimate extrapolations from results obtained in physics. He considered metaphysics the field of first principles and of the notions upon which physics is based, while leaving physics the full freedom to formulate its own models and delineations. His principal reflections on the relationships between physics and metaphysics are found in his work “La théorie physique, son objet et sa structure” (1906).

Stanley Jaki wished to increase our knowledge and appreciation for Pierre Duhem, writing the book Uneasy Genius: The Life And Work Of Pierre Duhem” (1984).


Francesco Denza and the Carte du Ciel


On 07 June 1834, Francesco Denza (1834-1894) was born in Naples. He was a Barnabite priest, astronomer, and meteorologist who immersed himself in solar spectroscopy and founded what later became the Italian Meteorological Society. He renovated the observation deck of the Vatican Observatory, founded in 1888. Vatican staff members realized that participation in the program ‘to map the sky’ would immediately give their young observatory international recognition. Pope Leo XIII commissioned Father Francesco Denza and Father Giuseppe Lais to attend the Astrographic Congress and enroll the Vatican as one of the participating institutions in the international Carte du Ciel project which made a photographic map of the stars.

Augustin Louis Cauchy: I believe in the Deity of Christ


On 23 May 1857, the French mathematician Augustin Louis Cauchy (1789-1857) passed away in Sceaux, France. His research provided the foundation for the modern period of rigor in analysis. He was one of the first to state and prove theorems of calculus rigorously, rejecting the heuristic principle of the generality of algebra of earlier authors. He almost singlehandedly founded complex analysis and the study of permutation groups in abstract algebra. A profound mathematician, Cauchy had a great influence over his contemporaries and successors. His writings range widely in mathematics and mathematical physics.

The Catholic Encyclopedia (1908) notes: “Cauchy was an admirable type of the true Catholic savant. A great and indefatigable mathematician, he was at the same time a loyal and devoted son of the Church. He made public profession of his faith and found his greatest pleasure and recreation in works of zeal and charity.”

In his book “Considérations sur les ordres religieux, adressées aux amis des sciences” (1844), he said:

“I am a Christian, that is, I believe in the divinity of Christ, as did Tycho Brahe, Copernicus, Descartes, Newton, Fermat, Leibniz, Pascal, Grimaldi, Euler, Guldin; Boscovich, Gerdil, as did all the great astronomers, physicist and geometricians of past ages.”


Catholic Encyclopedia,

Quote translated from French in: Julio Antonio Gonzalo (2008). The Intelligible Universe: An Overview of the Last Thirteen Billion Years

Charles Darwin -not an atheist, but an agnostic


Charles Darwin an agnostic 07 May 1879

On 07 May 1879, Charles Darwin wrote a letter of reply to Sir John Fordyce, an atheist, in which Darwin states that he thinks it is absurd to doubt that a man may be an ardent theist and an evolutionist at the same time. He says that he has never considered himself an atheist “in the sense of denying the existence of God,” but rather he would qualify himself as an agnostic.Here is the letter:

Down Beckenham | Kent
May 7 1879

Dear Sir,

It seems to me absurd to doubt that a man may be an ardent Theist & an evolutionist.— You are right about Kingsley. Asa Gray, the eminent botanist, is another case in point— What my own views may be is a question of no consequence to any one except myself.— But as you ask, I may state that my judgment often fluctuates. Moreover whether a man deserves to be called a theist depends on the definition of the term: which is much too large a subject for a note. In my most extreme fluctuations I have never been an atheist in the sense of denying the existence of a God.—

I think that generally (& more and more so as I grow older) but not always, that an agnostic would be the most correct description of my state of mind.

Dear Sir, Yours faithfully

Ch. Darwin

Pierre-Joseph Pelletier: Chlorophyll and Quinine


pelletierpicPierre-Joseph Pelletier (22 March 1788 – 19 July 1842) was a French chemist who helped found the chemistry of alkaloids.
Pelletier was professor at and, from 1832, director of the School of Pharmacy, Paris. In 1817, in collaboration with the chemist Joseph-Bienaimé Caventou, he isolated chlorophyll, the green pigment in plants that is essential to the process of photosynthesis.

He was also one of the pioneers of the study of plant alkaloid chemistry. Alkaloids are organic compounds that induce various effects in medicine, including painkillers and respiratory stimulants. Together with Joseph Caventou (1795-1877), a student of pharmacy, they set up to solve the mystery of “cinchona bark”. In 1817, they tackled the problem that had baffled scientists for decades- wrestling the secrets of Peruvian barks that were so useful in malaria. After sweating out for months they isolated from the yellow bark, a sticky, pale yellow gum that could not be induced to crystallise. The gum was soluble in acid, alcohol, and ether and highly effective in malaria. The two men named the new chemical quinine after quinaquina the name given by Peruvian Indians to the bark. The announcement was made in 1820. Caventou and Pelletier prepared pure salts of quinine, had them tested clinically, and set up manufacturing facilities. They refused any profit from their discovery. Instead of patenting the extraction process they published the method of separation of quinine and cinchonine from the cinchona barks so that anyone could manufacture quinine. They received many honours; the most lucrative was Prix Montyon of 10 thousand Francs awarded by the French Institute of Science.

They also discovered brucine, strychnine, and veratrine. Some of these compounds soon found medicinal uses. Such applications marked the beginning of the gradual shift away from the use of crude plant extracts and toward the use of natural and synthetic compounds found in nature or formulated by the chemist. In 1823 Pelletier published analyses of several alkaloids, thus providing a basis for alkaloid chemistry. He also did important studies of other compounds, including caffeine, piperine, and picrotoxin.

He had five children with his first wife, Aglae-Genevieve Vergez, who died in 1830. He remarried on December 1832 with Esther Courtin. As his colleague Augustin-Louis Cauchy testifies, Pelletier was a convinced Catholic.

JV Pai-Dhungat,  Caventou, Pelletier & – History Of Quinine, Journal of the association of physicians of india • vol 63 • march, 2015

Dr BS Kakkilaya,  Saga of Malaria Treatment

Georges Dillemann, La vie de Joseph Pelletier

The Catholic Encyclopedia, Pierre-Joseph Pelletier

Carl Friedrich Gauss: Ceres, the bell curve …. and faith in God


CF Gauss

On 23 February 1855, the German mathematician, physicist, and astronomer Carl Friedrich Gauss (1777 – 1855) died in Göttingen. He ardently pursued a rather vast array of interests, from astronomy to geometry, mathematical analysis to physics, and magnetism to electrostatics. He is noted for formulating the law of the distribution of casual errors known as the Gaussian function or the bell curve. He is sometimes referred to as the Princeps mathematicorum (Latin, “the Prince of Mathematicians”).

In 1795, Gauss entered the University of Göttingen. While there he discovered how to construct a 17-sided polygon with ruler and compass. Gauss left the university in 1798 without a degree. In 1799, Gauss developed the concept of complex numbers and also submitted a dissertation to the University of Helmstedt providing a proof for the fundamental theorem of algebra.  This dissertation won Gauss a doctoral degree in abstentia. In 1801, Gauss completed “Disquisitiones Arithmeticae,” a major volume on number theory.

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