Richard Willstätter: The God of Spinoza, Einstein and St. Francis, too?

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willstatter 21On 03 August 1942, Richard Martin Willstätter (1872–1942) passed away in Muralto, Locarno, Switzerland. He was a chemist most known for his invention paper chromatography. For his research, he would win the 1915 Nobel Prize in Chemistry “for his researches on plant pigments, especially chlorophyll.” A contemporary, Mikhail Semyonovich Tsvet (1872–1919), has also been credited with contributions to this field.

Regarding his religious views, Prof. Willstätter had merged the Einsteinian view of Spinoza’s God with St. Francis of Assisi’s ‘Canticle of the Creatures.’ A quote from his autobiography, published as From My Life (1965).

“My faith has been that of Albert Einstein, who replied to a telegraphed inquiry from the Rabbi of Boston approximately as follows: ‘I believe in the God of Spinoza who reveals himself in the harmony and beauty of Nature, but not in a personal God who concerns himself with the fate of the individual.’

“The unfathomable wonder of a Creation infinite in size and detail is divine. The world of man is a trifling part of it but man sets himself at the focus of Creation. It is the human soul which seems to him the great mystery. There is that in the soul of man which is noble and selfless, which seeks no reward but exists and functions for its own sake. It is that which is divine.

“My faith is the faith of St. Francis of Assisi, as it is expressed in his song to the sun, my favorite prayer: Lord God, I praise Thee in silence, for the glory of Thy works.”

Source:  Willstätter, Richard. From My Life. (W.A. Benjamin, 1965), 461. Image online: https://amzn.to/2AgWq03

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Fritz Lipmann: Seeing the Vital Pattern Emerge —Through All the Complexities of Life

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On 24 July 1986, Fritz Albert Lipmann (1899–1986) passed away in Poughkeepsie, NY. Educated at the University of Berlin (MD, 1924) and the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute (PhD, 1926), he shared the 1953 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine “for his discovery of co-enzyme A and its importance for intermediary metabolism” along with Hans Adolf Krebs (1900–1981) “for his discovery of the citric acid cycle.”

From his Nobel Lecture (11 Dec 1953), entitled “Development of the Acetylation Problem: A Personal Account”:

“Out of the early, justifiably stubborn empiricism grew up a definite rational structure. Process patterns emerged and it became important to recognize certain rules and introduce new terms, thereby emphasizing the fact that biochemistry was now developing into an adult science, best characterized, may be, as microbiological technology… There is good reason to hope that in the not too distant future, out of the fair confusion of the present, a clearer understanding will eventually evolve. A new level of complexity seems slowly to unravel and the gap between the biochemical and biological approach further narrows down.”

His autobiography recounted his early medical studies during World War I, including his service as a medic in a church.

“Soon after I had started studying medicine in 1917, in the last year of World War I, about May 1918, I was called up to serve in the army. As a medical student, I was lucky enough to join the medical service; it became my first adventure far away from home. After a brief indoctrination with about 20 medics, I went on a long train trip, not knowing whereto. We ended up in Sedan, a nice, small French town on the Marne, far from the front. We were distributed among the hospitals there and had a rather easy life. Only at the very end did I get a brief taste of war. I had to serve in an improvised field lazarett in a church not far from the fighting. I could hear cannon fire. They were short of help there, and I had the duty to supervise about 40 seriously wounded men. I had to learn to exert authority. It was not an easy job, but a grim experience, with freshly wounded men badly taken care of. Returning to Königsberg after the war’s end, I met there the murderous influenza epidemic that, I understand, killed a similar number of people as had been lost in the war. I was not yet dismissed then from the army, because there were hotels requisitioned in my hometown for taking care of soldiers with this disease. I was assigned to one of them. I witnessed many people dying of the dreaded pneumonia, not only the soldier patients, but also the personnel – the head nurse and one of our doctors. In retrospect, it is a miracle that I did not get it, being for months constantly in contact with the patients.”

Referenced:
Lipmann, Fritz. “Nobel Lecture: Development of the Acetylation Problem: A Personal Account.” Stockholm, SWE. 11 Dec 1953.
Kleinkauf, Horst, Hans von Döhren, and Lothar Jaenicke, eds. The Roots of Modern Biochemistry: Fritz Lippmann’s Squiggle and its Consequences. (Berlin, DE: Walter de Gruyter, 1988), 11. Source image: online.

Vladimir Prelog: Molecular Theology

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On 23 July 1906, Vladimir Prelog (1906–1998) was born in Sarajevo, Bosnia.

He was co-awarded the 1975 Nobel Prize in Chemistry “for his research into the stereochemistry of organic molecules and reactions,” along with J.W. Cornforth (1917–2013) “for his work on the stereochemistry of enzyme-catalyzed reactions.” He had been professor of Chemistry in Zagreb until the beginning of World War II, which required him to immigrate to Switzerland, where he taught at the Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich for the remainder of his career.

His autobiography, published as My 132 Semesters of Chemistry Studies (1991), noted: “Looking back, I became rather clearly aware that all in all for someone born in Sarajevo, I have been very lucky, and I cannot imagine alternative circumstances in my life that would have allowed me to achieve more.”

The Cahn–Ingold–Prelog (CIP) sequence rules are used to “completely and unequivocally” label the stereoisomers of a molecule. Rotating a carbon-centered stereo-isomer, the lowest priority group (low atomic number ←periodic table) is moved to the back, and the highest priority group (high atomic number → periodic table) to the top.  The numbering of the functional groups is then traced along this priority ranking, identifying different enantiomers (L/D isomerism, Cis–trans isomerism, E-Z isomerism, etc.). His Nobel Lecture (12 Dec 1975) outlined some interesting theological reflections regarding these stereoisomers.

“[A]lthough most compounds involved in fundamental life processes, such as sugars and amino acids, are chiral and although the energy of both enantiomers and the probability of their formation in an achiral environment are equal, only one enantiomer occurs in Nature; the enantiomers involved in life processes are the same in men, animals, plants and microorganisms, independent on their place and time on Earth. Many hypotheses have been conceived about this subject, which can be regarded as one of the first problems of molecular theology. One possible explanation is that the creation of living matter was an extremely improbable event, which occurred only once.”

The book Cosmos, Bios, Theos (1992) included an initial analysis by Prof. Vladimir Prelog on this question — the mysterious origin(s) of living matter in the cosmos:

“I follow with interest the discussions concerning the origin of the universe, of life, and of man, especially in the molecular area. I marvel at the courage of the scientists who deal with questions of the origin and seek answers for them. I only fear that our knowledge concerning the physical, chemical, and biological (as well as the psychological and epistemological) bases does not suffice to give presently satisfying answers. The search for these foundations (for instance, the structure of matter of the molecular evolution) which, as Isaac Rabi said, brings us closer to God, is in my opinion the noblest task of the sciences.”

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Referenced:
— “Cahn–Ingold–Prelog priority rules.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation.
Prelog, Vladimir. My 132 Semesters of Studies of Chemistry. (Washington, DC: American Chemical Society (ACS) Press, 1991), 85.
— Prelog, Vladimir. “Chirality in Chemistry.” Stockholm, SWE. 12 Dec 1975.
— Margenau, Henry, & Roy Varghese. Cosmos, Bios, Theos. (Chicago, IL: Open Court Publishing, 1992), 187. Images online: https://amzn.to/2uZh52u; http://vprelog.sweb.cz

David Douglas: Science on the Verge of Another World

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david douglas 31On 12 July 1834, David Douglas (1799–1834) died at Mauna Kea, Hawaii.

A Scottish American biologist, he is most known for his exploration of the Highlands of Scotland, the Northwest of the United States, and the Hawaiian islands. Over eighty species of plants and animals have scientific names which include the designation douglasii in his honour.

A biography described the motivation necessary for Douglas to undertake some of his more distant journeys: “The stories the early explorers told of the west coast of America, and the specimens they sent back, had tantalized horticulturalists and botanists, as well as the general public. But the live plants remained elusive and unknown. The difficulties of journeying to this wild and inhospitable land at the right time to collect seeds, and then of transporting seeds and specimen safely home, seemed insurmountable. Now, however, the Horticultural Society saw the possibilities of glory, and in a leap of faith decided to despatch David Douglas, their newly proven prodigy…” (Mitchell et al., 2005).

Douglas himself recognized in these formidable terrains and their geological contrasts a manifestation of the Creator’s wisdom and power:

“Were the traveller permitted to express the emotions he feels when placed on such an astonishing part of the earth’s surface, cold indeed must his heart be to the great operations of Nature, and still colder towards Nature’s God, by whose wisdom and power such wonderful scenes were created, if he could behold them without deep humility and reverential awe. Man feels himself as nothing as if standing on the verge of another world. The death like stillness of the place, not an animal nor an insect to be seen far removed from the din and bustle of the world, impresses on his mind with double force the extreme helplessness of his condition, an object of pity and compassion, utterly unworthy to stand in the presence of a great and good, and wise and holy God, and to contemplate the diversified works of His hands!

Referenced:
Mitchell, Ann Lindsay, and Syd House. The Tree Collector: The Life and Explorations of David Douglas. (London, UK: Aurum Press, 2005), 32.
Wilson, W.F. David Douglas, Botanist at Hawaii. (Honolulu, HI: Honolulu Press, 1919), 32-33.  Image: Artwork for film Finding David Douglas (Lyman Museum, Hawaii).

Edith Quimby: The Reality Behind Exploration

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On 10 July 1891, Edith Quimby (1891–1982) was born in Rockford, IL. She is recognized as being one of the founders of nuclear medicine for her work in diagnostic and therapeutic applications of X-rays. Additionally, she conducted research on the potential of synthesised radioactive materials for treating cancer and in other medical research applications. She was elected president of the American Radium Society in 1954; was one of the first members of the American Association of Physicists in Medicine in 1958; and was honored with American College of Radiology Gold Medal in 1963.

An edited volume of a radiology journal included an interesting historical perspective on the religious aspects of x-rays and other radioactive forms of energy:

“You may remember that in ancient Egypt and Babylonia, demons were commonplace, and every man, wise or simple, knew that they regulated the two most important things in the world: his business and his health. Many of these spirits were anonymous; others bore such dreadful names… Ordinarily it was possible to placate them by easy and familiar incantations, but when there was a flood, plague, famine or other catastrophe it was the custom to call in a specialist. These were the priest-physicians, and they were able by divination and other rites to identify and drive away the offending spirit… [I]t is remarkable that in all the works of Hippocrates, spiritual causes of disease are mentioned only once, and then with courteous doubt. The Romans and primitive Christians were relatively indifferent to demons, but in the Dark and Middle Ages, the spires, arches and cornices of any Gothic cathedral find goblins roosting more thickly than pigeons. For a thousand years every flood, ulcer, pestilence and stillbirth was attributed to the act of a demon, intimately and implacably concerned with human woe. One strange family of evil spirits was said to inhabit certain mines in Saxony, and tonight they deserve our particular respect. They were called Kobolds, and were thought to cause the wasting and pallor in miners that has since been traced to arsenic, a heavy ore contaminant. Eventually the caves of these spirits yielded an element that has been marvelously refined and transmuted into an agent of healing, but it still carried its demon name: Cobalt 60… For the past two hundred years, demons have been on the decline all through the West… Probably we have heard the last of them for a time. And when we are asked why, especially as scientists, an easy answer comes to mind. We cannot see them…

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Barbara McClintock: Getting to the Root of Scientific Research

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On 16 June 1902, Barbara McClintock (1902–1992) was born in Hartford, CT. A biologist and geneticist, she was awarded the 1983 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine “for her discovery of mobile genetic elements.” By studing Zea mays (maize) with variably colored kernels, she was able to analyze the independent genetic formation & development of hundreds of offspring and thereby determine the allelic patterns within plant seeds. One article notes: “McClintock’s observation of the behavior of kernel color alleles was revolutionary in its proposition that genomic replication does not always follow a consistent pattern. Indeed, as a result of both autonomous and activator-controlled transposition at different stages of seed development, the genes of maize kernels are capable of producing a variety of coloration patterns.”

A reflection on Professor McClintock’s research from an edited volume:

“It is perhaps fitting to end with the reflections of a scientist―another Nobel Laureate― and with a return to what might unite the poet and the scientist and point to a way forward for the rest of us. ‘Good research,’ Barbara McClintock has said, ‘requires a disposition to hear what the material has to say to you.’ This is not simply a device to fathom the reasons governing the world. ‘It is,’ as her biographer notes, ‘a longing to embrace the world in its very being, through reason and beyond, a capacity for union with that which is known.’ It is not too much to describe this, in the life of a research scientist, as a a religious longing. It is a desire to move beyond mere certainty to a reverence for the given, ‘a disposition to hear what the material has to say to you’.

Referenced:
― Pray, Leslie, and Kira Zhaurova. “Barbara McClintock and the Discovery of Jumping Genes (Transposons).” Nature Education 1.1 (2008): 169.
― Soskice, Janet Martin. “The Ends of Man the Future of God.” in The End of the World and the Ends of God: Science and Theology on Eschatology. Eds. John Polkinghorne and Michael Welker (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press Int., 2000), 87. Image: WordPress.

Wendell Meredith Stanley: Ancient Science Advances by New Faith

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On 15 June 1971, Wendell Meredith Stanley (1904–1971) passed away in Salamanca, Spain. An American biochemist, he was co-awarded the 1946 Nobel Prize in Chemistry with John Howard Northrop (1891–1987) “for their preparation of enzymes and virus proteins in a pure form” along with James Batcheller Sumner (1887–1955) “for his discovery that enzymes can be crystallized.” Later in life, he authored Chemistry: A Beautiful Thing, for which he was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.

His Nobel Lecture had described the historical roots of virology:

“Although the idea that certain infectious diseases might be caused by invisible living agents was expressed by Varro and Columella about 100 B. C., there was no experimental proof and the idea was not accepted. The cause of infectious disease remained a mystery for hundreds of years. Even the wonderful work of Leeuwenhoek and his description of small animals and bacteria during the years from 1676 to 1683 failed to result in proof of the relationship between bacteria and infectious disease. There was, of course, much speculation and during the latter half of the 19th century great controversies arose over the germ theory of disease…

“Attempts to learn something about the nature of viruses through studies on their general properties began with Beijerinck’s work in 1898 and were continued in different laboratories for over thirty years without too much success. Although Beijerinck and Allard made important contributions, perhaps the most significant work was that of Vinson and Petre during the years from 1927 to 1931 when they showed that tobacco mosaic virus could be subjected to several kinds of chemical manipulations without loss of virus activity. Nevertheless, when the work on viruses, which is recognized by the 1946 Nobel Prize for Chemistry, was started in 1932, the true nature of viruses was a complete mystery…”

Similarly, an edited volume by Prof. Stanley notes the ancient roots of this research area, and further noted the need for faith to make progress.

“In his classic paper, which appeared in 1915, Twort discussed the possible nature of the infectious agent: it could be an ultravirus, or a small parasite reproducing at the expense of the bacterium, or a phase of the life cycle of the micrococcus, or an autocatalytic enzyme, or a primitive form of life. The existence of acute infectious diseases of bacteria was confirmed two years later by d’Hérelle, who named the agent bacteriophage… Until the end of the nineteenth century, the history of viral diseases is just a part of the history of infectious diseases. In about 2500 B.C., the Chinese had identified smallpox and knew that it was transmissible. Aristotle was aware of the fact that rabies was transmitted by the bite of dogs; the Hebrews used to compare this bite to that of a venomous snake. In Latin, virus means ‘venom’ or similar poisonous fluid. Virus was something which could produce a disease. And in A.D. 50, Cornelius Aulus Celsus produced this remarkable sentence: ‘Rabies is caused by virus.’ Ideas concerning infectious diseases remained metaphysical until the notion of a specific agent emerged, and until, mainly as a consequence of Pasteur’s work, the agents of infectious diseases were identified as microbes.” (Lwoff)

“The nucleic acid of the tobacco mosaic virus was itself shown to be capable of initiating infection by Gierer and Schramm (1956a,b) and a similar, but less-detailed study was made simultaneously by Fraenkel-Conrat (1956). The idea that the nucleic acid might be the infectious agent was not a new one, but the general opinion was that it might be too unstable to exist in an infectious form for any time… When one considers the relative lack of infectivity of untreated virus, and that some 10⁸ particles of nucleic acid were therefore needed to cause a single infection, a certain amount of faith is required in the interpretation of the results, particularly if one considers that the absence of active virus can only be controlled by indirect methods. In particular, the infectivity possessed by the nucleic acid preparations is very labile to the action of pancreatic ribonuclease at concentrations of the latter which have little effect on whole virus (Gierer, 1957). Conversely, the activity is much less affected by antiserum to the whole virus, though it is indeed surprising that the serum used did not contain enough ribonuclease to inactivate the nucleic acid… As has been mentioned, the present evidence is that the infectivity of the tobacco mosaic virus resides in its nucleic acid component. If this is so, then chemical or physical agents which inactivate the virus must act in one of two ways…” (Markham)

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