Therese of Bavaria, Princess, adventurer, and scientist

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“Princess Therese of Bavaria was a multi-talented, clever and extremely courageous woman who, against much opposition and with incredible energy, followed her thirst for knowledge and studied the diversity of nature and indigenous people on her numerous travels.”

– Gudrun Kadereit, Princess Therese von Bayern Chair of Systematics, Biodiversity, and Evolution of Plants.
Princess Therese of Bavaria

Therese von Bayern (1850-1926) was a Bavarian princess, ethnologist, zoologist, botanist, travel writer, and advocate for the education of women.

She was courageous and tough. An adventurer traveling the world, and not giving in to any hardship whatsoever. Wild animals, extreme climate, travel hardships – such phenomena only spurred her on. From her companions, she demanded the same willingness to subordinate everything to her goal. The expeditionary party had to submit to her regiment without contradiction and forego any comforts. Riding for several days at a high marching pace for ten hours was the rule, as were night camps with strangers and animals in rooms that were noisy, cold, humid, and full of vermins. Neither extreme heat nor cold, neither pneumonia nor altitude sickness and malaria attacks, neither a broken luggage cart nor a broken rib could slow the princess down.  

Her scientific mindset was extraordinary. She learned 12 languages, and every expedition was well prepared, she knew which specimens were still missing in the Bavarian museums and collections. It took her nearly 10 years of diligent work to complete the journal-like report on her 1888 expedition to Brazil, the book was well written, and plenty of footnotes comparing her findings with those in the literature.

She was Catholic. Her journal provides insights into her deep piety and her prayerful thoughts. Her faith was also caritative as exemplified in her care for wounded soldiers in her villa in Lindau am Bodensee during WWI.

And she was loyal to the people she loved. In 1864, her mother asked her on her deathbed to care for her father and her brothers, a wish she fulfilled diligently, but as she said later, nearly smashed her, since she was only 13 years old. Her father became the Prince Regent, the de facto ruler of Bavaria in 1886 and she stood at his side until his death in 1912. As a young girl, she fell in love with her cousin Otto, a love forever unfulfilled, given his poor health and psychiatric disease. She always remained loyal to her love and refused to marry despite the wishes of her family.

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Spanish chemist Piedad de la Cierva: an “invisible” pioneer

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Piedad de la Cierva

I am calling Piedad de la Cierva here an “invisible” pioneer because the only information available on the internet is in Spanish, not in any other language. And even in Spain, she is not yet well known. As a chemist, she was a pioneer in three distinct areas, forced to switch gears due to external circumstances, which she developed into opportunities. In Spain of the 1940ies, she was years ahead of her time and therefore failed in her aspirations for a life in academia, turning instead to decades of fruitful industrial research.

Piedad de la Cierva Viudes (01 June 1913 – 31 Dicember 2007) was one of the first female chemists in Spain. After studying in Murcia and Valencia, she obtained her PhD in the National Institute of Physics and Chemistry situated in the Rockefeller Building in Madrid.

De la Cierva later recalled:

“I remember my great surprise when I realized that I was able to calculate the distance between the chlorine and sodium atoms of a salt crystal. And how impressed I was that God, Creator of the Universe, had distributed the atoms, so small, in such an amazing way”.

In 1935, she moved to the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen for her investigations on the nuclear transmutation of aluminum and the separation of bromine isotopes. In Copenhagen, she stayed at the Convent of the sisters of the Assumption where she fondly remembered the friendship of her tutor, Mother Hildegard. In her travels to Paris and Berlin, she met Irène Joliot Curie, the daughter of Marie Curie, herself a renowned chemist and Nobel Prize Laureate, Lise Meitner who would later immigrate to Sweden and the USA, and the couple Ida and Walter Noddak.

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Máirín de Valéra: A Passion for Botany

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Máirín de Valéra

Máirín de Valéra (12 April 1912 – 8 August 1984) was a leading expert in phycology – the study of algae – and the first Professor of Botany in Galway, Ireland. She had a winning personality, was known for her rigorous examination of the botanical courses she gave, and for her deep knowledge of seaweeds on the Irish west coast, which she explored mostly on foot or by bicycle. She has a famous father, Éamon de Valéra who was one of the leaders of the 1916 Easter Uprising, was Taoiseach (Prime Minister) of Ireland three times and was twice as President; and her mother wrote popular children’s books in Irish.

After receiving her Master’s degree from the University of Dublin, Máirin continued her studies and investigations in Aberystwyth, Wales, and then at the Marine Biological Laboratory at Kristineberg, Sweden, turning her interest to seaweeds. She returned to Ireland in 1939 and obtained a position as an Assistant Lecturer in the Department of Natural History at University College Galway. She taught nearly all the botany courses, and with a double workload since she gave many lectures in both English and Irish.

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Catholic female scientists through the centuries

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The following blog post comes from a presentation I gave recently for some wonderful women across Europe in a monthly zoom meeting, called “Catholic Women in STEM”*. For some of the women presented here, you will find more information in previous blog posts – just follow the links.

Monasteries and Female Excellence in Science

First, let us go back in history for nearly 1.000 years.

Medieval monasteries allowed women to develop their talents, being free from the hardship that wives and mothers experienced at that time. And these women made their contributions in science, in art and in society. We start with contributions to science:

St. Hildegard of Bingen (1098–1179) was a German Benedictine abbess, writer, composer, philosopher, Christian mystic, visionary, and polymath. She is considered to be the founder of scientific natural history in Germany.

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Peter E. Hodgson: Christianity and the Origins of Modern Science (II)

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On 27 November 1928, Peter E. Hodgson (1928 – 2008) was born in London. He was a nuclear physicist who was committed to promoting dialogue between science and faith. 

In his book Theology and Modern Physics (2005), we read:

“Modern science is the fruit of many historical developments over several millennia. It was made possible first of all by the revelation to the Jews, God’s chosen people, then by the intellectual achievements of the ancient Greeks and also by the gradual formation of organized and civilized societies. The Jews were the first to recognize the one supreme God, creator of an ordered world that is open to the human mind. The Greeks asked the fundamental questions about the natural world and laid the foundation of the mathematical language that must be used to answer them. The growth of civilized societies provided the essential stability and order without which science is impossible. Yet all this, great and impressive though it is, was not enough to establish science as the ongoing self-sufficient activity that we know today. The destruction of the belief in eternal recurrence that prevented the rise of science in all ancient cultures was the unique achievement of Christianity. It was only in the Middle Ages, in a society permeated by Christian beliefs, that modern science was finally born. The Church founded the universities, where free discussion could take place, and fostered a culture that encouraged interest in the natural world. The pioneers of science were inspired to reveal God’s world and thereby to give Him glory, and were conscious of the organic connection between their Christian beliefs and their scientific work. Their Christian beliefs furthermore encouraged them to apply the fruits of their work for the benefit of their fellowmen. Modern science never developed in pre-Christian cultures, and it is stifled in cultures that have rejected or ignored their Christian heritage.”

– Peter E. Hodgson , Theology and Modern Physics, 2005, p.38-39

Euphemia Lofton Haynes: Educator, Trailblazer and Catholic

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Euphemia Lofton Haynes (11 September 1890 – 15 July 1980) was the first Afro-American to earn a Ph.D. in mathematics in 1943. Her Catholic faith was an inspiration for her commitment in education and leadership. She advocated constantly for equal opportunity for the poor and the abolishing of segregation.

By the time Haynes was born, slavery had been abolished; however, opportunities and rights of black Americans were not equal to those of whites. Her father, William Lofton, was a member of the Washington “black 400,” a small group of fewer than 100 families in Washington DC who were considered aristocrats of color, a distinction often based on family background, occupation, color and generations removed from slavery. Because her father was a member of this elite group and her mother was a school teacher, she had opportunities that most African Americans in DC would not have at this time. However, her family situation began to experience turmoil early in her life, since her parents separated and later divorced.

She graduated valedictorian of M Street High School in 1907, from Miner Normal School in 1909, and Smith College in 1914. In 1917, she married Harold Appo Haynes, whom she had known since their teenager years. They moved to Chicago to pursue higher education. She gained a master’s degree in education from the University of Chicago in 1930. She established and chaired the department of Mathematics at Miner’s Teachers College while pursuing her own PhD.

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Scientists reflect on their faith (XII)

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‘In a word, dinosaurs were the jewels of God’s creation.
By no means failures, they graced the planet for 160 million years.
Like all of His Creation, they gave Him praise. God loved dinosaurs.’ [1]

Peter Dodson was born on 20 August 1946 – happy birthday!

An accomplished paleontologist and a committed Catholic, Dodson is a professor of vertebrate paleontology and veterinary anatomy at the University of Pennsylvania and an expert on dinosaurs.

He describes the confrontation with materialistic scienticism in words that some of us may relate to in some way or the other:

‘I grew up in a Catholic household, attended Catholic high school and Catholic university. At Yale during my Ph.D. program my friends were for the most part Catholic. To be candid, I led a sheltered existence and was never seriously challenged in my faith. I never went through a period of doubt.

‘My bubble was burst in 1988 when I attended a seminar at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. The topic was “The Evolution of Human Morality” and the speaker was the late Will Provine, an evolutionary biologist and evangelical atheist from Cornell University. His message was that we should face up to the consequences of what evolutionary biology teaches: “There is no God; there is no soul; there is no life after death; there is no such thing as free will. A scientist who professes to believe in God is a hypocrite. You MUST check your brains at the back of the church. Not more than a handful of evolutionary biologists believe in God.”

As I sensed the tacit or vocal approval of this message by the assembled scientists, I slouched deep into my seat, feeling most decidedly alone. I had never before heard such a crude expression of scientific naturalism, the gratuitous philosophy of materialism that science does not require. I of course knew that there are atheists in science but nobody before had tried to tell me I could not believe. [2]

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Scientists reflect on their faith (VIII)

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Karin Öberg (1)

Karin Öberg is a Professor of Astronomy at Harvard University. Her specialty is astrochemistry and her research aims to uncover how chemical processes affect the outcome of planet formation, including the chemical habitability of nascent planets.
Dr. Öberg left Sweden for Caltech in 2001, where she matriculated with a B.Sc. in chemistry in 2005. Four years later she obtained a Ph.D. in astronomy, with a thesis focused on laboratory astrochemistry. In 2009 she moved to the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics with a Hubble fellowship, focusing on millimeter observations of protoplanetary disks, and left in 2012 to join the University of Virginia chemistry department. In 2013 she returned to Harvard as an assistant professor in astronomy and was promoted to full professor in 2017.

Öberg said she rediscovered her Christian faith while in the United States and determined there was no conflict between the religious values she cherishes and her research into how chemistry and physics interact during star and planet formation.  She became Catholic in 2012 and joined the Board of the Society of Catholic Scientists, explaining: “My biggest motivation is for the students so they don’t think they have to choose to live their scientific vocation separate from their faith.”

Scientists reflect on their faith (VI)

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jonathan I Lunine

Jonathan I. Lunine (born June 26, 1959) is an American planetary scientist and physicist. Lunine teaches at Cornell University, where he is the David C. Duncan Professor in the Physical Sciences and Director of the Center for Radiophysics and Space Research. Lunine is at the forefront of research into planet formation, evolution, and habitability. His work includes analysis of brown dwarfs, gas giants, and planetary satellites. Within the Solar System, bodies with potential organic chemistry and prebiotic conditions, particularly Saturn’s moon Titan, have been the focus of Lunine’s research. Continue reading

Scientists reflect on their faith (II)

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stephen barr

Stephen M. Barr is professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Delaware and a member of its Bartol Research Institute. Barr does research in theoretical particle physics and cosmology. In 2011 he was elected Fellow of the American Physical Society, the citation reading “for original contributions to grand unified theories, CP violation, and baryogenesis.” He has widely published and lectured on the interaction of science and faith, and authored 2 books: Modern Physics and Ancient Faith (University of Notre Dame Press, 2003) and The Believing Scientist: Essays on Science and Religion (Eerdmans, 2016). In 2007 he was awarded the Benemerenti Medal by Pope Benedict XVI. He is also President of the Society of Catholic Scientists.

In the 2017 interview “Integrating the Worlds of Science and Religion” by Big Questions Online, he said:

“A common mistake is to think that God and Nature are in competition, so that something either has a natural explanation or is caused by God. That is like saying that an event in a play is either caused by other events in the play or is caused by the play’s author. It is as silly as being forced to decide whether Polonius died because he was stabbed by Hamlet or because Shakespeare wrote the play that way. God is the Author of nature and nature’s laws are his laws. So natural explanations really lead to God, not away from him.”

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