Louis de Broglie: Belief in the Progress of Science


louis de broglie 5On 15 August 1892, Louis de Broglie (1892–1987) was born in Dieppe, France.

Born of French nobility, he won the 1929 Nobel Prize in Physics for “his discovery of the wave nature of electrons,” i.e. λ=h/p, which had been experimentally verified severals years before. Within statistical physics, this has a related form, the “thermal wavelength,” i.e. λ=√(h²/2πmkBT), which describes the length scale on which particles vibrate due to thermal fluctuation.

He also developed the theory of the internal clock of the electron, the non-zero rest masses of the neutrino and photon, a generalization of the principle of least action, the neutrino theory of light, the duality of laws of physics, and a ‘hidden thermodynamics’ theory equating Fermat’s action principle with Carnot’s principle of entropy—concepts which perhaps were and are prophetic of future directions of physics.

“Scientists have faith in the value of the human spirit and in scientific achievements. They believe that all the difficulties impeding the progress of science will always be surmounted, that man will be granted an ever fuller vision of the harmonies of nature and an ever greater control of her phenomena. The true scientist, no matter what his other philosophic or religious attitudes, is always a believer, a man who believes in the value of science and the power of man’s spirit to resolve the problems that observation of the external world and the constant increase of our knowledge ceaselessly pose…”

A source noted the following on his own religious background:

“Albert de Broglie [(1821–1901)] was the grandfather of Louis de Broglie. In his youth, Louis, the future physicist, felt a calling to become a historian of the Middle Ages and eighteenth-century diplomacy. He was drawn by the powerful example of his grandfather. Albert de Broglie, devoted to the values of traditionalism, to catholic values and ultramontanism, had contested the eighteenth-century skeptical standpoint. He published a work in six volumes, ‘L’Eglise et Empire Romain au iv Siècle’ (‘The Church and the Roman Empire in the Fourth Century’), directed against the rationalist view of Edward Gibbon that the triumph of Christianity over paganism was the outcome of political circumstances. His brother, August-Théodore-Paul de Broglie [(1834–1895)], had dedicated himself to the church; feeling a religious vocation, he resigned his lieutenancy in the French navy to become a priest, and wrote a long series of articles in defense of Catholic dogma against positivist science and other ideological fashions. At the time he died, he was undertaking a book to show the concordance of reason and faith.”

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Nevill Francis Mott: God of the Gaps and Individual Consciousness


Gopal-Chowdhury, Paul, b.1949; Sir Nevill Mott (1905-1996), Cavendish Professor (1954-1971)

On 08 August 1996, Sir Nevill Francis Mott (1905–1996) passed away in Milton Keynes, UK.

A British physicist, he was co-awarded the 1977 Nobel Prize in Physics with Philip Warren Anderson (b.1923) and John Hasbrouck van Vleck (1899–1980) “for their fundamental theoretical investigations of the electronic structure of magnetic and disordered systems.” His scientific books included: Theory of the Properties of Metals and Alloys (1936, co-authored with H. Jones), Wave Mechanics and its Applications (1950), On the Physical Chemistry of Solids (1951, with Ronald Wilfred Gurney), and The Physics of Metals (1969).

His autobiography notes that how his parents had met as students in the Cavendish Laboratory. While himself an undergraduate at St. John’s College, Cambridge, he became interested in preaching in a local church. Later, in 1957, a series of lectures were arranged to include Prof. Mott; these were entitled Religion and the Scientists (published 1959, SCM Press). As he later noted in his autobiography: “In the lecture I emphasize the distinction between scientific and religious truth, and also, at the end, my belief that religion is based on the history of Christianity and that one should not change the words of the church services to bring it up to date” (p.111). Throughout his life, he was known to attend traditional religious services.

He further noted (1986):

“Let us start with the belief in God. The evidence of history, the evidence of literature, our own feelings in many cases lead us to believe that this is a meaningful concept to man. We think about it, we read about it and hear about it and a concept of God grows up in our minds. It cannot be expressed in scientific terms, it is perhaps different for each individual, it is difficult to express at all. The scientist is, I think, particularly ill qualified to explain it, because he is not used to using words to describe this sort of thing. In fact the scientist, I believe, when he wishes to contemplate God, must leave behind him the tools of his trade, his analytical method of thought. But as many men of scientific training have shown, it can be done without intellectual dishonesty.”

From Cosmos, Bios, Theos (1992):

“God works, I believe, within natural laws, and according to natural laws, these things happen. In considering God’s power, we must not look for a God of the Gaps, a god who is called in for those phenomena for which there is yet no scientific explanation.

“But I believe that there is one ‘gap’ for which there will never be a scientific explanation, and that is man’s consciousness. No scientist in the future, equipped with a super-computer of the twenty-first century or beyond, will be able to set it to work and show that he is thinking about it… The way God plays a part in our lives is because countless men and women claim to be conscious of him, when they seek him, and accept that he is the God of love. God can speak to us and show us how we have to live.”

Mott, Nevill Francis. A Life in Science. (London, GB: Taylor & Francis, 1986), 133.
Cosmos, Bios, Theos: Scientists Reflect on Science, God, and the Origins of the Universe, Life, and Homo Sapiens. Eds. Henry Margenau and Roy Abraham Varghese (Chicago, IL: Open Court Publishing, 1992), 66. Image: Portrait by Paul Gopal-Chowdhury (b.1949).

Charles Hard Townes: The Faith of a Scientist


On 28 July 1915, Charles Hard Townes (1915–2015) was born in Greenville, SC. He was co-awarded the 1964 Nobel Prize in Physics with Alexander Prokhorov and Nikolay G. Basov for their development of the maser-laser principle.

The equation describing the spontaneous/stimulated emission of lasers (light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation) had been worked out years earlier by Albert Einstein (1879–1955).

For a two-level system, an excited electron can spontaneously transition to a lower energy level (←A), or be stimulated to transition to a lower energy due to a radiation field (←Buᵥ). Similarly, a low-energy electron can be stimulated to move to a higher energy level (→Cuᵥ). This provides the differential equation:

dn₂/dt= – An₂ – Buᵥn₂+Cuᵥn₁.

For equilibrium, dn₂/dt=0, and the Boltzmann distribution requires n₂/n₁=Exp[-β(E₂-E₁)] = Exp[-βhv],

n₂/n₁ = Cuᵥ/(A+Buᵥ) = Exp[-βhv]
uᵥ = (A*Exp[-βhv])/(C–B*Exp[-βhv])

where uᵥ is the equilibrium radiation field strength for the laser.

Prof. Townes and his family were members of the United Church of Christ (UCC). In his later years, he made a number of statements reflecting on his theological background:

“The faith scientists have is so fundamental and all pervasive that most don’t realize it is faith. We have faith that the universe follows reliable laws, that the universe is not ruled by many different kinds of conflicting laws, that the physical laws are real. We also have faith that the human mind can understand many of these laws.

“And it’s that kind of faith that makes us willing to work at research and moves us to try to understand. If we expected things to be episodic and arbitrary, why, then there’d be no point in our trying to do science at all. The faith that scientists have is not that different from believing in one reliable God.

–Ubachs, Wim. “Lecture Notes Structure of Matter: Atoms and Molecules.” Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. Dept. Physics and Astronomy.
Richardson, Mark, and Gordy Slack, Eds. Faith in Science: Scientists Search for Truth. (London, GB: Routledge, 2005), 173. Image design based on ETV image (2010).

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


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.”

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.

Pierre-Joseph Pelletier: The Mystery Cinchona Bark


On 19 July 1842, Pierre-Joseph Pelletier (1788–1842) passed away in Paris, France. He was a French chemist who isolated quinine and helped found the chemistry of alkaloids. Pelletier was professor at the School of Pharmacy, Paris, and, from 1832, director. In 1817, in collaboration with the chemist Joseph-Bienaimé Caventou (1795–1877), 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 and Joseph Caventou (1795–1877), a student of pharmacy, they set up to solve the mystery of “cinchona bark.”

From the Journal of the Association of Physicians of India (March 2015): “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 Monthyon 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 did further important studies of other compounds, including caffeine, piperine, and picrotoxin.

From Catholic Encyclopedia (1911): “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.

—Pai-Dhungat, JV. “Caventou, Pelletier & – History Of Quinine.” Journal of the Association of Physicians of India • Vol 63 • March, 2015. Download.
Dr BS Kakkilaya, “Saga of Malaria Treatment.” Malaria: History 
Georges Dillemann, La vie de Joseph Pelletier, Revue d’Histoire de la Pharmacie Année 1989. Vol. 281-282 pp. 128-134.
Sloane, Thomas O’Conor. “Pierre-Joseph Pelletier.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 11. (New York, NY: Robert Appleton Company, 1911). Image: online.

David Douglas: Science on the Verge of Another World


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!

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).

Karl Landsteiner: Assisted by the Faith


Landsteiner 2On 26 June 1943, Karl Landsteiner (1868–1943) passed away in New York, NY. He was a biochemist who was awarded the 1930 Nobel Prize in Medicine “for his discovery of human blood groups.” Prof. Landsteiner had initially termed the three groups of blood-agglutination reactions as “A”, “B”, “C”, which were later further characterized and identified as the “A”, “B”, “O” blood groups. With Prof. Alexander Solomon Wiener (1907–1976), he identified the Rhesus blood factor in 1937, and with Constantin Levaditi (1874–1953) and Erwin Popper (1879−1955), he identified the polio virus in 1909. He has been described as a tireless researcher and is sometimes recognized as the “father of transfusion medicine.”

From a biographical memoir:

“Karl was just 5 years old when he entered school (Wasa Gymnasisam). He was a brilliant student and in his sixth grade was considered ‘outstanding and highly commended’ in natural sciences and mathematics. His university entrance examinations required him to deal with dictation in both Latin from Cicero and Greek from Homer, as well as several difficult algebra and geometry problems… While living with his mother, he decided to become a practicing Catholic. At that time it was a common practice among ‘creative’ Jewish families to convert to the prevailing state religion, Catholic in Austria and Lutheran in Germany. Dr Philip Levine, his assistant and coworker for years (1925-1932), believed that Karl Landsteiner’s conversion tended to isolate him from his environment, and thus encouraged his concentration on science.

landsteiner 2

“In 1916, he married Helene Wlasto, daughter  of the verger of St George’s Greek Orthodox Church in Vienna. They had been engaged for a number of years before their marriage. In 1917, a son, Ernest Karl was born, who subsequently would become an eminent surgeon in Providence, RI. In 1918, Helene acquiesced to her husband’s wishes and severed her association with the Greek Orthodox Church…

“In 1919, through the assistance of friends of his wife, he left impoverished Austria to accept an appointment as a prosector, at the R.K. Ziekenhuis, Catholic Hospital in the Hague, Holland. There he performed routine clinical analyses on urine and blood, Wassermann’s tests (for syphilis), post mortems and microscopic examinations of tissues. This activity took place in a single room. His only assistants were a nun and a man servant.

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