These 20 women scientists didn’t see a conflict between science and faith


smf 20 female scientists and their faith

This message we received inspired today’s blog post:

I went to my notes for Science Meets Faith and some other sources like wikipedia or John-Auguste Zahm‘s book “Women in science” and started a brief investigation, applying the following rules: (1) they should have had a scientific impact at their time and (2) I was looking for some kind of proof that their Christian faith – in whatever faith tradition, Catholic, Protestant or Orthodox (*) – was important to their personal life (being the daughter of a pastor or coming from a Catholic country just wasn’t enough to be presented here). And here are the first 20 short portraits of female scientists who took their Christian faith seriously.

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.

Herrad of Landsberg (1130–1195) , the abbess of Hohenburg in Alsace compiled the scientific compendium Hortus deliciarum. She wrote this work for the nuns of her convent and it was designed to embody in words and in pictures the knowledge of her age.

Sophie Brahe or after marriage Sophie Thott Lange (22 September 1556 or 24 August 1559 – 1643), was a Danish horticulturalist with knowledge of astronomy, chemistry, and medicine. She assisted her brother Tycho Brahe with his astronomical observations.

Maria Cunitz or Maria Cunitia (1610 – 22 August 1664) was a Silesian mathematician and astrononomer. In 1650, she published, with the help of her husband, Elias von Loewen, the book Urania Propitia, a work that both simplified and substantially improved Johannes Kepler’s mathematical methods for locating planets. The book was published in both Latin and German, an unconventional decision that made the scientific text more accessible for non-university educated readers. She was from a Protestant family who had to change their home several times during the unstable time of the Thirty Years War; She and her husband spent some years in safety on the territory of the Cistercensian abbey of Lubice, Poland.

Maria Sibylla Merian (2 April 1647 – 13 January 1717) was a German entomologist and scientific illustrator, the first scientist to document the life cycle of insects for the public. She published Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium, a groundbreaking illustrated work on South American plants, animals and insects. She had a deep reverence for nature, and saw the hand of God in the perfection of natural forms. She left her husband and joined the Labadists, a pietist Protestant group.

Laura Maria Caterina Bassi (October 1711 – 20 February 1778) was an Italian physicist. She was the first woman in the world to earn a university chair in a scientific field of studies. She received a doctoral degree from the University of Bologna in May 1732, only the third academic qualification ever bestowed on a woman by a European university, and the first woman to earn a professorship in physics at a university in Europe. She was the only woman among the “Beneddettini”, a circle of 25 scholars appointed by Pope Benedict XIV.

Maria Gaetana Agnesi (16 May 1718 – 09 January 1799) was an Italian woman of remarkable intellectual gifts and attainments. Her father was professor of mathematics at Bologna. She remains known for the so-called “witch of Agnesi”, a cubic plane curve defined from two diametrically opposite points of a circle. Maria gained such reputation as a mathematician that she was appointed by Benedict XIV to teach mathematics in the University of Bologna, during her father’s illness. Following the death of her father, she devoted herself to the study of theology and the Fathers of the Church.

Caroline Lucretia Herschel (16 March 1750 – 9 January 1848) was a German astronomer, whose most significant contributions to astronomy were the discoveries of several comets, including the periodic comet 35P/Herschel–Rigollet, which bears her name. She was the younger sister of astronomer William Herschel, with whom she worked throughout her career. She was a devout Lutheran.

Maria Dalle Donne (12 July 1778 – 9 June 1842) was an Italian physician and a director at the University of Bologna. She was the first female doctorate in medicine, and the second woman to become a member of the Ordine dei Benedettini Accademici Pensionati.

Mary Somerville (née Fairfax, formerly Greig; 26 December 1780 – 29 November 1872), was a Scottish science writer and polymath. She studied mathematics and astronomy, and was nominated to be jointly the first female member of the Royal Astronomical Society at the same time as Caroline Herschel. Her life was characterized by a trusting faith in God, despite all the hardship she went through.

Mary Anning (21 May 1799 – 9 March 1847) was a British fossil collector and paleontologist who became known for important finds she made in the Jurassic marine fossil beds at Lyme Regis in Dorset, where she lived. She was raised Congregationalist, and later converted to Anglicanism.

Florence Nightingale (12 May 1820 – 13 August 1910) was an English social reformer and statistician, and the founder of modern nursing. During the Crimean War, she and a team of nurses improved the unsanitary conditions at a British base hospital, reducing the death count by two-thirds. Her writings sparked worldwide health care reform. She was also a pioneering and passionate statistician. She understood the influential role of statistics and used them to support her convictions. She remained in the Church of England throughout her life, albeit with unorthodox views. Influenced from an early age by the Wesleyan tradition, Nightingale felt that genuine religion should manifest in active care and love for others.

Antoinette Brown Blackwell (20 May 1825 – 5 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 also became the first female evolutionary scientist, proving with examples from the natural world that female inferiority – as claimed by Darwin and Spencer – was neither inevitable nor natural. She married Samuel Charles Blackwell who shared his wife’s beliefs in reform, including women’s rights and had seven children.

Ellen Henrietta Swallow Richards (3 December 1842 – 30 March 1911) was an industrial and safety engineer, environmental chemist, and university faculty member in the United States during the 19th century. She was the first woman in America accepted to any school of science and technology, and the first American woman to obtain a degree in chemistry. Her interest in the environment led her to introduce the word ecology into the American world around 1892.

Dorothy Annie Elizabeth Garrod (5 May 1892 – 18 December 1968) was a British archaeologist who specialised in the Palaeolithic period. She held the position of Disney Professor of Archaeology at the University of Cambridge from 1938 to 1952, and was the first woman to hold an Oxbridge chair. Her meeting Father Teilhard de Chardin, SJ, in Paris helped her to return with new vigor and commitment to her Catholic faith.

Cecilia Helene Payne-Gaposchkin (10 May 1900– 07 December 1979) was an English-American astronomer who discovered the true physical constitution of the universe. She was the first woman to receive tenure and the first to chair a department in the faculty of arts and sciences at Harvard. She and her husband were Unitarians.

Sr. Mary Kenneth Keller (17 December 1913 – 10 January 1985) was an American Roman Catholic religious sister, educator and pioneer in computer science. She was the first woman to earn a Ph.D. in computer science in the United States. Her thesis was titled “Inductive Inference on Computer Generated Patterns”. Keller was an advocate for the involvement of women in computing and the use of computers for education.

Sr. Miriam Michael Stimson (24 December 1913 – 17 June 2002) was an American Roman Catholic religious sister and a chemist. She was the second woman to lecture at the Sorbonne and taught at Siena Heights University. She is noted for her work on spectroscopy. She played a role in the history of understanding DNA.

Katherine Coleman Goble Johnson (born August 26, 1918) is an African-American mathematician whose calculations of orbital mechanics as a NASA employee were critical to the success of the first and subsequent U.S. manned spaceflights. She is a lead character in the movie ‘Hidden Figures’. She is longtime Presbyterian.

Jocelyn Bell Burnell (born 15 July 1943) is an astrophysicist who, as a postgraduate student, co-discovered the first radio pulsars in 1967. She was credited with “one of the most significant scientific achievements of the 20th century”. In 2013, she wrote a book titled “A Quaker Astronomer Reflects: Can a Scientist also be Religious?”

(*) I did not yet find an female scientist within the Orthodox Christian faith tradition.

Charles Babbage: Laplace, Bayes and Hume on Miracles


charles babbage 2

The English inventor Charles Babbage (26 December 1791–18 October 1871) is remembered for contributions in mathematics, mechanical engineering and philosophy and is sometimes considered the “Father of the computer” for originating the idea of a programmable calculator.

As a contributor to the 19th century apologetics series “The Bridgewater Treatises,” he had considered miracles in light of the mathematical principles of induction. Reference: “The Ninth Bridgewater Treatise. A Fragment” (Philadelphia, PA: Lea & Blanchard, 1841), 270 pgs.

He begins the mathematical section of the text by considering the Laplace law of succession for the improbable event that a person would resurrect (P(Rₙ₊₁)) from the dead (after a very large number, “n”, have died without resurrection):

babbage 2.jpg

Next, he considers the Bayes rule for total probability, with a given number (m) of possibly-lying (P(¬Wₘ)), or possibly-truthful, (P(Wₘ)), witnesses reporting an actual hoax (P(¬Rₙ₊₁)), or an actual resurrection (P(Rₙ₊₁)):
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John Paul II: Faith has no fear of Reason


Fides et Ratio 43

“Thomas [Aquinas] recognized that nature, philosophy’s proper concern, could contribute to the understanding of divine Revelation. Faith therefore has no fear of reason, but seeks it out and has trust in it. Just as grace builds on nature and brings it to fulfillment, so faith builds upon and perfects reason. Illumined by faith, reason is set free from the fragility and limitations deriving from the disobedience of sin and finds the strength required to rise to the knowledge of the Triune God. Although he made much of the supernatural character of faith, the Angelic Doctor did not overlook the importance of its reasonableness; indeed he was able to plumb the depths and explain the meaning of this reasonableness. Faith is in a sense an ‘exercise of thought’; and human reason is neither annulled nor debased in assenting to the contents of faith, which are in any case attained by way of free and informed choice.”

St. John Paul II, Fides et Ratio, 43.

>> Fides et Ratio

Teilhard de Chardin on scientific research


2014-02-27 TdChardin

“We Christians have no need to be afraid of, or to be unreasonably shocked by, the results of scientific research, whether in physics, in biology, or in history. Some Catholics are disconcerted when it is pointed out to them – either that the laws of providence may be reduced to determinisms and chance – or that under our most spiritual powers there lie hidden most complex material structures – or that the Christian religion has roots in a natural religious development of human consciousness – or that the human body presupposes a vast series of previous organic developments. Such Catholics either deny the facts or are afraid to face them. This is a huge mistake. The analyses of science and history are very often accurate; but they detract nothing from the almighty power of God nor from the spirituality of the soul, nor from the supernatural character of Christianity, nor from man’s superiority to the animals.”

– Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, in a lecture on 27 February 1921 in Paris titled “Christ and Science”


Relationship between Science and Faith: the ‘conflict-myth’


There is a popular conception that the historical relationship between science and religion has been one of conflict or even all-out warfare. Historians of science call this commonly held notion the “conflict thesis.” In this video, historians of science Lawrence Principe and Edward Davis examine the historical roots and social context of the origin of the conflict thesis. They explain that the beginning of the conflict thesis can be traced primarily to the popular works of two 19th century Americans: John William Draper and Andrew Dickson White. It is shown that Draper and White’s conflict thesis and the language of warfare falls far short of historical reality. Nevertheless, the popularity of these two works and the global influence of Draper and White’s thesis has ensured a lasting legacy that still informs our current understanding of how science and religion typically relate.