George Porter: Faith requires Further Knowledge and Understanding


george porter

On 6 December 1920, George Porter (1920–2002) was born in Stainforth, UK. After serving in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve during the Second World War, he began graduate school at Cambridge University, graduating in 1949, studying under supervisor Ronald Norrish (1897–1978), with whom Porter would later share the 1967 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, along with Manfred Eigen (b.1927)  “for their studies of extremely fast chemical reactions, effected by disturbing the equilibrium by means of very short pulses of energy.”

From “Photobiologists use a number of spectroscopic techniques to understand how photobiological processes occur… Aborbance changes, from milliseconds to nanoseconds, following excitation with a nanosecond pulsed laser can monitored using a CW light source such as a Xe arc lamp… The polychromatic beam is passed through a spectrograph, either to select the wavelength at which the reaction kinetics are monitored or to measure transient spectra as a function of time.”

This excerpt from an article written by Prof. Porter had included a reflection on faith and contemporary scientific understanding:

“The discoveries of Copernicus, Darwin, and the molecular biologists have irrevocably changed our beliefs about our place in the world… If, then, we have changed our traditional faiths through increased knowledge of ourselves and our universe, is it not possible that our way to a new faith, a new purpose for life, is through further knowledge and understanding of nature? This is the true relevance of science… There is, then, one great purpose for man and for us today, and that is to try to discover man’s purpose by every means in our power. That is the ultimate relevance of science, and not only of science but of every branch of learning which can improve our understanding. In the words of Tolstoy, ‘The highest wisdom has but one science, the science of the whole, the science explaining the Creation and man’s place in it’.”

His 1976 Royal Institution Christmas Lecture was entitled “The Natural History of a Sunbeam,” with the episode segments: Pt.1. “First Light”; Pt.2. “Light and Life”; Pt.3, “Leaf From Nature”; Pt.4. “Candles From the Sun”; Pt.5. “Making Light Work”; Pt.6. “Survival Under the Sun.”

Nonell, Santi & Cristiano Viappiani. “Basic Spectroscopy.” Photobiological Sciences.
Porter, George. “The Relevance of Science.” Engineering and Science 38.2 (1974): 22-23.
“Royal Institution Christmas Lectures.” The Classic TV Archive.
Image: © Royal Society Publishing.


Jean Dieudonné: Believing in the Axioms?


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On 29 November 1992, Jean Dieudonné (1906–1992) passed away in Paris, France. He was a French mathematician and member of the Bourbaki group, whose research included work in abstract algebra, algebraic geometry, and functional analysis.

In his writings, he emphasized the importance of intuition in the work of a mathematician, constructing logical lemmas, formulae, theorems, and corollaries rooted in the individual’s faith for the initial axioms (e.g. Euclid’s axioms, the Zermelo–Fraenkel axioms).

“All great mathematicians who have spoken about their work have been happy to insist on the part played in it by what they generally call their ‘intuition.’ This may seem strange to the non-initiate: if he opens a book on mathematics today, he will see nothing in it but hundreds of lemmas, formulae, theorems, and corollaries, linked together in a complicated way according to implacable rules of logic, and relating to mathematical objects which cannot be ‘pictured’ in our physical in our physical universe. I have known older mathematicians, undisputed masters of classical analysis, who could not conceive how their juniors found their way unhesitatingly in a sea of ‘abstractions’ . They would readily have likened their modes of reasoning to the work of machines, manipulating formulae without attempting to understand them. I believe that nothing is further from the truth; but obviously we must not take the word ‘intuition’ in the sense normally given to it. The difficulty is that what a mathematician calls ‘intuition’ is for him an entirely personal psychological experience, scarcely communicable; and there is every reason to think that the ‘intuitions’ of two mathematicians are often very different.”

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Choh Hao Li: Faith and Fate in Research


choh hao li 2b
On 28 November 1987, Choh Hao Li (1913–1987) died. After studying at Nanjing University, he carried out postgraduate studies at the University of California, Berkeley and then later joined the faculty of Academia Sinica in Tapei, China.

He was a biochemist known for discoveries including the isolation and determination of the amino acid sequence of human pituitary growth hormone (somatotropin), adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), and melanocyte-stimulating hormone (MSH).

In a 1979 article “Afterthoughts: Faith and Fate in Research” published in Research Management, Prof. Li wrote on some of the differences (and also complementary aspects) of faith and fate: “Faith and fate form a continuing dialectic in each person’s life… Faith enhances possibility, enlarges one’s horizons, and helps one to face the most difficult problems… Fate, on the other hand, is a privilege which makes one individual (or group) luckier than the next.”

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The article concludes with a quote from German physicist Max Planck (1858–1947):

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“Choh Hao Li.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation.
Li, Choh Hao. “Afterthoughts: Faith and Fate in Research.” Research Management 22.6 (1979): 42-42.  Image: NIH-National Library of Medicine.

Chaim Weizmann: Springs of New Spiritual & Scientific Life


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On 09 November 1952, Chaim Weizmann (1874–1952) passed away in Rehovot, Israel. He was an organic chemist who served as the first President of Israel.

The Weizmann reaction, for which he is most known, is an anaerobic bacterial fermentation process that produces acetone, n-Butanol, and ethanol from carbohydrates such as starch and glucose.

An article from describes a newly discovered possible use of this Weizmann reaction for ecologically-friendly alternative fuels, quote:

“Weizmann’s ABE process was initially used to produce acetone which was used in the World War I explosive cordite… But [as] Weizmann once said, ‘I trust and feel sure in my heart that science will bring to this land both peace and a renewal of its youth, creating here the springs of a new spiritual and material life … I speak of both science for its own sake and science as a means to an end.’ … Their variation on Weizmann’s fermentation process could efficiently convert corn, eucalyptus, sugar cane, grass and other fast-growing plants and trees into the ACE mixture. Then a catalyst developed by Dean Toste converts this mixture into a high-energy biofuel. Their results are published in Nature.”

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Lise Meitner: Reverential Awe for the Truth


Lise-MeitnerOn 7 November 1878, Lise Meitner  (1878–1968) was born at Vienna, Austria.

She was known for her work on radioactivity and nuclear physics, including early discoveries in nuclear fission and Auger emission.

A biography notes: “Lise Meitner was the third of eight children of a Viennese Jewish family. In 1908, two of Lise’s sisters became Catholics and she herself became a Protestant. While conscientious, these conversions counted for nothing after Hitler came to power. Owing to Austrian restrictions on female education, Lise Meitner only entered the University of Vienna in 1901. With Ludwig Boltzmann as her teacher, she learned quickly that physics was her calling. Years later, Meitner’s nephew, Otto Robert Frisch, wrote that ‘Boltzmann gave her the vision of physics as a battle for ultimate truth, a vision she never lost.’”

Quote from another biography: “Science makes people reach selflessly for truth and objectivity; it teaches people to accept reality, with wonder and admiration, not to mention the deep awe and joy that the natural order of things brings to the true scientist.”

Maisel, Merry and Laura Smart. “Lise Meitner: A Battle for Ultimate Truth.” © 1997 San Diego Supercomputer Center.
Sime, Ruth Lewin. Lise Meitner: A Life in Physics. (Berkeley, CA: Univ. California Press, 1996), 375. Image: Portrait by © Gini Wade.

Edward Tatum: Great Faith & A Great Stride Forward


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On 05 November 1975, Edward Lawrie Tatum (1909–1975) passed away in New York, NY. An American molecular biologist and geneticist, he shared the 1958 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with George Wells Beadle (1903–1989) “for their discovery that genes act by regulating definite chemical events” with the other half to Joshua Lederberg (1925–2008) “for his discoveries concerning genetic recombination and the organization of the genetic material of bacteria.”

His National Academy of Sciences biography had noted the following on the state of genetics research prior to their methods for knock-out strains of specific genetic loci: “How many simple questions we neglect to ask, or fail to record the  answers, that might have settled continuing controversies. Among these is the place of Archibald E. Garrod’s work and thought in anticipation of the one gene—one enzyme hypothesis… Theoretical biology in Garrod’s time believed in ‘protoplasm’ as an almost  mystical, living colloid. When altered, genes might influence the workings of that protoplasm but were not yet thought to be the exclusive, or nearly exclusive, seat of hereditary information (to use an anachronistically modern expression). In their 1941 paper, Beadle and Tatum cited the (now quaint) ‘rapidly disappearing belief that genes are concerned only with the control of “superficial” characters.’… Before 1941, simple metabolic effects on gene mutation could be inferred in a handful of cases like these, but the vast majority of mutants studied in, say, Drosophila, were complex morphogenetic traits that defied (and still very nearly defy) simple analysis…”

Interestingly, Prof Tatum’s Nobel speech had defended the view that, with increased rigor and reductionistic approaches to genes, biologists might, in some ways, return to their earlier “mystical view” of humanity’s genetic potentialities against their so-called pre-determined biological limitations.

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Marguerite Perey: Contingencies of Atomic Radiation


Marguerite Perey 1On 19 October 1909, Marguerite Catherine Perey (1909–1975) was born at Paris, France.

She was a physicist and student of Marie Curie (1867–1934) known for discovering the element francium (atomic# 87) by purifying samples of lanthanum that contained actinium. Despite the numerous scientific challenges of her work and a tragic exposure to carcinogenic isotopes, Dr. Perey preserved her faith and was able to detect the presence of God even as she succeeded in purifying the element francium (atomic# 87), the last naturally occurring element to be discovered.

After first joining the Curie lab in 1928 as a lab assistant, she earned her doctorate from the Sorbonne in 1946. During this time, she was able to distinguish the α- and β- decay routes of the actinium element into francium and thorium, respectively:

“Under Curie’s guidance, Perey had to learn two distinct chemical operations. First, the concentration of actinium in a mixture of rare earths was a tedious process that required dozens of repeated crystallizations and evaporations or fractional precipitations, for example, of oxalates. Second, the actinium series encompasses several short-lived isotopes of the elements thorium, radium, lead, bismuth, and thallium, which had to be separated, sometimes in a matter of minutes… Perey’s plan was to clean radiochemically a very concentrated source of actiniferous lanthanum oxide and immediately after the purification to measure the radiation of actinium before it was smeared by that of the daughters… At this moment she made the crucial observation that during the first two hours the activity increased rapidly with a half-life of about 20 minutes, reached a plateau, and then increased slowly with the formation of the decay products… The conclusion was straightforward. The new product exhibited the chemical properties of an alkali metal element, and it was readily inferred from the displacement laws that it was an isotope of element 87, eka-Cs, formed by α-decay of ²²⁷Ac. The genesis was rapidly proven.”

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