Clair Patterson: Chapel of Scientific Thought


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On 5 December 1995, Clair Cameron Patterson (1922–1995) passed away at Sonoma County, CA.

He was a geochemist known for his work using uranium-led (₂₃₈U → ₂₀₆Pb) and led-led (₂₀₆Pb → ₂₀₄Pb) radiometric dating to determine the age of the earth. Using the mass spectrometer at the Argonne National Laboratory, he studied an isolated iron-meteorite, collecting data on the abundance of its lead isotopes. This lead to his 1956 publication ‘Age of Meteorites and the Earth’, in which he hypothesized that the true age of the solar system was 4.550Gy ± 70My.

From an interview at “[M]y religious background was that my family belonged to what was called the Unitarian Universalist Church. It’s sort of a liberal-type Christian church. My grandfather founded the church in Michellville that we went to. On Sunday I’d get up real early and go on cold winter mornings to build a fire to warm up the church. [Laughter] My mother was a big wheel in that church. And the minister used to tell me a lot of things—philosophy and all that sort of stuff.”

Although his faith lapsed later in life, he did note his indebtedness to religious thought. From his National Academy of Sciences biography:

Patterson’s reactions on being the first person to know the age of the Earth are interesting and worthy of note. He wrote, ‘True scientific discovery renders the brain incapable at such moments of shouting vigorously to the world “Look at what I’ve done! Now I will reap the benefits of recognition and wealth.” Instead such discovery instinctively forces the brain to thunder “We did it” in a voice no one else can hear, within its sacred, but lonely, chapel of scientific thought’.

“There ‘we’ refers to what Patterson calls ‘the generations-old community of scientific minds’. From my observations, he lived that ethic. To him it must have been an exercise in improving the state of the ‘community of scientific minds.’ His attitude recalls the remark of Newton: ‘If I have seen farther than others, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants’.”

“Clair Cameron Patterson.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation.
Cohen, Shirley K. “Interview with Clair C. Patterson (1922-1995).” Archives California Institute of Technology. March 1995. 5-6, 9.
Tilton, George R. “Clair Cameron Patterson (1922-1995).” (Washington, DC: National Academy of Sciences, 1998), 8. Image: National Academy Press.


Amos Eaton: A Scientist’s Prayers


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On 10 May 1842, Amos Eaton (1776–1842) passed away in Troy, NY.

He was an American botanist, geologist, and educator who co-founded Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in 1824 with Stephen Van Rensselaer III (1764–1839). His work as an educator is considered to have helped established the modern science education system independent of the liberal arts.

Among his books were Art without Science (1800), Elementary Treatise on Botany (1810), Botanical Dictionary (1817) (2nd 1819, 4th ed. 1836), Manual of Botany (1817) and Chemical Notebook (1821).

A biography notes that he underwent a Christian conversion following an affliction:

“‘Professor Eaton was a firm believer in the Christian religion’, says Prof H.B. Nason, who knew him as well as any man, ‘and he was sustained and comforted by its truths amid trials and afflictions which seldom fell to the lot of man,’

“In a letter to his wife after a deep affliction he wrote, ‘I feel that these trials are but the chastisement of a father. My faith in divine revelation and in the immediate agency of an all seeing God is greatly strengthened.’

“Again he writes: ‘My little office has become to me a house of prayer. I can close my work by strenuous exertion so as to gain two or three hours each day for reading of the scriptures, contemplation, and prayer.’ ‘At last’, he adds, ‘I seemed to consent to all the terms of the Gospel, and to throw myself wholly upon Divine mercy without reserve. I have faith to believe that he heard my prayer and gave my soul its first moments of real peace’.”

His other books included: Chemical Instructor (1821), Cuvier’s Grand Division (1822), Geological Nomenclature of North America (1822), Zoological Syllabus and Notebook (1822), Geological and Agricultural Survey of the District adjoining the Erie Canal (1824), Philosophical Instructor (1824), Botanical Exercises (1825), Botanical Grammar and Dictionary (1828), Geological Text-Books Prepared for Popular Lectures on North American Geology (1830), Directions for Surveying and Engineering (1838), Geological Text-Book for the Troy Class (1841).

“Amos Eaton.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation.
Ballard, Harlan Hoge. Amos Eaton. (Pittsfield, MA: Berkshire Historical Society, 1897), 232. Images: United States Geological SurveyUndated postcard from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

Alexander von Humboldt: Adapting to Providence


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On 06 May 1859, Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859) passed away in Berlin, Germany. Educated at Freiberg School of Mines (1792) (w/ subsequent studies at Frankfurt, Göttingen, and Berlin), he was a natural scientist, explorer, ecologist and geographer.

From the Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography:

“Humboldt, although indisputably one of the founders of geography as a science, had as his major goal a comprehensive view of nature to which the earth sciences would contribute significantly. As a Prussian government official, there would be difficulties for him in pursuing such a major undertaking, but upon his mother’s death in 1796 he became financially independent. Leaving the civil service, he looked ahead to a ‘great journey beyond Europe.’

“The Kosmos is a popular scientific book in the best sense of that term. The entire material world from the galaxies to the geography of the various mosses, the history of physical cosmography, the needed stimulation for nature study—he sought to present all in vivid, ‘pleasing’ language. Volumes III through V, containing his special research findings and added material, were not equally successful; Humboldt died before completing the fifth volume. The index was prepared according to his specifications and he credited each contemporary to whom he felt in debted. The work cites over 9,000 sources and is thus an important reference for the history of science.”

For further reading, see an online article on the influence of von Humboldt on Charles Darwin (1809–1882): —van Wyhe, John. “Humbodlt’s Personal Narrative and Its Influence on Darwin.” The Complete Works of Charles Darwin Online. 2002.

Quote from a letter dated September 6, 1825:

“I will not insist on this as an ordinance of religion, but simply on the grounds that life, even in its utmost extent, is so short, in comparison with eternity, which is wholly veiled to us as regards the nature of our being, that we must take care not to limit it by our wishes, but to allow it to continue as it will, for really the manner in which a man views his fate is more important than what his fate is. It is a saying, that every one creates his own fortunes, and, indeed, we make them good or bad by our reason or our folly. One may, however, so receive his lot as ordained by Providence, and so adapt himself to it, as to find it good, however opposite it may seem.”

Referenced:–Biermann, Kurt-R. “Alexander von Humboldt.” Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography.© Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2008. — Humboldt, Friedrich Wilhelm C.K.F. Letters to a Lady. Trans. Henry Stebbing (London, GB: Arthur Hall, 1849), 126-127.
Image: Alexander von Humboldt in his library (1856), by Eduard Hildebrant (1818–1868).

John Michell and the “dark star”


John Michell (1724-1793

John Michell (25. Dezember 1724 – 29. April 1793) was an Anglican clergyman whose scientific work spanned a wide range of subjects from astronomy to geology, optics, and gravitation.

Michell conceived, sometime before 1783, the experiment now known as the Cavendish experiment. It was the first to measure the force of gravity between masses in the laboratory and produced the first accurate values for the mass of the Earth and the gravitational constant. He wrote a lucid exposition of the nature of magnetic induction. His most important geological essay was entitled “Conjectures concerning the Cause and Observations upon the Phaenomena of Earthquakes” (Philosophical Transactions, li. 1760), which showed a remarkable knowledge of geological strata. He was thus one of the founders of seismology.


Simulation: A galaxy is passing behind a Black Hole. John Michell did expect the deflection of the light and the darkness of the “Star”

More recently, Michell’s main “claim to fame” is considered to be his letter to Cavendish, written in 1783 and published in 1784, on the effect of gravity on light. This paper was only generally “rediscovered”in the 1970s and is now recognised as anticipating several astronomical ideas that had been considered to be 20th century innovations. Michell is now credited with being the first to study the case of a heavenly object massive enough to prevent light from escaping (the concept of escape velocity was well known at the time). Such an object, which he called a “dark star” (the predecessor of the modern idea of a black hole under general relativity) would not be directly visible, but could be identified by the motions of a companion star if it was part of a binary system. Michell also derived the radius for such an object based on its mass, which corresponds roughly to what is called the Schwarzschild Radius in general relativity. Michell also suggested using a prism to measure the gravitational weakening of starlight due to the surface gravity of the source (”gravitational shift”). Michell acknowledged that some of these ideas were not technically practical at the time, but wrote that he hoped they would be useful to future generations. By the time that Michell’s paper was “resurrected” nearly two centuries later, these ideas had been reinvented by others.



Source: Dave Armstrong, Science and Christianity: Close Partners or Mortal Enemies? (2013)

Edward Hitchcock and the first “tree of life”


250px-Edward_HitchcockEdward Hitchcock (24 May 1793 – 27 Feb 1864) was an American geologist and the third President of Amherst College (1845–1854). In 1821 he was ordained as a Congregationalist pastor and served as pastor of the Congregational Church in Conway, Massachusetts, 1821-25. He left the ministry to become Professor of Chemistry and Natural History at Amherst College. He held that post from 1825 to 1845, serving as Professor of Natural Theology and Geology from 1845 until his death in 1864.

He tried to reconcile science and religion, focusing on Geology. His major work in this area was The Religion of Geology and Its Connected Sciences (Boston, 1851). In this book, he explained that vast timespans during which the earth was formed do not contradict the first chapters of Genesis. Continue reading