Antoine Lavoisier: Misguided Rationalism of the French Revolution


On 8 May 1794, Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier (1743–1794) died in Paris, France. An early modern chemist and public servant (who studied street lighting arrangements), he was detained by a mob organized during the Reign of Terror, which had accused him of financial crimes, and sentenced to be guillotined.

Through his critical research on calcination of metals and the phlogiston theory of combustion, Lavoisier was able to demonstrate that these reactions obeyed the law of conservation of mass. He further provided evidence for the existence of elements, which he enumerated in his textbook Elements of Chemistry/ Traité Élémentaire de Chimie (1789). These substances were considered to be indivisible and the “last point which analysis is capable of reaching,” though he acknowledged that more elements beyond his preliminary list could also be discovered by his successors. With Claude Bertholet (1748–1822) and Antoine Fourcroy (1755–1809), he also worked to establish a new nomenclature system based on Latin and Greek roots.

Several paragraphs from Lavoisier’s Mémoires de chimie had suggested that ancient philosophical concepts about a creator-God are still useful in teaching principles of chemistry for the study of both living and non-living matter.

Respiration is nothing but a slow combustion of carbon and hydrogen, which is entirely similar to that which occurs in a lighted lamp or candle, and that, from this point of view, animals that respire are true combustible bodies that burn and consume themselves…One may say that this analogy between combustion and respiration has not escaped the notice of the poets, or rather the philosophers of antiquity, and which they had expounded and interpreted. This fire stolen from heaven, this torch of Prometheus, does not only represent an ingenious and poetic idea, it is a faithful picture of the operations of nature…In reviewing an illustration so happy, we are almost tempted to believe, that the ancients had, in fact, penetrated more deeply than is generally imagined into the sanctuary of the sciences, and that their fables, as some writers have maintained, are but allegories under which they have concealed important truths in general physics and in medicine...The result of all that we have to say in this moment on the respiration, is only the development of the element of the principal idea which we have just enunciated…The traveler is less liable to go astray, when he sees before him the term to which he proposes to arrive.” // “La respiration n’est qu’une combustion lente de carbone et d’hydrogene, qui est semblable en tout a celle qui s’opére dans une lampe ou dans une bougie allumée, et que, sous ce point de vue, les animaux qui respirent sont de véritables corps combustibles qui brülent et se consument… On dirait que cette analogie… n’avait point échappé aux poëtes, ou plutôt aux philosophes de l’antiquité, dont ils étaient les interprètes et les organes. Ce feu dérobé du ciel, ce flambeau de Prométhée, ne présente pas seulement une idée ingénieuse et poétique; c’est la peinture fidelle des opérations de la nature… En considérant des rapports si heureux, on seroit quelquefois tenté de croire, qu’en effet les anciens avoient pénétré plus avant que nous ne le pensons daris le sanctuaire des connoissances, et que la fable, comme quelques auteurs l’ont pensé, n’est qu’une allégorie sous laquelle ils cachoient les grandes vérités de la médecine et de la physique…La suite de Tout ce que nous avons à dire en ce moment sur la respiration, n’est que le dévelop•équence de pement de l’idée principale que nous venons d’énoncer… Le voyageur est moins sujet à s’égarer, lorsqu’il voit devant lui le terme auquel il se propose d’arriver.”

Scratch, Lydia S. “Lavoisier, Antoine.” Chemistry: Foundations and Applications. © The Gale Group, 2004.
Baumé, Antoine. Chymie expérimentale et raisonnée, Vol. 1 (1773), preface x.
Lavoisier, Antoine-Laurent. Mémoires de chimie, Vol. 2. (1805) pp. 59-60.
Images: Photograph online at Pinterest; Lavoisier Chemistry Laboratory by Robert Thom (© FineArtAmerica).


George Gabriel Stokes: Evolution a Mode of God’s Creation


George Gabriel Stokes (13 August 1819 – 01 February 1903) was born in Skreen, Ireland and educated at Pembroke College, Cambridge University. He was a mathematician and physicist. Stokes’ theorem in vector calculus (∯ ∇×U⋅da = ∮U⋅ds) is due to him. He also contributed other results to fluid dynamics and optics, including the first use of the Reynolds number for fluid viscosity (Reynolds number Re =uL/ν, Stokes flow: F = 6πμau = γu).

Though he married in St Patrick’s Cathedral at Armagh, Ireland, in the Catholic Archdiocese of Armagh, he was known to be have belonged to an Anglican family. While serving as vice-president of the British and Foreign Bible Society, he was involved in doctrinal debates about missionary societies. He was also the president of the Victoria Institute (created in 1865 to explore the relationship between religion and science) from 1886 to 1903.

His Memoirs included a philosophical interpretation of Darwin’s theory, making an important distinction between a cause of existence and a mode of existence. Letter of Sir George Gabriel Stokes, to Arthur H. Tabrum, 4 January 1901, Cambridgeshire.

“[E]volution is not a cause, but the description of a process … Can we in any way explain the origin of species? Are we to suppose that each species, or what we regard as a species, originated in the fiat of an almighty power? Or are we to suppose that we are to go indefinitely backwards, and affirm that a chain of secondary causation is to be continued indefinitely backwards? … The treatment of evolution as a cause, capable of leading us on indefinitely, tends to shut out the idea of a First Cause; its treatment as a possible mode of sequence, leading us a step or two onwards, still leaves the mind directed towards a First Cause, though ‘Clouds and darkness are round about Him.’ [cf. Psalm 97] … Remember, Evolution does not mean a cause.”

It is generally acknowledged the papers Stokes wrote on mathematical topics were deeply related to his physical experiments. Stokes argued mathematics was and always would be secondary to physical experimentation in terms of developing scientific knowledge. While math could help describe and formalize our observations he claimed it alone could not prove anything about the various phenomena we observe. As part of his experimental drive, Stokes helped to set up the Cavendish laboratory in the mid 1880s. The lab aimed at directing more of Cambridge’s bright young minds to experimental issues in physics rather than solely pure mathematics. The laboratory started in 1884 was first run by J. J. Thomson (who went on to develop a theory of atomic structure with Ernest Rutherford).

Stokes was often considered the authority on questions of optics in particular the functioning of the eye and the refraction of light waves in the eye’s structures. Yet he never ended up writing a final treatise on the subject though his colleagues long expected one from him. His personal friend and lifelong colleague Sir William Thomson or Lord Kelvin lamented that Stokes’s various administrative duties had taken up too much of his time.

In the early 1840s he calculated the maximum height of various massive waves in the ocean; in 1849 he wrote two papers on variable gravitation on the Earth’s surface which is said to have reformed the science of geodesy. While it was known that the force of gravity differed depending on where a person was on Earth,  Stokes claimed that this was not dependent upon the interior composition of the Earth which had been assumed to be the case up until then.

He was married to Mary Robinson, the daughter of Dr. Romney Robinson, astronomer of Armagh. They had five children, two of whom died in childhood. He spent his final years living with his daughter Isabella Lucy who wrote a laudatory memoir of her father following his death. Stokes died on 1 February 1903 and was buried four days later in Mill Road cemetery Cambridge.

– Larmor, Joseph, and Sir George Gabriel Stokes. Memoir and Scientific Correspondence of the Late Sir George Gabriel Stokes. (Cambridge, UK: University Press, 1907), 90.
– Josipa Petrunic, The Griffold Lecturers: George Gabriel Stokes, Lucasian Professor of Mathematics, Cambridge

John Henry Newman on Design



“I believe in design because I believe in God;
not in God because I see design.”

John Henry Newman was not only theologian, but also very well versed in science, and always acknowledged that he felt rather comfortable with Darwin’s “new idea’s”.

Newman felt more and more uncomfortable, though, with William Paley’s Natural Theology, mainly for two reasons: ‘First, natural theology lacks the evidential and argumentative rigor to establish such a belief in the first place. Newman famously rejected traditional arguments from design: “I believe in design because I believe in God; not in God because I see design.” (A) Paley’s natural theology, Newman suggested, was as likely to lead to atheism as to belief in God. Second, Newman raises concerns about the “God” disclosed by natural theology…. Such a notion of God is limited to a rational principle of interpretation, lacking any sense of transcendence, holiness, or majesty. Physical theology, Newman insisted, taught “exclusively” only three divine attributes: power, wisdom, and goodness; yet it remained silent concerning the real essence of the Christian vision of God – namely, the divine holiness, justice, mercy, and providence.‘ (see Alister E McGrath, Darwinism and the Divine, Evolutionary Thought and Natural Theology)

(A) J.H.Newman, letter to William Robert Brownlow, April 13, 1870; in Newman, John Henry, The Letters and Diaries of John Henry Newman, ed. Charles Stephen Dessain and Thomas Gornall. 31 vols. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1963–2006, vol. 25, 97.