Tag Archives: Biography

Portraits of Christians – Robert Boyle

The_Shannon_Portrait_of_the_Hon_Robert_Boyle-smallDid you enjoy chemistry or hate it in school? Personally I liked it in high school, although I didn’t learn how fun it could be until college.  But then I had a college prof who did things like demonstrate the usefulness of balancing chemical equations by having the class calculate what the optimum ratio of oxygen to methane was to make a desktop cannon shoot a rubber stopper the farthest. Let me tell you, seeing the professor accidentally shoot out one of the lecture hall windows really reinforced in my mind the power of chemistry! But even if you didn’t have cool profs that helped students learn to love that rigorous science, we all still owe many of our modern conveniences to that field of study. And for that, we can thank Robert Boyle, the “Father of Modern Chemistry”. But his contributions weren’t just to chemistry. In fact, if you’ve ever gone scuba diving, used an air pump or a compressor to air up a tire, or used a refrigerator, air conditioner, or heat pump (all compressor-driven), you’ve taken advantage of Boyle’s Law – that the pressure exerted by a gas is inversely proportional to it’s volume.

So who was this Robert Boyle? He lived from 1627 to 1691. In 1663, he was elected a Founder Fellow of the Royal Society in England, one of the first societies dedicated to the advancement of scientific knowledge. He was well-read in a variety of areas of science that would later become their own specialties, as well as literature and philosophy. He was a scientist’s scientist: notorious in his devotion to experimental verification and the scientific method, and “addicted to natural philosophy” as science was then called. And yet, he was also a devout Anglican who wrote multiple apologetics books defending the faith of Christianity. What’s that? Yes, the “Father of Chemistry” also wrote treatises like “Considerations on the Reconcileableness of Reason and Religion”, “The Christian Virtuoso”, “Treatises on the High Veneration Man’s Intellect Owes God”, and “Some Considerations Touching the Style of Holy Scriptures”. He was especially opposed to atheism, and his final will had instructions for the endowment of a series of lectures to be delivered each year in defense of the Christian faith. The Boyle Lectures proceeded from 1692 until the 1930’s and were recently revived in 2004. He believed that all humans are of one race descended from Adam & Eve (as the Bible teaches). He heavily funded missionary work and translation work, personally financing the  Irish translation of the entire Bible. As a director of the East India Company, he used his position to sponsor (at his own personal cost) Bible translations into Malayan and Arabic to help the natives of any lands the trading company visited find the truth of God. This is a good reminder of how God calls us to be about His business whatever our business happens to be. We cannot compartmentalize our faith and separate it from our “business life” as some today would have us believe. He undertook to learn not only the more common classical languages of Greek and Hebrew for reading the New and Old Testaments in their original languages, but also Syriac (Aramaic) and even Chaldean (to read passages in the book of Daniel).

He distinguished himself as a layman with his appetite for theology, and was recommended to enter the ministry. And yet, he turned it down. Why? “He knew that the irreligious fortified themselves against all that was said by the clergy with this—that it was their trade, and that they were paid for it. He hoped, therefore, that he might have the more influence, the less he shared in the patrimony of the church.” [1] There’s a lesson here for Christians today. Skeptics still use this same objection today (although I can’t help but notice that it doesn’t stop them from buying cars from salesmen paid to sell them, but I digress). If you are a Christian, you have an opportunity to go places your pastor will never get to go, to talk to people that would tune out your pastor, to be an “ambassador for Christ”[] with no “profit motive” to question. We all have some amazing opportunities to partake in the work of God’s kingdom. Would that we seized the chance to minister to others in our own vocations like Boyle did!

Robert Boyle took great pains to make the case that not only do you not have to check your brain at the door to be a Christian, but also that being a Christian actually makes you a better philosopher and scientist. Atheists have attempted in the last century to latch onto science as their own domain, one foreign to Christians. Yet, the study of God’s creation really only makes sense when you recognize the Author of it (or, even more basically, that it does have an author). In fact, atheist scientists must stand on the shoulders of Christian giants of science to make their observations. See you next time as we look at another portrait of one of these giants!

[1] Henry Rogers, introductory essay (p. xvi) to “Sacred Classics: or, The Cabinet Library of Divinity”, Vol. 28, edited by Cattermole & Stebbing, London, 1835.

Portraits of Christians – Leonhard Euler

Leonhard_Euler - portrait by Jakob Emanuel Handmann, 1753.
Leonhard_Euler – portrait by Jakob Emanuel Handmann, 1753.

In a time when our culture wants to denigrate Christians as stupid, backwards, anti-intellectual cretins opposed to science, I’d like to refresh our culture’s  memory with some portraits of some of the phenomenal, ground-breaking people who helped our science – and our society – advance. Not only did these people happen to be Christians, their beliefs were quite often foundational to their achievements.

The name Leonhard Euler (pronounced “oiler”) may not be a household name, but it is one familiar to many engineers. The Euler-Bernoulli Beam theory he developed with his friend Daniel Bernoulli became a cornerstone of structural engineering, and we still use the “Euler buckling stress” in column compression calculations 2 centuries after he died.  But his contributions to engineering were only a small part of his amazing résumé. Besides being considered one of the greatest mathematicians of all time and the top mathematician of the 1700’s, he also advanced the fields of physics, astronomy, and logic. If you’ve ever seen the symbol “e” (the base of the natural logarithm) on a calculator, you’ve seen one of 2 mathematical constants named after him (the only mathematician with that distinction). In math, he contributed to the fields of calculus, geometry, algebra, graph theory, and number theory. Science historian Carl Boyer compared the impact of his book on mathematical functions to Euclid’s Elements; Euclid’s being the foremost textbook of ancient times, and Euler’s the foremost of modern times. He won the Paris Academy’s Prize Problem (an international problem-solving competition of the 1700’s) 12 times. He extended Newton’s laws of particle motion to include rigid bodies. In logic, he came up with the graphical representation of a syllogism now known as an Euler diagram. Much of our math notation (such as the Greek letter Σ for summation) is due to him. If you’ve taken a math class anywhere between junior high and grad school, any general physics class, or any of several different engineering courses, you’ve been helped by (or, depending on your perspective, been tortured by) Euler’s analytical brilliance. Although the term isn’t used much anymore, Euler was a true “polymath” – one with expertise in a wide variety of subjects.

His credentials as a genius are unquestionable. And yet, he was also a devout Christian. He pushed the boundaries of math and science, and yet never felt that science had led him away from God.  In fact, he wrote an impassioned “Defense of the Revelation Against the Objections of Freethinkers”, a treatise against the atheists of his day. This is a roughly 14 page work laid out in 53 paragraph-length points to build a case that true happiness is only achieved through knowing and obeying God, and that the Bible is God’s gift to us to show us how to achieve that. He postulates that the human soul is exemplified by the exercise of understanding and will; that happiness consists in the “perfection”, or betterment, of a situation; that for humans,  the complete happiness of their soul depends on perfecting these two faculties of the soul – understanding and will. With regard to the first, Euler proposes, “The perfection of understanding consists of the knowledge of truth, from which is simultaneously born the knowledge of good.  The principal aim of this knowledge is God and His works, since all other truths to which reflection can lead mankind end with the Supreme Being and His works.” Regarding the second, he says that “the will of man should submit to the will of God in all respects and with the greatest exactitude.  Since God is the source of all good, it is obvious that the man who wishes to bend his will in this way must necessarily be in the happiest state.”[1] He goes on to (briefly) answer a wide range of objections to why the Bible is God’s road map to lead us to Himself.

After being asked to tutor Frederick the Great’s niece, he wrote 200 letters to her explaining physics and philosophy, but also delving into his Christian knowledge as foundational premises to his understanding of the world. Note, these are not compartmentalized statements of personal faith separate from his science and philosophy lessons. For instance, in explaining about the marvels of the eye to her, which was only then just beginning to be studied in detail, he wrote, “Though we are very far short of a perfect knowledge of the subject, the little we do know of it is more than sufficient to convince us of the power and wisdom of the Creator. We discover in the structure of the eye perfections which the most exalted genius could never have imagined.”[2] This coming from a genuine genius! Ironically, two centuries after Euler recognized it, we are still learning more about the complexity and amazing design demonstrated in the human eye (see my previous post on that topic here). I could go on with several other examples of the faith of this intellectual giant, but I’ll stop here and just say that Euler was one of many great scientists through the centuries who delighted in the study of God’s creation, and clearly recognized it as such. Do you?

[1]Leonhard Euler, “Defense of the Revelation Against the Objections of Freethinkers”, c.1740’s.
[2] Leonhard Euler, Letters to a German Princess on Diverse Subjects of Natural Philosophy, “Letter XLI”, written 1768-1772.