Tag Archives: Famous Christians

Portraits of Christians – Blaise Pascal

For those keeping count, this is the 6th portrait of a great, world-renowned scientist who was also a Christian. This compatibility of science and Christianity may surprise some of you. Well, keep reading!

Blaise Pascal was born in 1623 and died in 1662 at the age of only 39. Yet in that time, he set a high bar. With his mother having died when he was 3, and himself being ill most of his life, his father homeschooled him.[1]  Publishing his first mathematical treatise (on conic sections) at only 16, and inventing a mechanical calculator at the age of 22, he went on to contribute much to our understanding of hydraulics and probability theory. In fact, his mechanical calculator, considered the first computer,  is the reason the first computer programming language I ever learned was named after him. If you’ve used hydraulic brakes in your car, or used a forklift, or a shop press, you’ve applied Pascal’s Law. What he discovered was that pressure increases are equal at all points in a confined fluid, so applying a small force to a small area of confined fluid (like pushing the brake pedal in your car) resulted in a multiplied force at a larger area (like the pistons clamping down on your brake rotors). And if you’ve ever given or been given a shot of any medicine, you’ve benefited from another invention of his: the syringe.[2]

But Pascal realized, like the apostle Paul, that all his accomplishments were rubbish compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ.[Phil 3:7-8] And so Pascal undertook composing a defense of Christianity against the attacks of the skeptics of his day. Though it was never finished, the fragments of his would-be magnum opus were collected posthumously into what has been titled “Pensées”, or “Thoughts”. Some are barely a sentence or two, while others are meticulously edited, rigorous examinations of deep philosophical ideas. The overarching theme of Pensées is what has been called Pascal’s Anthropological argument: that mankind exhibits a greatness and a wretchedness that is best explained by Christianity,[3] and this is just as powerful an argument today as it was then.

You see, while some will try to reduce humans to simply “talking apes”, most people do recognize that there is something different about us compared to all else. Socrates defined man as the “rational animal”, acknowledging that we have a fleshly, animal nature, but that we are different from animals in our reasoning and self-awareness. Humans hold a unique position in the scheme of life, and it is not arrogance to recognize there is a degree of “greatness” associated with that. Pascal would say that “man is only a reed, the weakest in nature, but a thinking reed,” and so nobler than all the unthinking universe.[4] But our wretchedness, as Pascal calls it, is perhaps even more obvious to the casual observer than our greatness. For as long as we have had recorded history, we have recorded incessant war, brutality, murder, theft, poverty, greed, corruption – vice after vice. If we are the top of the line, the most advanced of all intelligent life, why do we find it so difficult to “act that way”? And it’s not just the obvious cases like the Hitlers and Stalins of the world that have failed to do the right thing; it’s each one of us. When we’re alone, away from all of the distractions and busyness of our modern lives, and can take a minute to look in the mirror of our minds, we recognize our wretched condition. In those times of self-reflection, we can truly commiserate with the apostle Paul,  “For what I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate…. For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want…. I find then the principle that evil is present in me, the one who wants to do good…. Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death?”[Rom 7:15,19,21,24] Paul strikes a chord there that Pascal builds on to make his case for Christianity. For this sense of greatness is at odds with our clear observations of our baseness. And as Pascal points out, no other view of life makes sense of this dichotomy as well as the Bible, with its description of our creation in the image of God (our greatness), but also our fall into rebellion against our Creator and the attendant consequences (our wretchedness). To put it in terms of abductive reasoning, Christianity has superior explanatory power than the competing views (atheism, false religions).

Pascal also strove to show man the need for urgency. Perhaps his own chronic illness was a daily reminder of the frailty of our physical life, and a motivation to not delay the most important of decisions and to strongly encourage others to do likewise.  Apathy regarding the truth of Christianity is the worst course of action: “It affects our whole life to know whether the soul is mortal or immortal.”[5] As Peter Kreeft points out in his analysis of Pascal’s Wager, “to every possible question life presents three possible answers: Yes, No and Evasion. Death removes the third answer…. Death turns agnosticism into atheism. For death turns ‘Tomorrow’ into ‘Never.’ ”[6]

In closing, Pascal’s life was a candle that burned quickly, but brightly. And his legacy as a prodigious scientist is only matched by his legacy as a profoundly insightful Christian. Rather than incompatible parts of his life, his faith and his science worked together. As Encyclopedia Britannica put it, “his religious writings are rigorous because of his scientific training”.[2] Think about that term “rigorous.” Synonyms include: extremely thorough, exhaustive, accurate, careful, diligent. Could your beliefs be described that way? Dig into Pascal and make yours a more rigorous faith that will withstand any assaults from false ideologies.[7]

[1] Clarke, Desmond, “Blaise Pascal”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2015 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2015/entries/pascal/ , accessed 2016-12-14.
[2] “Blaise Pascal”. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Blaise-Pascal, accessed 2016-12-15.
[3]Douglas Groothuis – Christian Apologetics 101, session 19 (audio course), published by Credo House, 2014.
[4] Blaise Pascal, Pensée #200, as found in Peter Kreeft’s excellent book, Christianity for Modern Pagans: Pascal’s Pensées, Edited, Outlined & Explained, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993), p. 55. Pensée numbers are Krailsheimer’s numbering scheme.
[5] ibid., Pensée #164.
[6] ibid., Pensée #418, footnote J.
[7] If you’ve ever started Pensées, struggled, and given up, I highly recommend Kreeft’s work, available here.

Portraits of Christians – David Brewster

david-brewsterYou’ve probably never heard of David Brewster, but you’re likely familiar with his most famous invention: the kaleidoscope. Sadly, I no longer have my childhood kaleidoscope to share a picture of here, but the video segment on how high-quality kaleidoscopes are made, at the end of this post, is probably more interesting than a picture of the cheesy toy I grew up with anyway. However, despite the phenomenal success of his invention as a toy, this Portraits series deals with scientists, not toymakers. Called “The father of modern experimental optics”, and a Fellow of the Royal Society, Brewster certainly qualifies. And yet… he was also a Christian! If you’ve always heard that science and Christianity are mortal enemies, then keep reading. And maybe check out the other scientists in this growing “Portraits” series.

Sir David Brewster was born in Scotland in 1781 and lived until 1868. His parents recognized him as a prodigious learner after he built a telescope at the age of 10, and they enrolled him in the University of Edinburgh at the age of 12 to study for the ministry. But although he did preach after graduating and being ordained as a minister in the Established Church of Scotland, his severe nervousness before crowds led to him pursuing his true calling: in the lab.[1] Brewster contributed much to our knowledge of the polarization of light. In fact, lasers and polarized light microscopes both take advantage of the Brewster angle, the critical angle at which light reflecting off a transparent medium is 100% polarized (it’s 90° to the refracted ray if anyone reading is remotely interested). He also invented the lenticular stereoscope and a binocular camera. He was a contributor to the Encyclopedia Britannica on many scientific articles, as well as editor of the 18-volume Edinburgh Encyclopedia. Brewster worked hard to popularize science and in 1831 helped found the British Association for the Advancement of Science to help promote scientific networking and growth in Great Britain.[2] Another way I was familiar with his work prior to research for this post (besides my toy kaleidoscope) was my exposure in college to something he discovered: the photoelastic effect. This is a pretty neat phenomenon where the stress in certain materials changes the way light refracts through them, resulting in different colors in areas of different shear stresses. This was used in my engineering classes in college to clearly demonstrate the effects of stress concentrations, and in fact, was just used at a seminar I attended recently for that same purpose.  He also invented the polyzonal lens for lighthouses in 1811 (commonly called a Fresnel lens after the French engineer/physicist who first outfitted a lighthouse with a similar design in 1822).

So Brewster was a scientist, but was he really a Christian? Brewster wrote the following to a friend in 1828:

Your education and the example you have had to copy will, I am sure, guard you against those presumptuous and sceptical opinions which scientific knowledge too often engenders. In the
ardour of pursuit and under the intoxication of success scientific men are apt to forget that they are the instru­ment by which Providence is gradually revealing the wonders of creation, and that they ought to exercise their functions with the same humility as those who are engaged in unfolding the mysteries of His revealed will.[3]

Again, to that same friend:

“You will find that a life of science has in it no superiority to any other, unless it is pursued from a higher principle than the mere ambition of notoriety, and that demagogue or a philosopher differ only in the objects of their selfishness. As you will now have experienced how unsatisfying even the pursuit of knowledge is when insulated from higher objects, I hope, if you have not been fortunate enough to begin the study earlier, that you will devote yourself to the most extraordinary of all subjects, one which  infinitely surpasses the mechanism of the heavens or the chemistry of the material world, the revelation of your duty and the destiny of man as contained in The Bible — a book which occupied the best hours of the manhood of Newton, of Locke, and of Euler.”[4]

The Scottish botanist John Hutton Balfour recounted to Brewster’s daughter after his death the following:

We were glad to have Sir David Brewster at the Dundee meeting of the British Asso­ciation, as a noble advocate of Bible truth in opposition to the scepticism of the men of science of the present day. To see a philosopher like him, of world-wide
reputation, vindicating the inspiration of God’s word, and humbly receiving the truth in the love of it, was most encouraging…”[5]

And of course, his last words, as quoted by his daughter:

Jesus will take me safe trough… I shall see Jesus, who created all things, Jesus, who made the worlds; I shall see Him as He is;… Yes; I have had the Light for many years, and Oh! how bright it is! I feel SO SAFE, SO SATISFIED.[6] (emphasis in original)

His daughter recorded much, much more of his steadfast faith in her biography of him – too much to even pick and choose from here. But let me close with a brief summary of that life story. Brewster never saw legitimate science as conflicting with the revealed truth of the Bible. He was a brilliant scientist who was also staunchly opposed to the growing skepticism of his day. And he believed not only that his science was part of his service to God, but also that science was something that could lead men to God. The creation reveals the Creator, for “all truth is God’s truth” (St. Augustine). Sir David Brewster understood that well. Do you?

And for those inquiring minds, below is a segment from “How It’s Made” on the making of a kaleidoscope. Enjoy!

[1] Margaret Maria Gordon, The Home Life of Sir David Brewster, 1870, pp. 56-58.
[2] A. D. Orange, “The Origins of the British Association for the Advancement of Science.” The British Journal for the History of Science, vol. 6, no. 2, 1972, pp. 152–176. www.jstor.org/stable/4025289. This Association for advancing science (still operating, by the way) was founded by the Reverend William Vernon Harcourt, a clergyman scientist (much like Copernicus) and, like Brewster, a Fellow of the Royal Society.
[3] Letter to James David Forbes, dated December 19, 1828, as found in Life and letters of James David Forbes, p. 42.
[4] ibid, p. 60. Letter dated February 11, 1830.
[5] Gordon, Home life, p. 387.
[6] ibid, p.

Portraits of Christians – Nicolas Copernicus

Astronomer Copernicus - Conversation with God, by Jan Matejko, 1871.
Astronomer Copernicus – Conversation with God, by Jan Matejko, 1871.

Today I’d like to add to my previous series looking at examples of great scientists, mathematicians, and engineers who were Christians. We seem to have this stubborn notion in our modern minds that  science and religion are mortal enemies. The atheist mantra is that religion equals primitive, backwards superstition, while science is gradually replacing it in an ever onward and upward march to a rational utopia. Or so I hear… And yet I read the writings of many of the “fathers” of science, and I see a very different picture. Today, let’s look at Nicholas Copernicus, often called the “father of modern astronomy.”

Copernicus lived from 1473 to 1543, and was a canon (a church administrator/lawyer) at the Frombork Cathedral in East Prussia (modern Poland). He also wrote a memorable treatise on currency devaluation [1], and oversaw the defense of Olsztyn during an attempted invasion by the Teutonic Knights in 1520. However, Copernicus’ name would be nothing more than a footnote in the history books had not a young protestant math professor named Rheticus convinced Copernicus the Catholic to publish his life’s work. And so the 6 volumes of On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres were published shortly before Copernicus died in 1543. This proposed the idea that the earth moved and was not the center of the known universe. This is commonly known as the heliocentric view, although geokinetic might be more appropriate, as Copernicus focused more on the earth’s movement than on the sun’s centrality in his magnum opus. While the warning on the title page  of “Let no one untrained in geometry enter here,”  is certainly justified, there are a few passages relevant to our purposes amidst all of the spherical geometry.

Speaking in the introduction about the worth of pursuing astronomy, he states, “For when a man is occupied with things which he sees established in the finest order and directed by divine management, will not the unremitting contemplation of them and a certain familiarity with them stimulate him to the best and to admiration for the Maker of everything, in whom are all happiness and good? For would not the godly Psalmist [Ps 92:4] in vain declare that he was made glad through the work of the Lord and rejoiced in the works of His hands, were we not drawn to the contemplation of the highest good by this means, as though by a chariot?” [2]

I’ve come across several atheist memes that try to lay claim to Copernicus and treat his book (which includes the quote above) as the beginning of the end for belief in God. But, I ask you, does the above quote from the man himself sound like anyone opposing God? On the contrary, Copernicus argues that astronomy draws us to worship God all the more. In fact, talking about things “established in the finest order and directed by divine management” sounds like a taste of intelligent design and the fine-tuning argument a few centuries early.

What made Copernicus pursue this lifelong quest? He tells the Pope in his book’s dedication to him, “I began to be annoyed that the movements of the world machine, created for our sake by the best and most systematic Artisan of all, were not understood with greater certainty by the philosophers, who otherwise examined so precisely the most insignificant trifles of this world.” [3]He then did a literature review, found some precedence for an orbiting earth, and proceeded with an investigation, open to that possibility in spite of what the great astronomer Ptolemy had said 1,400 years before.

It proved to be a long, tedious, detailed investigation crammed between his normal daily duties. He really was “moonlighting”. Not giving up, he wrote, speaking of the difficulties he encountered in his investigations, “Nevertheless, to avoid giving the impression that this difficulty is an excuse for indolence, by the grace of God, without whom we can accomplish nothing, I shall attempt a broader inquiry into these matters.”[4] Spoken like a true Christian.

“But wait!” the skeptic will say. “The church banned his book because of their narrow-minded opposition to the truth.” Let’s look at that. It is true that the Roman Catholic church put On the Revolutions on the Forbidden Books list, pending “correction”, although that was not until 73 years after it’s publication. During his lifetime, Nicholas was encouraged – no, prodded – to write his book by his good friend Tiedemann Giese, bishop of Chelmno. Nicholas Schönberg, the Cardinal of Capua, had written to Copernicus as early as 1536, recapping the salient points of Copernicus’ “new cosmology” and encouraging him, “with the utmost earnestness” to “communicate this discovery of yours to scholars”.[5] Cardinal Schönberg did not see heliocentrism as contrary to Scripture. Who might see Copernicus’ views as a threat to the church? Copernicus tells us in his dedication (again, to the Pope) that “Perhaps there will be babblers who claim to be judges of astronomy although completely ignorant of the subject and, badly distorting some passage of Scripture to their purpose, will dare to find fault with my undertaking and censure it.” [6] Hmmm… it seems that Copernicus thought, and was willing to say directly to the Pope, that only those distorting Scripture would see any fault in his work. He continues, “Astronomy is written for astronomers. To them my work too will seem, unless I am mistaken, to make some contribution also to the Church, at the head of which Your Holiness now stands.” [6] This should come as no surprise that Copernicus would believe his theory to be a contribution, rather than an overthrow, of the church. All truth is God’s truth, both the special revelation of the Bible and the general revelation of the world around us.  Therefore, true knowledge of the world around us contributes to our understanding of its Creator.

In July 1543, 2 months after Copernicus’ death, his friend Bishop Giese wrote to Copernicus’ young disciple Rheticus and mentioned a “little tract” Rheticus had written, regarding which, Giese said, “you entirely correctly defended the earth’s motion from being in conflict with the Holy Scriptures.” [7] Bishop Giese also wrote a treatise (now lost) called Hyperaspisticon,  “upholding the compatibility of Copernicanism with the Bible, if read properly.” [8] But, as Copernican historian Edward Rosen laments, both works failed to survive [their] passage into the clutches of the Catholic Counter-Reformation.[9] What’s interesting here is that in the heat of the Protestant Reformation, this Catholic bishop and Protestant professor could both agree that Copernicus’ theory did not conflict with Scripture.

What can we say about this alleged dispute with the church? Simply that Copernicus’ disagreement was with Ptolemy, the 2nd century Greek astronomer, not the church. Many in the church, along with most scientists in the world, both before Copernicus, and for 2 centuries after him, rejected Copernicus’ theory and accorded to Ptolemy infallibility that is simply not the domain of any man. That is always a recipe for disaster, particularly for the church, who should know better than anybody that no one is perfect but God alone. But as for Copernicus, he was a indeed a Christian, a faithful servant of his church, and a model scientist.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monetae_cudendae_ratio, accessed 2016-10-30. His premise was basically that bad money (i.e. devalued, or inflated) drives good money (with intrinsic worth, like bullion coins) out of circulation, either abroad or through  hoarding by the citizenry. This is actually still a very timely work almost 500 years later.
[2] Nicholas Copernicus On the Revolutions: Complete Works, Volume I, translated by Edward Rosen, 1992, Book 1 Introduction, p. 7.
[3] p. 4.
[4] ibid, p.8.
[5] ibid, p. xxi.
[6] ibid, p. 5.
[7] ibid, p. 339, notes for page 3, Line 38.
[8] ibid, p. 342, notes for page 5, Line36.
[9] ibid, p. 343, notes for page 5, Line 38.

Portraits of Christians – James Clerk Maxwell

James_Clerk_MaxwellAs we continue this series examining the Christian faith of the great men of science, I hope you enjoy today’s subject as much as I’ve enjoyed learning about this amazing man. Now, let’s look today at the scientist who paved the way for Einstein. In fact, Einstein summarized this man’s contributions by saying “One scientific epoch ended and another began with James Clerk Maxwell.”[1] A 1999 poll of 100 leading physicists ranked Maxwell as the 3rd greatest physicist of all time (behind Einstein and Newton). But while modern scientists ranked Newton ahead of Maxwell, Einstein himself, when asked if he stood on Newton’s shoulders, replied, “No, I stand on Maxwell’s shoulders.”[1] That’s pretty high praise coming from the man whose name is practically synonymous with revolutionary genius.

So what exactly did Maxwell do to earn this reputation? He crammed a lot into a short time considering he was only 48 when he died. Studying the nature of colors and color-blindness and producing the world’s first color photograph would’ve been noteworthy by itself. Astronomers would still remember him today just for settling 2 centuries of debate by proving through mathematics that the rings of Saturn couldn’t be solid as originally assumed. Astronomer George Biddell Airy called this “one of the most remarkable applications of mathematics to physics that I have ever seen.”[2] And while his engineering work was more obscure, it was enough to get him in the Scottish Engineering Hall of Fame[3] and impress this engineer! But his truly world-changing work was in developing the equations of electromagnetism bearing his name. Einstein divided scientific history at Maxwell because Maxwell connected electricity with magnetism as different aspects of the same electromagnetic waves, and concluded that light was also this type of wave. This transitioned science from a particle-centric view of physics to a wave-centric view that then opened the door for nearly every modern technology we enjoy. There is little that is “high-tech” that is not affected by this paradigm shift in physics. Think of your X-rays and MRI’s at the hospital, your cell phones and GPS and coffee shop Wi-Fi, the radar at your airport, the microwave oven in your kitchen, and on and on. And these are just some of the common practical reminders of the impact of Maxwell’s equations.

Now that we’ve established Maxwell’s credentials as a giant of science, what did he think of God? Did he give the subject much thought? Did he apply his sharp mind to theology? Indeed! Although he was quieter about his faith than Robert Boyle and wrote no papers or books in defense of the faith like Boyle, Maxwell nonetheless showed himself to be a very devout – and thoughtful – Christian. Although he had grown up in a Christian home, he was a notoriously and insatiably curious boy, and he didn’t just apply this curiosity to the physical world around him. In a letter to his friend Lewis Campbell in 1852, written while pursuing a Fellowship at Cambridge, Maxwell wrote at length of his thoughtful investigation of Christianity (condensed here, believe it or not):

“Now, my great plan, … is to let nothing be wilfully left unexamined. Nothing is to be holy ground consecrated to Stationary Faith, whether positive or negative. …. The part of the rule which respects self-improvement by means of others is: —Never hide anything, be it weed or no, nor seem to wish it hidden …. Again I assert the Right of Trespass on any plot of Holy Ground …. Such places must be exorcised and desecrated till they become fruitful fields. Again, if the holder of such property refuse admission to the exorcist, he ipso facto admits that it is consecrated…. Now I am convinced that no one but a Christian can actually purge his land of these holy spots. Any one may profess that he has none, but something will sooner or later occur to every one to show him that part of his ground is not open to the public. Intrusions on this are resented, and so its existence is demonstrated. Now, I do not say that no Christians have enclosed places of this sort. Many have a great deal, and every one has some. No one can be sure of all being open till all has been examined by competent persons, which is the work … of eternity. But there are extensive and important tracts in the territory of the Scoffer, … and the rest, which are openly and solemnly Tabooed, … and are not to be spoken of without sacrilege.

Christianity—that is, the religion of the Bible—is the only scheme or form of belief which disavows any possessions on such a tenure. Here alone all is free. You may fly to the ends of the world and find no God but the Author of Salvation. You may search the Scriptures and not find a text to stop you in your explorations. You may read all History and be compelled to wonder but not to doubt. …

The Old Testament and the Mosaic Law and Judaism are commonly supposed to be “Tabooed ” by the orthodox. Sceptics pretend to have read them, and have found certain witty objections … which too many of the orthodox unread admit, and shut up the subject as haunted. But a Candle is coming to drive out all Ghosts and Bugbears. Let us all follow the Light.”[4]

Moreover, his collected letters to his wife show a sincere faith as they read the Bible when together and apart. In his letters, though he professes to be no expert on interpretation of Scripture, he nevertheless expounds on their shared reading with sincerity and piety and the utmost respect for the passage.[5] In fact, his friend and biographer summed up this trait of Maxwell’s when he wrote, “a spirit of deep piety pervaded all he did, whether in the most private relations of life, or in his position as an appointed teacher and investigator, or in his philosophic contemplation of the universe. There is no attribute from which the thought of him is more inseparable.”[6]

After Maxwell’s death, Colin Mackenzie, his cousin and one of the executors of his will, said  that he remembered Maxwell saying in his latter years, “I have looked into most philosophical systems, and I have seen that none will work without a God.”[7]

At his painful death from stomach cancer, his doctor noted, “No man ever met death more consciously or more calmly.”[8] This is only fitting for a Christian, who, like the Apostle Paul, could say “I know whom I have believed and I am convinced that He is able to guard what I have entrusted to Him until that day.”[9] Yes, this giant of science gave Christianity a good deal of thought, and saw it to be quite reasonable, – indeed, the only reasonable way to live. Friend, do you have doubts of the truth of Christianity that you are content to leave as doubts? Follow Maxwell’s lead and leave nothing willfully unexamined, especially your doubts. Rather, let those doubts push you to seek the truth incessantly, and not rest in convenient answers. If you persist, you will find that they eventually lead you right back to God.

[1] http://www.famousscientists.org/james-clerk-maxwell, accessed 2016-06-21.
[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Clerk_Maxwell, accessed 2016-06-21.
[3] http://www.engineeringhalloffame.org/profile-maxwell.html, accessed 2016-06-21. Maxwell developing the “von Mises” yield criterion almost 50 years before Richard von Mises was particularly interesting to me.
[4] Lewis Campbell & William Garnett, The Life of James Clerk Maxwell (London: Macmillan, 1882), pp. 178-80.
[5] ibid, pp. 309-10, the letters of May 2nd & the 6th, written to her during their engagement, for example. Also the letter of May 16th (p.312) recounts his frustration at his inability to speak more clearly the truth of Christ to a mutual acquaintance.
[6] ibid, p. 429.
[7]ibid, p. 426.
[8] ibid, p. 412.
[9] 2 Timothy 1:12, NASB.

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.