Bible & Science Library

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From Y1K to Y2K

by David F. Coppedge
c. 2000 David F. Coppedge, Master Plan Productions

Science Takes Off in All Directions

Now that the philosophical foundations of science were laid, and the practical benefits in explaining previously mysterious phenomena became apparent, the scientific method became a powerful tool not only in astronomy but in biology, geology and other realms.  From the late 17th century to the early 19th, science was dominated by great thinkers and experimenters who, propelled by a Christian world view and no longer slaves to Aristotle, advanced our understanding of the laws of nature and nature’s God.  In the process, they uncovered more wonders of creation than had ever been imagined.

While the names of these great scientists will be familiar to the educated, not many in schools ever learn about the theological motivations behind their discoveries.  These are great stories that should be shared!  They are wonderful role models for the young.  They are stories of adventure, adversity, perseverance, and triumph.  Read on – be encouraged – enjoy!

Blaise Pascal     1623 - 1662  

Blaise Pascal was one of those students classmates hate; the kind that keeps the average so high, everybody looks dumb by comparison and has to struggle to get C’s.  This genius did not offend too many classmates, however, because he was home-schooled.  And although his father did not feel mathematics was a proper subject till age 15, young Blaise took interest at 12, and when his father relented, math became his best subject – one of many best subjects. Pascal went on to excel at just about everything he tried: physics, hydrostatics, hydrodynamics, mathematics, statistics, invention, logic, debate, philosophy, and prose.  We speak of “pascals” of pressure, Pascal’s Principle, and a computer language named Pascal.  Computer scientists remember the Pascaline, an early mechanical calculator he invented, and mathematicians speak of Pascal’s triangle.  Literary historians call Pascal the Father of French Prose, and theologians debate Pascal’s Wager while evangelists use it to reason with sinners about the gospel.  Few, however, know much about the personal life of this scientific and mathematical genius.  He knew pain, he knew conflict, and he knew Jesus Christ with a depth and sensitivity few experience.  And he accomplished all his discoveries without reaching his 40th birthday.

Blaise Pascal was the youngest of three children, the only boy.  His mother died when he was three years old.  His father, Etienne, a tax collector, took to schooling the children himself.  At age 19, Blaise started working on a mechanical calculator to help his father with his work.  The Pascaline was the second such invention (the first, by Schickard, was 18 years prior).  Pascal’s invention consisted of toothed wheels which engaged each other in such a way that rotating the first 10 steps would increment the next by one, and so on.  It was not successful because the French currency was not a decimal system, and the calculator could only add, not subtract.  Nevertheless, it was a clever piece of work for a young man who went on to greater things.

Pascal grew in reputation as a mathematician so that in his prime he corresponded with other notable scientists and philosophers: Fermat, Descartes, Christopher Wren, Leibniz, Huygens, and others.  He worked on conic sections, projective geometry, probability, binomial coefficients, cycloids, and many other puzzles of the day, sometimes challenging his famous colleagues with difficult problems which he, of course, solved on his own.

In physics, Pascal also excelled in both theory and experiment.  At age 30, he had completed a Treatise on the Equilibrium of Liquids, the first systematic theory of hydrostatics.  In it he formulated his famous law of pressure, that states that the pressure is uniform in all directions on all surfaces at a given depth.  This principle is foundational to many applications today: submarines, scuba gear, and a host of pneumatic devices.  By applying the principle, Pascal invented the syringe and the hydraulic press.  Blaise Pascal’s perceptive mind enabled him to explain the rising liquid in a barometer not as “nature abhorring a vacuum,” but as the pressure of the air outside on the liquid reservoir.  He argued against Descartes (who did not believe a vacuum could exist) and other Aristotelians of his day.  Observing that barometric pressure dropped with altitude, he reasoned that a vacuum existed above the atmosphere.  James Kiefer writes, “In presenting his results, he taunts his enemies the Jesuits with getting their methods backward, accusing them of relying on ancient authority (Aristotle) in physics, while ignoring ancient authority (the Scriptures and the Fathers, especially Augustine) in religion.

Pascal’s controversies with the Jesuits had begun in his early twenties.  Two brothers from a religious movement, while caring for Pascal’s father, had a profound influence on Blaise.  He took great interest in a movement called Jansenism that was a kind of “back to the Bible” movement within Catholicism, that stressed salvation was the free gift of God by grace through faith.  Pascal became one of their chief apologists, and in writing his Provincial Letters, also showed himself to be an exceptional logician and writer.  His wit, irony, perception, knowledge, and a logic honed by mathematics, made his writing sparkle with enthusiasm and force.  Kiefer writes, “He taught his countrymen how to write work that could be read with pleasure.” And indeed it can!  We encourage our readers to find out by sampling his work.  Pascal is a good source of pithy quotes, proverbs, witty sayings, and thoughtful paragraphs.

His best-known work was not even titled or completed.  In his thirties, he was apparently working on an “Apology [Defense] of the Christian Religion,” but, unfortunately, at his death there was only found a stack of unorganized papers that was published as Pensées (Thoughts).  Nevertheless, enough was written to give believers and unbelievers alike a great deal of food for thought: on the nature of man, sin, suffering, unbelief, philosophy, false religion, Jesus Christ, the Scriptures, heaven and hell, and much more.  The entire work is available online and highly recommended reading.

Much has been made of “Pascal’s Wager,” a philosophical challenge usually unfairly oversimplified as follows: If you choose Christianity and it is false, you lose nothing.  If you reject Christianity and it is true, you lose everything.  Skeptics (and many Christians) feel this is a weak argument to become a Christian.  It is, but it is not what Pascal meant.  James Kiefer explains that the Wager is an educated choice, not a flip of the coin.  Having decided that the evidence for Christianity is strong, and having decided that union with Christ is a worthy goal in life, it is the best bet to train for it like an athlete would train for the highest prize, even though the athlete cannot be sure he will win or the contest will even occur.  Kiefer says, “Obviously, if Christ is an illusion, then nothing will move me closer to Him, and it does not matter what I do.  But if He is not an illusion, then obviously seeking to love Him, trust Him, and obey Him is more likely to get me into a right relation with Him than the opposite strategy.  And so it will be the one I take.”  Understanding this, the Wager is not a blind hope that I’ll find myself on the right side after I die; it is a positive choice that will order my life and give me peace, joy, and purpose in the present.  To avoid misrepresenting Pascal’s Wager, we encourage readers to read the argument in his own inimitable words in the Pensées.  When used properly, it’s still a powerful argument for accepting Christ.

Pascal’s last writings are all the more poignant when we remember he wrote much of them while suffering intensely.  A contemporary wrote, “He lived most of his adult life in great pain.  He had always been in delicate health, suffering even in his youth from migraine ...”  Pascal died at age 39 in intense pain from stomach cancer.  After his death, a servant found a surprise in the lining of Pascal’s coat.

At age 31, Pascal had a spiritual experience that was so overpowering, he wrote it down so that he would never forget it.  Somehow, after a sweet hour of prayer or worship service – he never mentioned what it was to anyone – he felt so close to God, so overjoyed with His grace and salvation, so convinced of the urgency of trusting Him, that he took hasty notes of his feelings and sewed them into the lining of his coat, to be near his heart forever.  Here are those words.  Consider the brilliant scientist and mathematician, the logical thinker and debater, the inventor and writer and genius that got this close to the heart of God:


In the year of grace, 1654, On Monday, 23rd of November, Feast of St Clement, Pope and Martyr, and others in the Martyrology, Vigil of St Chrysogonus, Martyr, and others, From about half past ten in the evening until about half past twelve,


God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, (Ex 3:6; Mt 22:32) not of the philosophers and scholars.

Certitude. Certitude. Feeling. Joy.
Peace. God of Jesus Christ.
“Thy God and my God.” (Jn 20:17)
Forgetfulness of the world and of everything, except God.
He is to be found only in the ways taught in the Gospel.
Greatness of the Human Soul.
“Righteous Father, the world hath not known Thee, but I have known Thee.” (Jn 17:25)
Joy, joy, joy, tears of joy.
I have separated myself from Him.  “They have forsaken Me, the fountain of living waters.” (Jr 2:13)  “My God, wilt Thou leave me?” (Mt 27:46)
Let me not be separated from Him eternally.  “This is the eternal life, that they might know Thee, the only true God, and the one whom Thou hast sent, Jesus Christ.” (Jn 17:3)  Jesus Christ.

Jesus Christ

I have separated myself from Him:
I have fled from Him,
denied Him,
crucified Him.
Let me never be separated from Him.
We keep hold of Him only by the ways taught in the Gospel.
Renunciation, total and sweet.
Total submission to Jesus Christ and to my director.
Eternally in joy for a day’s training on earth.
“I will not forget thy words.” (Ps 119:16) Amen.

Blaise Pascal took the wager, and won.

Learn More About
Blaise Pascal
Here is a secular biography of his life and achievements.

Read James Kiefer’s short biography of Pascal that discusses not only his achievements in science, but his strong Christian faith.

Read Pascal’s own words: Here is the Provincial Letters defending Jansenism.

Read the Pensées – thoughts on the defense of the Christian faith.  This is the best way to see into the heart and mind of Pascal, and it’s great reading, too.

Short of time?  Read a few Pascal quotations.

Play with Pascal’s Triangle, and use it to compute the number of gifts in the 12 Days of Christmas.

Learn about the Pascaline calculator.  Here is a Pascaline slide show with great close-up color pictures of how it works.  See where the Pascaline fits in the History of Computing Timeline.

Learn about the Pascal Programming Language.

Find Pascal crater on the moon.


Robert Boyle     1627 - 1691  

In this roster of great scientists who were Christians and creationists, occasionally one stands out as worthy of a gold medal.  The requirements are stringent.  The person needs to have performed exceptional scientific work, that produced some fundamental discovery, or advanced the scientific enterprise in a highly significant way; perhaps to be known as the father of a branch of science or the discoverer of a fundamental law of nature.  Simultaneously, the person needs to have been a devout Christian whose personal life and character was befitting the honor (this eliminates Newton).  Yet some who fulfilled both these qualifications did little to relate their Christian faith to their scientific work; they were Sunday Christians and weekday secular scientists.

The third qualification involves advancing philosophical understanding of the relationship between science and Biblical Christianity, or actively combatting unbelief and skepticism.  All these requirements were met with room to spare in the next honoree of this series, Robert Boyle.  He not only can be considered a pillar of modern science – and one of its most eminent practitioners – but he also left the world a profound legacy of rich literature explaining the Christian foundation for science.  The title of one of his many books was The Christian Virtuoso (i.e., Bible-believing scientist), and to historians, he was one of the best examples.

Like most in this series, Boyle’s life and adventures make for a good story, but let’s consider first some of the impacts he made on the practice of science: (1) An emphasis on experiment instead of reason. (2) Publication of experimental results. (3) Popularization of scientific discoveries. (4) Collaboration of scientists in professional societies. (5) Mathematical formulations of laws.  (6) Putting all claims about nature, no matter the reputation of the authority, to the test of experiment.

Of course, no one works in a vacuum (no pun intended, as we will see); Boyle was not the only one to advance these ideals.  He was influenced by Bacon, Galileo and Kepler before him, and there were contemporaries who also practiced one or more of these principles.  But among his peers, Boyle was an eminent leader in all of them.  He took the initiative where others stuck to old habits, and he led by example.  He is the considered the father of chemistry and a law was named in his honor.  The world’s first and oldest professional scientific society with the longest record of continuous publication is due largely to Robert Boyle and the colleagues he attracted with his energy, drive, and enthusiasm for science.  That enthusiasm came directly out of his Christian faith.  To Boyle, love of God came first, and everything else second.  Science was a means to a higher end: loving God with all one’s heart, soul, strength, and mind.

Because Boyle’s philosophical thought will be our emphasis, we will give an abbreviated version of his life story and refer the interested reader to the biographies by John Hudson Tiner and others for details.

Despite being born with a silver spoon in his mouth, the privileged son of a rich and prestigious landowner and friend of the king, Robert Boyle would know before long the meaning of hardship.  As the 14th of 15 children in the family of the great Earl of Cork in Ireland, young Robyn had no lack of any material thing.  Yet his wise father knew the values of self-discipline, education and hard work, and ensured his children were not idle but given the best training for honorable life.  Robyn himself was sent for his first five years to be raised by a peasant family rather than live in his father’s rich estate.  Sadly, many of the children grew up to be profligate and wild, but not Robyn or his older sister Katherine.

In the schools of the time, Aristotle still held sway over almost every field of natural knowledge.  Education consisted largely of memorizing what authorities had said.  Some schools actually prohibited original thinking.  If Aristotle said a vacuum cannot exist, then that was that; memorize it and regurgitate it on the test.  But early in his education, Robyn learned to question the opinions of mere men.  He was introduced by a teacher to the new “experimental method” of learning.  Young Boyle also had a bright mind that asked questions, that was unsatisfied by rote answers from experts.  He wanted to know how the authorities knew what they claimed, and why it was necessary to follow them.  After all, who had been their authorities?

At age 17 Boyle’s life took a dramatic turn.  Though certainly not a spoiled rich child, he was suddenly transferred to the school of hard knocks.  While on an extended, all-expense-paid educational tour of Europe with his brother Frank and a tutor, war broke out in Ireland.  Oblivious to the crisis at home, Robert visited leading scientists.  He almost got to see Galileo, missing the opportunity by a few months due to the great astronomer’s death.  Paris, Rome, the great centers of learning had been on their itinerary when the word reached them from their desperate father that the war had hit home.  King Charles, occupied with other conflicts, had been unable to aid the Irish landowners against the popular uprising, and the Earl of Cork had to spend every resource to protect his estate.  In dire straits, his father wrote to the sons that no more money could be forthcoming.  To the boys’ tutor, he wrote, “For with inward grief of soul I write this truth unto you that I am no longer able to supply them beyond this last payment.  But if they serve God and be careful and discreet in their carriage [i.e., lifestyle], God will bless them and provide for them as hitherto He has done for me.”

Frank rushed back home to help, but Robyn had been too ill to be of military assistance, and remained back in Geneva with the tutor.  It was no use.  Lewis, a brother, died in battle.  Lord Barrymore, the Great Earl’s favorite son-in-law, died in battle; and the grief-stricken father died the day the truce was signed – not only had the rebels destroyed his property and foundries, scattered his family and stolen all his possessions, but as part of the peace treaty, the king sacrificed all the Earl’s land to the rebels.  Now orphaned, Robyn stayed two years in Geneva with the tutor, until he could no longer bear burdening his host.  Selling the last remaining valuables, he boarded a ship for London.  He was 17 years old.  Tiner describes the setting: “Robyn had begun his travels from this city.  When he left he’d enjoyed every possible advantage.  His future seemed secure.  He could look forward to wealth, an estate in the country, and perhaps a family with Lady Ann Howard as his wife.  Now, five years later, Robyn walked the streets of London penniless and alone.”

A famous gospel preacher once said, “The test of a man’s character is what it takes to stop him.”  Young Robert Boyle’s character now faced the acid test.  Coming from such a large family, he did have siblings.  Robert moved in with his sister Katherine, 13 years older, who was a widow after surviving a very unhappy arranged marriage to a churlish alcoholic named Viscount Ranelagh (fortunately for her, he died young).  Katherine and Robert were alike in that they both loved learning and were not rebellious like many of the other Boyle children.  It would take years for Robert to regain control of his share of his father’s assets, and he considered his situation unworthy of the marriage that had been arranged for him.  Nevertheless, with Lady Ranelagh’s help and some remaining properties, he was not destitute.  Another productive influence she provided him were her social contacts.  Katherine had many friends who were scientists and intellectuals.  A group of Oxford scholars under John Wilkins had formed a loosely-knit science club they dubbed the “Invisible College,” because it had no formal organization or meeting place.  Though a mere teenager to these intellectuals, Robert impressed them with his aptitude and knowledge.  His mind continued to flourish within this non-traditional university program.

Politically, it was a tense time; these were the days leading up to the Cromwell revolution, when Parliament and King Charles were at odds and tensions ran high.  Boyle took refuge in a family manor in Dorset and kept a low profile.  He devoted himself to his three loves: reading, writing, and dabbling in science.  During this period some profound works came from his pen on theology and personal Christian living, including Style of the Scriptures, Occasional Reflections, Ethics, and Some Motives and Incentives to the Love of God.  Katherine distributed copies of some of these to her friends.  As a result, Robert’s reputation as a writer began to grow.  Robert recalled how at age 13 he had learned the fear of God.  Awakened by a thunderstorm, the reality of God’s judgment flowed into his mind.  He realized right then that he was not ready to face his Maker.  He knew his good works were not enough: he needed salvation, and cried out to God for forgiveness.  From that night forward, he kept his promise to live as a true Christian, not just going to church and being “good,” but sincerely trusting in the gift of God through Jesus Christ and following Him as his Lord and Savior.  Now at Stalbridge Manor, the young man was writing about how to see God’s providence in all things.

During this period of his 20's, Boyle read voraciously and also tried scientific experiments, inspired by Galileo’s writings and his contacts from the Invisible College.  Bad experiences with doctor’s medicines (carelessly prescribed without standards or quality control in those days) also motivated him to learn chemistry; Robert was frail in health much of his life and took great interest in finding effective medicines as well as avoiding bad ones.  These years were somewhat unstructured and lonely for him.  After ten years at Stalbridge, at age 27 he was invited to come to Oxford, the leading intellectual center in England in those times.

This move launched his scientific career.  Now with greater insight and maturity from his reading and experiments, Boyle was again in touch with the Invisible College, made up of doctors, scientists and theologians who for the most part were devout Christians.  Like the other participants, Robert was excited about the prospects of the “new learning” and “experimental philosophy” inspired by the works of Francis Bacon and Galileo.  Committed to the principle that science should be used not just for pride of knowing but for the good of mankind, the College promoted experimentation on a variety of subjects: chemistry, physics, and medicine.  During his six years of informal association with the Invisible College at Oxford, Boyle was largely self-taught.  He did not earn a degree or professorship.  Soon, however, he would be the most eminent scientist in Britain.

Robert Boyle was a self-starter.  He did not need a graduate adviser to point the way.  Eager to discover the natural laws the Creator had devised, and with financial resources sufficiently restored, Robert built a laboratory, equipped it, and hired assistants.  His most capable assistant was a young man named Robert Hooke.  What Hooke lacked in social skills he made up for engineering acumen (the prototype nerd); the master would tell him what he needed, and Hooke would invent it.  Boyle had heard about interesting preliminary experiments with vacuum pumps.  Otto von Guericke had demonstrated by 1650 the ability to pump the air out of a wine barrel, and then a copper globe, but the devices were clumsy and difficult to operate, requiring the efforts of two strong men.  Boyle was intrigued by the idea of creating a vacuum.  Aristotle had claimed “Nature abhors a vacuum”; Descartes, many Jesuits and most others never thought to question that dogma.  To Boyle, this was a chance to show the superiority of the experimental philosophy, so he asked Hooke to help him make a better air pump.  What followed was groundbreaking science, methods that set standards for empirical work that survive to this day.

Hooke’s ingenuity provided Boyle with an easily-operated air pump with a glass receiver, into which the duo inserted a variety of items that could be easily observed as the air was pumped out.  They put a ticking clock in and noticed the sound drop to silence as air was removed.  They put a bird and a kitten in and watched them struggle, then succumb, for lack of air.  They observed that sound, but not light, was affected by the vacuum.  They watched a candle go out.  Each observation was meticulously recorded, but beyond the mere collection of facts, Boyle had the insight to interpret the results and formulate hypotheses that could be tested.  A suite of cleverly-contrived experiments provided Boyle and Hooke with many exciting results, some that contradicted common sense, and many that contradicted Aristotle.

Then, Boyle set two other important precedents: he published his results in lively English, leading to the tradition of popularizing science, and he carefully described his apparatus so that others could try to reproduce the experiments, leading to the principle of repeatability.  He was even brutally honest about failures and errors, feeling these were necessary parts of the learning process.  All this was almost unheard of in the practice of science.  His first paper in 1660, New Experiments Physico-Mechanicall Touching the Spring of the Air, and its Effects, created no small stir.  Some critics thought it unwise to question the great master Aristotle.  Others thought science should be published only in Latin.

Most, however, read his work with great eagerness.  Boyle, in effect, showed that science belonged to every man, and that it had very practical effects.  It led to principles that could be tested and repeated by anyone (though few could hope to exceed the precision and thoroughness of his experiments).  Marie Boas Hall, writing for Scientific American (1967), judged one of Boyle’s most novel creations the idea that one could prove a scientific theory by experiment – an idea we take for granted today, but nearly the reverse of the Aristotelian/deductive approach to science of his time.

Boyle and Hooke’s lab teamwork led to many discoveries.  Air, he proved, acted much like a spring; it acted like a “mechanical” substance (i.e., one subject to laws, not spirits or essences).  Air contained ingredients essential to life and combustion.  Advancing the earlier work of Torricelli, they showed air had weight and pressure.  They experimented with colors, optics, and chemical analysis, including the first crude litmus test for acids and bases.  By testing combinations of substances, Boyle deduced that complex chemicals could be classified into simpler elements (but not the Aristotelian view of elements such as earth, air, fire and water, of which everything was supposed to contain proportions).  In his best-known experiment, he poured mercury into a J-shaped tube and observed the size of the air column trapped as he added more fluid.  With fastidious measurements, he discovered that doubling the pressure cut the volume in half: P = k/V, a relationship later named Boyle’s Law in his honor.  This was on the cutting edge of the concept that there existed “laws of nature” that were discoverable by experiment.

Well into his senior years, Boyle continued his experiments, discoveries and publications.  His work contributed to the understanding of phosphorus, acids and bases, salts, precipitates and chemical elements.  His achievements in chemistry, both practical and theoretical, began to steer it from the mystical and secretive arts of the alchemists, leading many historians to consider him the Father of Chemistry.  Notice how Aristotle’s statement “Nature abhors a vacuum” implied a kind of animistic character to the world; Boyle’s approach began to steer science away from a personified nature, and view it as a machine created by God and operating according to laws.  Though Boyle was not alone in this approach, he showed originality and creative insight.  Marie Hall Boas explains:

The English scientists were much influenced by Descartes’ careful formulation of his mechanical philosophy, toward which they were further predisposed by their adherence to similar ideas of Bacon’s. ... [She describes the influence also of Gassendi and Epicurus.]   By the middle 1650’s Boyle had worked out his own version of the mechanical philosophy—the “corpuscular philosophy,” as he called it—in which he drew on both the Cartesian and the atomic views but wholly accepted neither.  He believed “those two grand and most Catholic [i.e., universal] principles, matter and motion,” sufficed to explain all the properties of matter as we experience it.
As we experience it indicates that Boyle understood the limitations of science.  His other writings, additionally, make it clear he believed in the immanence of God, that the Creator is active in his creation.  Boyle was not a “mechanist” in the sense of denying the possibility of miracles.  He believed only that in the normal workings of Nature, God’s providence operated through uniform mechanical principles accessible to observation.  Hall describes Boyle’s disagreements with Descartes, Spinoza, and Huygens who felt that “the ultimate test of a theory was the appeal to reason.”  On the contrary, Boyle believed it was possible to prove a theory by experiment.  This was a novel idea, not universally accepted at the time, Hall claims, and she feels it is evidence for “the originality of Boyle’s approach to scientific proof—and to chemistry.”  Obviously, the scientific world followed Boyle’s lead.  This establishes his importance not only as an experimenter, but as a pioneering philosopher of science.  The wealth of his experimental work demonstrates that he walked his talk.

Robert Boyle was one of the 12 charter members of a new organization founded in 1662, The Royal Society for the Improving of Natural Knowledge.  Its charter was to promote the experimental philosophy for the common good.  In clear contradistinction to the Aristotelians, they made their motto Nothing by mere authority; in other words, submit all claims about nature to the test of experiment.  The founders and early members were predominantly Christians, especially Puritans.  Henry Oldenberg, Boyle’s literary assistant, was secretary.  The charter issue of their publication, the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, written in Oldenberg’s hand and readable on the Royal Society website, reflects the Christian and humanitarian ideals of the organization.  Though Boyle refused the presidency of the Royal Society because of scruples about taking an oath, he was its most influential and esteemed member, especially at the time young Isaac Newton was just becoming a rising star.  There had been academies and scientific clubs before, like the Academy of the Lynx to which Galileo belonged, but the Royal Society was the first true formal institution dedicated to experimental science, and its Philosophical Transactions is the longest-running scientific journal in the world.  As the number of “fellows” grew and meetings shared the latest experimental demonstrations at Gresham College in London, the fledgling organization became the cheerleader for the scientific revolution.

At this point it is instructive to note some early crooked swaths that soon became entrenched, leading to unintended consequences.  Why is the Royal Society the quintessential naturalist-Darwinist-atheist organization it is today?  Surely Boyle, John Wilkins, Henry Oldenberg and the other founders would be appalled to see their journals filled with absurd evolutionary speculations on every subject, propounding atheism as science and ridiculing belief in the Bible and creation, as do most other scientific societies in our post-Darwinist world.  What happened?  In an article in Christian History magazine (issue 76 - November 2002, pp. 39-40), Chris Armstrong argues that the charter members defended religion but laid the groundwork for irreligion through compromise.  The Royal Society was a curious blend of Puritan and Anglican, those who put all authority in the Bible and those who valued tradition.  They thought they could ignore their religious differences and unite around the new experimental philosophy, because all of them agreed that nature’s “admirable contrivance” and “accurate order and symmetry” glorified the Creator, His power and glory.  It does, of course, but this lowest-common-denominator approach glosses over deeper issues: does the authority of the word of God extend to science?  Is fallen man capable of discerning truth apart from the spirit of God?  “For both pragmatic and pious reasons,” Armstrong writes, “some members of the Royal Society were influenced by the rationalist approach to religion urged by the Cambridge Platonists.  In their public discourse they gravitated toward an essential Christianity that affirmed only the existence of God, the soul’s immortality, and each person’s ethical obligation to others.”

That is why their meetings were soon obsessed with microscopic images of fly eyes and plant seeds and euphoria about all the possible benefits of science, but lost its focus on the Creator – till the temple was filled with syncretistic idols, and like Ezekiel describes, the spirit of God, by stages, departed.  Why didn’t the deeply religious members see this coming?  Sadly, their compromise put them on the defensive.  “They faced charges of irreligion themselves,” Armstrong notes, and Hall adds, “they were denounced from the pulpit, and its Fellows came to be touchy about any accusation of godlessness.”  “They answered these charges,” Armstrong alleges, “by insisting that the evidences of lawfulness and design in the fabric of things pointed not away from by toward God.”  Little did they realize, he argues, that the broadly-shared, lowest common denominator principle of design would become, in the next century, “a substitute for the Christ-centered teachings of the historic church.”  There was a God, all would agree, but like Lewis Carroll’s Cheshire Cat, He would slowly vanish till just the grin was left.  The distant “clockmaker God” of the deist would displace the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, because there was no need of that hypothesis.  Is history repeating itself?  Those in the intelligent design movement, who think Muslims and Jews and Christians and even atheists can rally around the banner of design would do well to study the history of the Royal Society.  It’s not that design arguments are unsound or unconvincing; but unless men are brought all the way to the gospel of Christ and their minds are renewed by the Holy Spirit, the demon is not dislodged; he returns with seven more, till the last situation is worse than the first.

This parenthesis was necessary before turning to the philosophical works of Robert Boyle.  There is no question of his commitment to historic Christianity and the authority of the Bible.  Mulfinger writes that he was strictly orthodox in his Christian beliefs, and “was intolerant of preachers who spiritualized or allegorized important truths of the Bible rather than accepting them at face value.”  Though he remained within the Anglican church, he was a Puritan at heart, supportive of the nonconformists who had left the state church; he even supported some financially and had many Puritan friends.  Boyle studied the Scriptures in the original languages and accepted the Genesis accounts as literal, historical truth.  His faith was well reasoned and not traditional, refined in the furnace of dealing with intellectual doubt, as was surely a trial any must face in an intellectual climate.  But he knew even as a young man that doubt was a refining fire: “He whose Faith never doubted,” he stated in 1647, “may justly doubt his faith.”  That his faith passed the refinement crucible to the point of reasoned commitment was made clear when he said, “I am not a Christian, because it is the religion of my country, and my friends, when I chuse to travel in the beaten road, it is not, because I find it is the road, but because I judge it is the way.”

Perhaps in hindsight the Puritan members could have taken stronger steps to steer the Royal Society away from compromise.  They did oppose the philosophy of Thomas Hobbes, and most of its members were godly men: John Wilkins, the first secretary, was similarly convinced of the authority of Scripture, and over half the original Fellows were Puritans.  Nevertheless, its purpose was to promote experimental science, not theology.  The unintended consequence of any institution that seeks to uncover truth apart from a prior commitment to Christian revelation is that it will never be content to stay within the bounds of observable and repeatable phenomena.  It will want to explain everything, even First Causes, by natural means.  Eventually, it becomes a substitute religion, arrogating to itself the right to explain all that is, was and ever will be.

The Royal Society charter, God-fearing as it is, makes the hidden assumption that unregenerate men are perfectly capable of discerning truth, without having a commitment to the One who is the way, the Truth, and the Life.  It presumes an incomplete Fall, treating the mind as unaffected.  Given those assumptions, human pride resulting from sin will generate a science that refuses to accept its limitations and moral flaws.  It gives Satan a handle to turn an honorable thing into a tool of skepticism.  The end result is seen in papers published in today’s Philosophical Transactions that seek to explain the evolution of morals and the origin of the universe from nothing.  It leads to arrogant addresses by its officers that “science” is superior to Christian faith as a path to truth in all areas of inquiry.

In those first decades, however, the Royal Society was blessed by the virtuous Christian testimony and reasoned faith of Robert Boyle.  His integrity was impeccable.  Throughout his life, Boyle was humble, gracious, prayerful, and peace-loving.  He was conscientious to a fault, even stopping to pause respectfully before mentioning the name of God.  He was adamantly intolerant of swearing.  Never physically robust, it is remarkable how productive he was.  His secret powerhouse was passionate love of God and fascination with creation.  Boyle’s pastor described him in these words: “His great thoughts of God, and his contemplation of his works, were to him sources of continual joy, which never could be exhausted.”  Apparently this is part of the reason he never married, along with his distaste for the abuse of marriage that was prevalent among men of his day.  Instead, he devoted himself wholeheartedly to his work.  Furthermore, he was strong supporter of foreign missions; For years, he financially supported Christian missionaries and Bible translations to the far east, to the Irish (those who had robbed his father’s lands), and to the Indians across the sea in the thriving American colonies.  He lived frugally, but gave profligately toward the advancement of the gospel.

His zeal for spreading the good news of Jesus Christ was matched by his zeal against atheism.  To him, science never rated even a close second to Christian faith in importance.  He said, “For I, that had much rather have men not philosophers than not Christians, should be better content to see you ignore the mysteries of nature, than deny the author of it.”  (By atheism, Boyle did not mean just philosophical denial of God, which was less common in his day, but the practical atheism that makes even a believer live as if there was no God.)  In his will, he established a fund for a series of eight lectures, to be given once a year, for the defense of the historic Christian faith against atheism, and the demonstration of the superior reasonableness of Biblical Christianity against any philosophy or arguments of critics and skeptics.  The “Boyle Lectures,” as they came to be known, continued for many years.

In his writings, Robert Boyle advanced the study of the relationship between the Christianity and science.  His words are well-reasoned, profound and enlightening.  He did not fall into the trap of relegating the Bible to matters of morals and faith alone; without qualification, he applied II Tim. 3:16 (“All Scripture is given by inspiration of God”) to the entire Bible, including Genesis.  Furthermore, he believed in verbal inspiration, meaning that God’s revelation was contained in the very words, not just the meaning, of the text (the latter view opening the door to unlimited human paraphrasing.)  This drove him to study the ancient languages to understand the primitive sense of the original words, especially for passages that, in English translation, presented difficulties.

In approaching difficulties, Boyle recognized that the Bible’s purpose was not to provide quantitative scientific descriptions of the natural world like a textbook.  Using this interpretive framework, he dealt forthrightly with issues of when to evaluate a passage as poetry or narrative, and when it should be treated as descriptive vs. prescriptive.  He followed Calvin’s teaching on accommodation, that the Holy Spirit used language appropriate to the common man, not specialists.  The Bible contains easily-understood phrases such as the rising and setting of the sun, using the language of appearance instead of quantitative, technical description.  Thus, passages that seemed to teach geocentricity could be understood as figures of speech without sacrificing verbal inspiration.  As such, Boyle is a good model for today’s Christian virtuosi who desire to advance science without sacrificing Biblical authority.  Michael Hunter, a Boyle historian and compiler of his voluminous output, is impressed with the depth and breadth of his thinking on these subjects:

Boyle’s major preoccupation was the relationship between God’s power, the created realm, and man’s perception of it, a topic on which he wrote extensively. ... Boyle laid stress on the extent to which God’s omniscience transcended the limited bounds of human reason, taking a position that contrasted with the rather complacent rationalism of contemporary divines ....  He also reflected at length on the proper understanding of final causes, and in conjunction with this provided one of the most sophisticated expositions of the design argument in his period.  Boyle’s significance for the history of science depends almost as much on the profound views on difficult issues put forward in these philosophical writings as it does on his experimental treatises.
Hunter goes on to describe the intense hostility Boyle expressed against any “views of nature that he saw as detracting from a proper appreciation of God’s power in his creation.”  These included lengthy published arguments against Aristotelianism and the materialism of Thomas Hobbes, “despite his professed disinclination to involve himself in philosophical disputes.”  On the positive side, the titles of some of Boyle’s books hint at their rich contents: Some Considerations touching the Usefulness of Experimental Natural Philosophy; Free Enquiry into the Vulgarly Receiv’d Notion of Nature; The Excellency of Theology, Compar’d with Natural Philosophy, Discourse of Things Above Reason, Disquisition about the Final Causes of Natural Things, and especially, The Christian Virtuoso.  “In these,” Hunter writes, “Boyle made a profound contribution to an understanding of what he saw as the proper relationship between God and the natural world, and man’s potential for comprehending this.”

It is enriching to read Boyle’s own words on the relation of science and Scripture.  There is so much of it, only excerpts are provided on a separate page.  For those who wish to dig deeper into the mind of this great creation scientist, see the Boyle website.  There, Michael Hunter and a group of scholars are compiling and publishing the works of Robert Boyle.  They even publish a newsletter, On the Boyle about latest efforts to collect and disseminate his works.

Among the wealth of words we could quote in closing, perhaps the most succinct is the best.  It states clearly and simply the reason a Christian should be a virtuoso, which in his time meant a lover of knowledge (a synonym for natural philosopher or scientist).  It echoes a familiar theme running through this book, a motivation stated by many science-loving Christians from the early middle ages on into the 21st century.  Boyle encapsulates it in only ten words:

“From a knowledge of His work, we shall know Him.”

Learn More About
Robert Boyle
Read Boyle!  See our page of Boyle writings.

Read Robert Doolan’s biography from Creation Ex Nihilo Magazine on Answers in Genesis.

Can you afford 14 Volumes of Boyle books?  Look over the titles, and the blurbs by admirers.  A picture of the volumes can be seen on the Boyle website.

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has a lengthy biography.

A short biography of Boyle’s life and science is at the History of Mathematics website.

This short biography by Dr. Brad D. Hume on the History of Science Chronology Project has a diagram of the apparatus Boyle used to discover Boyle’s Law, and a picture of the cover of his book The Sceptical Chymist.

Here is the official Boyle Project website at the University of London, headed by Dr. Michael Hunter of Birkbeck College, London, who has been researching his works for 15 years.  Here you can find out what’s On the Boyle (i.e., their newsletter).  The site also has links, a bibliography, lists of works, and a good introductory biography by Boyle expert Michael Hunter, complete with pictures.

The Royal Society is still going strong, and has online history resources.

Sir Isaac Newton     1642 - 1727  

Our next character underlines the word “greatest” in the title of this book.  Sir Isaac Newton is the scientist par excellence, and he was strongly motivated by his Biblical beliefs.  In fact, he felt he was personally involved in fulfilling the prophecy of Daniel 12:4: “Many shall go to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased.”

That the greatest scientist of all time was a Christian and a creationist should give any Darwinian pause.  Co-inventor of the calculus, discoverer of the law of universal gravitation and the three laws of motion, analyzer of white light split into colors by means of a prism, inventor of the reflecting telescope and author of the most important book of the scientific revolution (the Principia Mathematica), Sir Isaac Newton is unexcelled in the roll call of great scientists.

But did your history books forget to tell you that Newton wrote more on theology than on science?  A recent article in Nature confirms this (see 08/19/2004 entry in Creation-Evolution Headlines): Newton approached the study of the Bible with as much rigor and planning as he did physics.  Even more important, “Newton’s religion and science may have been tied together by belief in absolute truth.”  To him, the Bible revealed the truth about God just as much as scientific inquiry uncovered truth about nature.

Newton was an unlikely scientist, coming from a poor family, cared for by two women who did not care much for the job.  He was a loner and eccentric, and proved later in life to be personally vindictive against those he disliked (particularly Robert Hooke, whose memory he tried to virtually erase).  Some have questioned the orthodoxy of his theological views about God and Jesus Christ, while others have defended them.  Newton seems to have wasted much time exploring alchemy and some obscure theological and eschatological views.  For these reasons we cannot appraise Newton as a “gold medalist” in this series (judging on orthodoxy, personal integrity and advancement of creation thought in addition to scientific achievement), but he certainly demonstrates the fundamental themes that creation-based science is the best, and the best scientists believed in God, honored the Bible and were motivated by their theological views.

It should be recognized that Newton was not a “Newtonian” in the sense of being a Deist.  Subsequent disciples of Newton’s laws interpreted them to mean the universe ran like a clock, subject to mechanical regularities that could not be altered.  This made it seem the Creator wound up the clock at the creation and then left it to run on its own.  In the extreme, this view would deny any active involvement by God in His creation.  But God cannot be put in a Newtonian box, and Newton himself, certainly, did not think of God in this way in the least.  A recent biography by James Glieck, reviewed in Science (see 08/15/2003 entry), makes this clear.  Newton considered the Lord Jesus Christ the Savior of the world, and trusted and believed in the Biblical miracles.  He wrote strong papers refuting atheism and defending creation and the Bible, said Henry Morris (Men of Science, Men of God).  Let Newton tell us himself what he thought: “I have a fundamental belief in the Bible as the Word of God, written by men who were inspired.  I study the Bible daily.”

To be able to claim credit for discovering the basic laws of nature – gravitation, optics, the laws of motion – would that not provide a resume to boast about?  Here’s what this supreme scientist had to say about that: “All my discoveries have been made in an answer to prayer.”

Learn More About
Sir Isaac Newton
(Check back later for links.)
Antony van Leeuwenhoek     1632 - 1723  

It’s not often that a layman untrained in science makes a fundamental discovery, starts a new branch of science, and alters the course of human history.  Nor is it often that a layman shows exemplary scientific technique that becomes a model for scientists to come.  Antony van Leeuwenhoek was such a person.  Extremely inventive, careful, and precise, unfettered by false notions of the day, Leeuwenhoek was driven by an insatiable curiosity that captivated him at age 40 and kept him going to his dying day at age 91.  It started when he read a copy of Robert Hooke’s new illustrated book Micrographia, which contained drawings of insects, cork, textiles and other things revealed under a microscope at magnifications about 20-30x.  Leeuwenhoek took to grinding his own lenses and making his own microscopes.  Perfecting a technique that raised the power to over 200x, he opened up a whole new world never before seen by man: the world of microorganisms.

Born in Delft, Holland, Antony did not have any inclinations or opportunities to become a scientist.  He would also know hardship and grief.  His father, a basket maker, died when he was five or six.  His mother was the daughter of a beer brewer.  She remarried a painter and bailiff, but he died when Antony was 16.  He was educated by an uncle, and never went to a university, never learned Latin (the scientific language of the day) or any other language other than his native Dutch.  By age 16, he was apprenticed to a textile merchant, and he became a drapery shopkeeper before he was 22.  He married Barbara de Mey, the daughter of a silk merchant about that time.  The Leeuwenhoeks had five children, four of whom died young.

Antony became a chamberlain in 1660, later a surveyor and an inspector of the measures for wine.  Through his appointments and possibly some inheritance, he attained a comfortable income with time to pursue what would later become his famous hobby.  His wife died in 1666 when he was 34; five years later, he married Cornelia Swalmius, the daughter of another cloth merchant who was also a Calvinist minister.  Her influence may somehow have stimulated Antony’s investigations into science, since these began within two years after their marriage.  This second marriage lasted 23 years till her death in 1694; Antony was cared for by his last daughter till his death in 1723, thus carrying on his scientific work for an additional 29 years after becoming a widower a second time.

Leeuwenhoek did not invent the microscope (compound magnifying lenses were known 40 years before he was born), but he took it to new levels of power.  He was probably acquainted with magnifying lenses used to investigate the textiles in his trade.  His only trip to London (between marriages, in 1668) introduced him to the unseen natural world under the magnifying lens shown in Robert Hooke’s popular new book, Micrographia.  We can only surmise what sparked his interest in microscopy that was in full bloom five years later; this book?  His second wife or her intellectual friends?  His own curiosity about nature?  Somehow, he began grinding his own magnifying glasses, and perfecting a way to mount them and hold specimens in position for viewing.  Crude by today’s standards, they were nevertheless far superior to those used by Hooke, Swammerdam, Malphighi and others, and were unsurpassed until the 19th century.  (The electron microscope would have to wait 250 years.)  The compound microscopes of his day suffered from chromatic aberration and were not useful much above 20x.  Leeuwenhoek made tiny lenses not much bigger than a pinhead in his simple microscopes, but aided with excellent eyesight, he achieved magnifications as high as 270x and 1.4 micron resolution.  He was now in position to peer into a world never before seen by human eyes.

Other scientists of the day were content to magnify well-known objects like leaves and textiles.  Leeuwenhoek wanted to see the invisible.  By 1673, when he was finding exciting things with his microscope, a friend put him in touch with the Royal Society of London.  Antony sent them drawings (made by a friend) of bee stings and mouthparts, a louse and a fungus.  The eminent British scientists were at first skeptical of the claims by this untrained layman who only spoke Dutch.  When in 1676 he described finding microorganisms in water that were so small that “ten thousand of these living creatures could scarce equal the bulk of a coarse sand grain,” the surprised Royal Society requested corroboration from other eyewitnesses, especially since Robert Hooke himself could not repeat them (until later, with a more powerful microscope).  Several friends, including a pastor, and a notary public, sent affidavits that they also saw these things through Antony’s microscope.  As Leeuwenhoek’s observations were found to be true and accurate, his reputation grew, and by 1680 this untrained layman was elected a fellow of the Royal Society.  Though he would never revisit London or attend a meeting, the Dutch cloth merchant kept up a lively relationship with the British scientists for fifty years, sending them hundreds of letters with attached samples, some of which survive to this day in the Royal Society archives, along with a few of his hand-made microscopes; though out of hundreds he manufactured, only nine survive.

Leeuwenhoek’s letters sparkle with the excitement of discovery.  Part of the fun of reading them is catching his infectious joy; where words like astonished, wonderful, odd, perfect, marvelous, inconceivable are frequent as he describes his “wee animalcules” and their motions.  Describing protozoa and bacteria in a drop of fresh water, he writes, “The motion of most of them in the water was so swift, and so various, upwards, downwards, and roundabout, that I admit I could not but wonder at it.  I judge that some of these little creatures were above a thousand times smaller than the smallest ones which I have hitherto seen on the rind of cheese, wheaten flour, mold and the like . . . . Some of these are so exceedingly small that millions of millions might be contained in a single drop of water.  I was much surprised at this wonderful spectacle, having never seen any living creature comparable to those for smallness; nor could I indeed imagine that nature had afforded instances of so exceedingly minute animal proportions.”  His vocabulary must have seemed a bit undignified to the British scientists at times – describing the plaque between his teeth, he wrote, “I then most always saw, with great wonder, that in the said matter there were many little living animalcules, very prettily a-moving, the biggest sort...had a very strong and swift motion, and shot through the water (or spittle) like a pike does through the water.  The second sort...oft-times spun round like a top.” – but Antony’s intense curiosity and amazement at what he was seeing provided the energy and patience to hold his little two-inch microscopes, illuminated by a nearby candle-flame, up to his eyes repeatedly for five decades.

Of his motivation, he himself wrote, “ work, which I’ve done for a long time, was not pursued in order to gain the praise I now enjoy, but chiefly from a craving after knowledge, which I notice resides in me more than in most other men.”  Dobell, a translator of many of his letters, describes him thus: “Our Leeuwenhoek was manifestly a man of great and singular candour, honesty, and sincerity.  He was religiously plain and straightforward in all he did, and therefore sometimes almost immodestly frank in describing his observations.  It never occurred to him that Truth could appear indecent.  His letters, accordingly, are full of outspoken thoughts which more ‘scientific’ writers would hesitate to put on paper: and to the modern reader this is, indeed, one of his particular charms–for he is far more childlike and innocent and ‘modern’ than any present-day writer.” (Dobell, p. 73).

Leeuwenhoek investigated almost anything and everything that could be held up to his lens, exemplifying technical skill, persistence, curiosity, insight and penchant for accuracy that would become a model for others working in experimental biology.  He was the first to observe bacteria, rotifers and protists like Vorticella and Volvox.  He observed blood cells and was the first to see the whiplike action of sperm cells.  He also labored passionately to dispel myths.  Working independently, untied to the common misconceptions by scientists of his day, he used good empirical methods to find the truth.  One year, for instance, when people found objects that looked like burnt paper with mysterious writing on them and attributed them to messages from heaven, Antony proved they were merely dried sheets of algae.  In his proof, he did a model forensic analysis, even reproducing the processes that led to the phenomenon.  More importantly, Leeuwenhoek refuted the doctrine of spontaneous generation that was popular in his day, the idea that living things emerge spontaneously from inanimate matter–eels from dew, shellfish from sand, maggots from meat, and weevils from wheat.  He observed the complete life cycle of ants, fleas, mussels, eels, and various insects, proving that all organisms had parents.  It would take another 150 years for the false notion of spontaneous generation to be dealt its final death blow under Louis Pasteur (although a new form of the doctrine arose in the twentieth century, of necessity under Darwinian philosophy, under the name “chemical evolution”).

Antony van Leeuwenhoek became somewhat of a celebrity in his old age.  Visitors to his little shop wanting to see microscopic wonders included Peter the Great, King James II, and Frederick II of Prussia.  His relationship with the Royal Society also brought him into contact with other leading scientists of the day.  He had no regard for fame or position, though, and would rebuff royalty if he was too busy, or if they had not made an appointment.  Truly his passion was for the wonders of nature that God had allowed him to investigate.  There are indications he was also interested in navigation, astronomy, mathematics, and other natural sciences.  He said, “Man has always to be busy with his thoughts if anything is to be accomplished.”

It is difficult to find much detail about Leeuwenhoek’s church attendance or spiritual life in most biographical sources, which tend to focus on his experimental achievements, but it is clear that faith in God and a love for creation were the key influences behind his scientific work.  He was born into the Dutch Reformed tradition, which had a high view of Scripture and salvation in Jesus Christ, and a firm doctrine of creation, Of his religion, Richard Westfall of Indiana University writes, “He was baptized and buried in Calvinist churches, and his second wife was the daughter of a Calvinist minister.”  This tradition, furthermore, understood and encouraged man’s role in the investigation of God’s handiwork in nature.   A. Schierbeek, the Editor-in-Chief of the collected letters of Leeuwenhoek, explains that he was part of the ‘New Philosophy’ of scientists like Robert Boyle, who regarded the study of nature as “a work to the glory of God and the benefit of Man.”  The newly-formed Royal Society was made up largely of Puritans with similar convictions, from which we can infer Leeuwenhoek shared with them a common bond of belief, since he took great pride in his relationship with the Royal Society, mentioning it on his title pages and even on his tombstone.  Schierbeek observes, “His works are full of his admiration of creation and the Creator, a theme which is frequently found in writings of this period; in becoming better acquainted with creation, men wanted to get nearer the Creator, a conviction which is found among many of the early members of the Royal Society.” (Schierbeek, p. 200).  Thus we see again that Christianity was the driving force during the rise of modern science.

Of Leeuwenhoek’s personal faith, Schierbeek says, “To this we must add his deep religious assurance, his complete faith in the ‘All-wise Creator,’ a never-flagging admiration for the perfection of the most minute, hidden mysteries of the work of His hands and the conviction that his researches would surely help to make His Omnipotence more universally known.  Without ever lapsing into high-flown phrases he repeatedly gave evidence of his religious faith:  ‘Let us lay the hand on our mouth, and reflect that the All-wise hath deemed this needful for the reproduction of all that hath received movement and growth, and so, the why and the wherefore we can but guess after.’” (Schierbeek, p. 31).

It is clear, too, from his stand against non-Christian superstitions such as the doctrine of spontaneous generation, that he held to a Biblical doctrine of creation.  He believed it foolish to think his little “animalcules” could have formed by chance, and he worked diligently to prove that all things reproduce after their kind, as the book of Genesis teaches.  For example, after working for weeks observing the propagation of insects, Leeuwenhoek stated confidently, “. . .  This must appear wonderful, and be a confirmation of the principle, that all living creatures deduce their origin from those which were formed at the Beginning.” (Schierbeek, p. 137).  After another remarkable series of experiments on rotifers in 1702 he concluded:

The preceding kinds of experiments I have repeated many times with the same success, and in particular with some of the sediment which had been kept in my study for about five months. . .  From all these observations, we discern most plainly the incomprehensible perfection, the exact order, and the inscrutable providential care with which the most wise Creator and Lord of the Universe had formed the bodies of these animalcules, which are so minute as to escape our sight, to the end that different species of them may be preserved in existence.  And this most wonderful disposition of nature with regard to these animalcules for the preservation of their species; which at the same time strikes us with astonishment, must surely convince all of the absurdity of those old opinions, that living creatures can be produced from corruption of putrefaction. [Schierbeek, p. 171]

From Leeuwenhoek’s writings we frequently sense the awe and wonder that can only emanate from a man who has a joyful, personal relationship with God the Creator.  Dan Graves, in Scientists of Faith (Kregel, 1996), writes, “He often referred with reverence to the wonders God designed in making creatures small and great.  His virtues were perseverance, simplicity, and stubbornness.  He loved truth above any theory, even his own.  He asked of his challengers only that they prove their points as he proved his.”  Schierbeek says, “Leeuwenhoek was driven by a passionate desire to penetrate more deeply into the mysteries of creation.  To him, as to many others of his time, a watch was a greater specimen of craftsmanship than a clock in a tower; this opinion is reflected in his biological views.  The microscope gave him the opportunity to study and admire the small organisms, the “animalcules,” and whenever he was able he expressed his admiration of the beautiful things he saw.” (Schierbeek, p. 196).

Leeuwenhoek died shortly after dictating his latest observations to the Royal Society.  Clearly his long and full life was filled with the enthusiasm of scientific inquiry.  Microscopy has come a long way since then; scientists now use electron microscopes which, at 100,000x, are hundreds of times more powerful, investigating wonders even more amazing than those Leeuwenhoek saw: DNA, molecular motors, and the machinery of the cell.  A vast horizon of creation under the microscope still remains largely unexplored.  Do you have the Leeuwenhoek spirit?  We hope his story will encourage others to see the scientific investigation of nature as a source of joy, and a means of glorifying God.  Dan Graves said, “Antonie van Leeuwenhoek’s life glorified God in many ways, but perhaps most by showing us that there is far more under the sun than we had first suspected.”

A. Schierbeek, PhD, Editor-in-Chief of the Collected Letters of A. v. Leeuwenhoek, Formerly Lecturer in the History of Biology in the University of Leyden, Measuring the Invisible World: The Life and Works of Antoni van Leeuwenhoek F R S, Abelard-Schuman (London and New York, 1959), QH 31 L55 S3, LC 59-13233 .  This book (223 pp.) contains excerpts of Leeuwenhoek’s letters and focuses on his priority in several new branches of science, but makes several important references to his spiritual life and motivation.

Clifford Dobell, F R S, Protistologist to the Medical Research Council, London, Antony van Leeuwenhoek and His “Little Animals,” Staples Press Ltd (Cavendish Place, London, 1932), QH 31L55 D6.  This large book (435 pp.) contains new translations of many of Leeuwenhoek’s letters, but focuses on his observations.  The author gives excessive details about Leeuwenhoek’s name, city, portraits and other matters, but seems to de-emphasize references to his faith or spiritual life.

Learn More About
Antony van Leeuwenhoek
Brian J. Ford examined the archives of the Royal Society first-hand, and found some of the actual letters and samples Leeuwenhoek had sent to them.  Read his article, “From Dilettante to Diligent Experimenter: A Reappraisal of Leeuwenhoek as Microscopist and Investigator.”  The site also has pictures of Leeuwenhoek microscopes and the samples Brian Ford found at the archives.

The BBC has a biography of Leeuwenhoek in their “Local Heroes” series.

The Spaceship Earth website has a short biography, and a more detailed one can be found at Who Named It.

Richard Westfall of Indiana University for the Galileo Project researched some background material on Leeuwenhoek’s family, education, religion, income, and scientific work.

Some of the best modern microphotography can be found in Microcosmos (Cambridge University Press, 1987) by Jeremy Burgess, Michael Martin and Rosemary Taylor.  It starts by saying, ”In 1683, the Dutchman Antoni van Leeuwenhoek made a startling observation in one of his regular letters to the Royal Society of London.  He declared that there were more creatures living inside his mouth than there were people in the Netherlands. . . . Van Leeuwenhoek was the first person to see the teeming world of what we now know to be bacteria and protozoa.”  The book continues with amazing photographs and descriptions of things Leeuwenhoek could not even have imagined.

Pictures!  Here’s a dazzling, colorful gallery of electron photomicrographs from Dee Breger at Columbia University.  Buckman Labs has a collection of light microphotographs of protozoa and other organisms.  Here are some images by Ron Neuman of protozoa that Leeuwenhoek discovered.  Here is the Protist Image Data from the University of Montreal, Steve Durr’s outstanding collection of color protozoa, and a general reference on microscopy  Much more can be found by searching the Web for microphotography or microscopy.

Mark Armitage, a Christian and creationist, runs an electron microscope lab at Azusa-Pacific University and writes occasional papers for the Creation Research Society illustrated with his original micrographs.

The excellent film Unlocking the Mystery of Life is loaded with excellent full-motion microphotography, and stunning computer animations of DNA and proteins at work.  Imagine how dumbfounded Leeuwenhoek would have been to see molecular machines and factories at work in the cell, orders of magnitude smaller than the tiniest parts he was able to resolve with his hand lenses!

Carolus Linnaeus     1707 - 1778  

What’s more scientific than a scientific name?  To a scientist, your pet dog is Canis familiaris.  Your pet cat is Felis domesticus.  A grizzly bear is Ursus horribilus, and you are Homo sapiens.  The convention of using two Latin names (binomial nomenclature), denoting genus and species, is the foundation of taxonomy, the science of classification of living things.  It comes straight out of the work of Carl Linnaeus.  Why did he pursue the huge task of classifying plants and animals?  His inspiration came from the Bible’s first chapter, which states that God created plants and animals to reproduce “after their kind.”  Linnaeus was attempting to determine the nature of the Genesis kinds.

Linnaeus is rightly called the Father of Taxonomy.  His classification scheme assumes that organisms fall into recognizable groups of animals in nested hierarchies.  At the lowest level are species, which are loosely defined as organisms capable of producing fertile offspring.  (This is complicated by the inability to determine this for fossils, and the difficulty of determining the reproductive success for many living organisms.  Sometimes males and females of the same species can look so different, they might be incorrectly classified as separate species.)

Species (pronounced SPEE-sees for both singular and plural) are sometimes subdivided into subspecies and varieties, which are often labeled with a third Latin name (as in Homo sapiens sapiens, or with a variety designation, as in “Genus species, var. variety-name.”  Species, the bottom of hierarchy, is the second term in the Linnaean system, and is not capitalized.  The first term, which is capitalized, is the next unit in the hierarchy: the genus.  Working up the ladder are families, orders, classes, phyla, and kingdoms.

It becomes clear that the nested hierarchy is a problem for evolution.  The farther up the scheme, the larger the gaps between types.  At the level of phyla, for instances, think of the huge differences between a starfish (an echinoderm) and a fish (a chordate), or between a beetle (an arthropod) and a snail (a mollusk).  Within each phylum are many common characters, but there are large, systematic gaps between the phyla, classes, orders and families.  House cats, bobcats, lions, tigers and cheetahs share many common characteristics within the cat family, but in every case we know, these are always distinct from members of the dog family.  Dogs and cats belong to the class mammalia, but all mammals are very different from all class aves (birds).  Mammals and birds share characteristics (a backbone) within the phylum chordata (subphylum vertebrata), but all vertebrates are very different from clams in the phylum mollusca.  Higher up, members of the plant kingdom are even more different from members of the animal kingdom.

The same picture of increasing gaps holds true within the fossil record.  This fact is common knowledge to both creationists and evolutionists.  The latter take the data and infer a branching tree connecting them all, but the actual observational evidence shows only tips of the branches, not the trunks and nodes.  The true picture is more like a lawn than a tree; small groups of organisms at the species level show variations, but there is no evidence, living or fossil, for one “kind” of animal changing into another, such as a reptile into a bird or a fish into a salamander.  Actually, one could say that species are the only level we observe.  The other relationships – families, orders, classes, phyla – are all inferred because they share one or more similar characteristics.

Taxonomists can be confused about what phylum or class an organism should be placed in, because many animals and plants are composed of mosaics of characteristics from several groups.  Consider the platypus, for example.  It lays eggs like a reptile, has webbed feet like a duck, a venomous spur like a rattlesnake, and fur like a mammal.  Classification can be even more confusing for one-celled organisms.  Some have been recently placed into whole kingdoms separate from plants and animals.  It is often an arbitrary choice where to classify an organism.  The sunflower family, for instance, is kind of a catch-all category for many diverse flowering plants that do not fit well into other families.  Evolutionists have a hard time with these mosaics, often invoking the hand-waving answer “convergent evolution” when asked to explain how “unrelated” organisms share common characteristics, such as the remarkable similarities between placental mammals and their marsupial look-alikes.

On the other end, it is often difficult to know where the species boundaries are.  Consider that bison and many different kinds of cattle can interbreed (ever had a beefalo burger?).  Horses, donkeys and zebras can interbreed more or less, and so can lions and tigers, yet most of us would consider each of these animals to be separate species.  At the level of species, many organisms show great variety in size, shape and coloration: think of dogs, pigeons and roses for example.  Yet higher up, at the genus and family levels, there appear to be stricter boundaries.  No one has ever seen a dog change into a cat, or a goldfish turn into a seahorse.

Evolutionists believe that variation has no limits and all things are interrelated, but that is a belief, not an observed fact.  Even breeders know they can only take a horse or a rose or a cow or a sugar beet so far before a trait becomes impossible to modify further.  Taking the data as we find it, without an evolutionary presupposition, we see living things organized into groups within groups within groups, with the major groups separated from one another by large gaps.  The Linnaean classification system reflects the observational evidence.  Despite its occasional points of debate or confusion, it has stood the test of time.  Sadly, some evolutionists are trying to push an alternate “PhyloCode” classification scheme, which organizes plants and animals according to their presumed evolutionary relationships.  If successful, this would only cloud the issue.  It would embed evolutionary assumptions into the way students approach the data.

Young Carl von Linne was a lover of plants and wildlife, as was his father, a Lutheran minister, and avid gardener.  His father hoped young Carl would go into the ministry, but it was evident the boy was a born naturalist.  Though he eventually pursued a medical career, and both practiced and taught medicine as a professional, Carl’s heart was forever drawn to the natural world.  He has been described as a workaholic with a mania for organization.  He loved learning, reading and knowledge, and was also ruggedly strong and physically fit.  It would take those qualities to take on a project of classifying every plant and animal on earth!

Others before him had shared this passion.  John Ray, the English naturalist who had died two years before Linnaeus' birth, was a like-minded naturalist, who, by the way, was also a Christian and a creationist.  But the universal classification scheme using Latin binomial nomenclature was the innovation Linnaeus brought to the discipline.  He chose Latin because it was not only the universal language of science, but being a dead language, it was stable and unchanging.  It provided a universal scheme that all naturalists in all countries could use to communicate with each other, as well as to publish their discoveries and cross-check their findings against those of others.  At age 40, Carl latinized his own name into Carolus Linnaeus the name by which he is best known.  He moved to Holland in 1735 for three years, then back to Sweden, where he lived out his days as a doctor and professor.  Taxonomy remained his obsessive hobby throughout his life.

Linnaeus at first actually believed it possible to classify every living thing in the world.  At age 25, Carl secured a grant from the University of Upssala to take a thousand mile tour of Lapland to catalog plants.  One can only imagine the delights and dangers, the fatigue and satisfaction this “creation safari” entailed as he waded icy streams, slogged through bogs and avoided nervous landowners.  He kept detailed journals and catalogued thousands of plants.  A similar trip through central Sweden added many more.  Linnaeus traveled over four thousand miles on foot in his quest to catalog all the species in “God’s garden.”  He also leveraged his talent to students that he motivated, who often went on long and arduous journeys to far lands to collect more specimens (Dan Graves said a third of these died on their dangerous treks).  Linnaeus continued updating, expanding and improving his catalogs throughout his life, and as a legacy, he left the Linnaean Society, which continues to this day as an international taxonomic institution.

“Linnaeus was a firm creationist,” says Dan Graves, but comments that “Certain aspects of his theories were enigmatic.  He seems to have doubted that there was a universal flood.  Sediments were deposited over a long period of time, he said.  He paid little attention to fossils and insisted on classifying humans with apes.”  Nevertheless, Linnaeus did not believe in any theory of evolution.  He firmly believed that the kinds God had created in the Garden of Eden still existed.  Although he believed in fixity of species at first, he did allow for variation with the Genesis kinds later on.

Linnaeus wrote in rhapsodic lines about the wisdom of God in creation.  Dan Graves provides some examples:

  • One is completely stunned by the resourcefulness of the Creator.
  • I saw the infinite, all-knowing and all-powerful God from behind.... I followed His footsteps over nature’s fields and saw everywhere an eternal wisdom and power, an inscrutable perfection.
Linnaeus introduced the idea of classifying plants by their reproductive structures.  Sometimes he went a little overboard in his descriptions: “The flowers’ leaves... serve as bridal beds which the Creator has so gloriously arranged, adorned with such noble bed curtains, and perfumed with so many soft scents that the bridegroom with his bride might there celebrate their nuptials with so much the greater solemnity.”  Notwithstanding the romanticism, who could doubt that a firm belief in the Genesis version of creation can be a strong stimulus for scientific research?

Linnaeus continued classifying plants and animals into his sixties, till he suffered a series of strokes.  The frontispiece of his magnum opus Species Plantarum, the work that set established taxonomy as a scientific discipline, is a passage from the Psalms that could be viewed as a life verse of all great creation scientists both past and present, who similarly quoted it with feeling: Psalm 104:24 – “O Jehovah [Lord], how ample are Thy works!  How wisely Thou hast fashioned them!  How full the earth is of Thy possessions!”

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Carl Linnaeus

(to be continued)

William Herschel     1738 - 1822  

The father of stellar astronomy and the pride of the English in the late 18th to early 19th centuries was neither English nor a scientist originally, but a German-born immigrant musician, and a Jewish Christian.  Friedrich Wilhelm Herschel (called William Herschel in his adopted country) was a pioneer of the heavens, taking Galileo’s early attempts at sky surveying to grand lengths.  Patrick Moore considers Herschel the greatest observer who ever lived.  Though just an amateur at first, he built the largest telescopes of his era, and in the process of spending countless hours on cold nights perched on a ladder at the eyepiece of his instruments, he discovered binary stars, nebulae, comets, and the planet Uranus – the first man to discover a planet since antiquity.  He proved that the laws that govern our earth and moon are the same throughout the heavens.  He brought into focus the understanding that the earth and sun are but specks among thousands of similar suns.  He launched modern astronomy’s project to understand the nature of the nebulae, the distribution of stars in the galaxy and our place in it.  He discovered invisible infrared light.  In addition to his scientific observations, William Herschel became a leading natural philosopher and a friend of kings and intellectuals, yet he was described as a man of devout, yet simple Christian faith.

To the Herschel legend we must quickly add his sister Caroline and his son John William, who both rose to his level of greatness.  William’s father was a bandmaster in the Hanoverian guard.  Each of his children became talented musicians; William gained proficiency on the oboe.  Troubles with the Seven Years War in Germany made him leave for England, where he landed with scarcely one coin in his pocket.  His musical skills kept him gainfully employed as a church organist and oboist.  Seven years after arriving, he began to take up seriously a hobby he had always enjoyed, astronomy.  The telescopes of his day were not powerful enough for him.  He learned how to grind mirrors, and spent all his spare time (when not playing music) perfecting the art.  Patrick Moore says that one of his first attempts at making a 5" objective succeeded after two hundred failures.

By 1774, his brother and sister also arrived in England.  Caroline stayed with William and became his assistant.  William’s observing career was launched in earnest with a look at the Orion Nebula, and he continued for 37 years, making bigger and better telescopes along the way until his home (Observatory House in Slough) boasted a 48" mirror weighing over a ton inside a 40' tube slung within a giant wooden scaffold.  Caroline, short and unmarried, was her brother’s biggest helper.  Even after William married at age 50, she remained near at hand, keeping his records and doing some significant observing herself.  She discovered six comets (a big interest in those days), and was eventually honored by royalty, famous in her own right to the age of 98.  Caroline, however, thought little of her own fame.  Like a humble moon, she was content to bask in the “reflected glory” of her famous brother.

Uranus was discovered accidentally while William scanned the skies.  The fame of being the first human to discover a new planet around the sun resulted in King George III granting him a permanent salary as royal astronomer, enough to let him abandon his musical career and do astronomical work full time.  He wanted to name the new planet in the king’s honor, but other astronomers voted to stick to the naming convention of mythological gods, so the name Uranus was chosen.  Uranus is a strange planet, hard to explain by naturalistic theories, because of its energy, composition, and inclination; tipped at 98 degrees, it circles the sun with its retinue of moons like a bull’s eye.  Stranger still, discoveries by the Voyager spacecraft in 1986 showed its magnetic field to be highly tilted and off-center.  No one has been able to explain why.  One of its moons, Miranda, has some of the strangest terrain ever seen, including a cliff so high that in the weak gravity of that world, someone stumbling over the edge would be in free-fall for eight minutes.  Speaking of moons, Herschel also discovered two more moons of Saturn (Mimas and Enceladus).  How awe-struck and fascinated would be his expression today to see what spacecraft have revealed close-up on these objects that, to him, were mere faint points of light twinkling in the eyepiece of his telescopes, as he gazed in the cold, still night air.

One of Herschel’s main goals was to sample the sky systematically and map the distribution of stars, to gain a picture of where the sun stood in relation to the Milky Way.  Due to assumptions later shown to be flawed, his map put the earth at the center of a somewhat flattened, oblong shape.  It was an important start, nonetheless.  Herschel was a diligent observer, ever willing to sacrifice his hypotheses on the altar of new evidence.  At first he thought binary stars were chance alignments, but later observations proved they were in orbit around each other.  He thought the nebulae were composed of stars made faint by distance, but later realized some were composed of dust or gas.  Herschel gave us the unfortunate term “planetary nebulae” because these objects at first appeared to him as disks like planets; they have nothing to do with planets and exist far beyond our solar system.  The Hubble Space Telescope has revealed many of these as brilliant, colorful stellar explosions with intricate hourglass and spiral structures.  Some show evidence of repeated incidents of mass loss.  In all, Herschel catalogued over 90,000 stars, far more than any of his predecessors, and he increased the number of known nebulae from 103 to 2500.  Most mysterious were the non-planetary nebulae.  Herschel considered Immanuel Kant’s idea that these might be distant and distinct stellar associations — galaxies like our own Milky Way, but the proof would have to wait for 202 years after Herschel’s death.  Another contribution was calibrating of the old stellar magnitude scale of Hipparchus; he realized that a difference of five magnitudes corresponded to a change in brightness of 100.  Herschel submitted 90 volumes to the Royal Society during his productive life.  Patrick Moore says, “More than any other man, he put stellar astronomy on a really firm footing. ... He was knighted in 1816, he received every honor that the scientific world could bestow, and he became the first President of the newly-formed Astronomical Society of London (now the Royal Astronomical Society).  He presented his last scientific paper when he was eighty years old, and he was active almost to the date of his death on August 25, 1822.”  He is buried under the tower of the old Anglican church in Slough, England.

Though sources I’ve checked agree William Herschel was sincerely religious, none are detailed enough to indicate if he was really a “born-again” Christian.  His family attended church regularly, but musician that he was, William could have been more performer than believer.  Was he just a Sunday Christian, and secular astronomer the rest of the week?  N. S. Dodge wrote in 1871 of the family’s sincere Christian faith, but Dan Graves (Scientists of Faith, p. 115) called him “a nominal Christian, at best.”  Herschel had some strange ideas: he believed the other planets, the moon, and even the sun were inhabited (but so did many others in his day).  Some of his writings seem to assume long ages and the insignificance of man in a universe populated not only by myriads of stars but perhaps other civilizations.  He speaks of the Author and Creator of the heavens, but not of the Scriptures or Jesus Christ.  Herschel dined with Hume and LaPlace, the skeptics, but as a dignitary in frequent touch with the intellectuals of the day and polite society, this cannot be taken to assume agreement with them.  In some of his diary entries, it appears they conversed about music or the fine cuisine rather than philosophy or theology.  In The Scientific Papers of Sir William Herschel published by the Royal Society in 1912, he relates an incident where the First Consul and La Place were having an argument over naturalistic philosophy.  Herschel writes in his diary,

The difference was occasioned by an exclamation of the First Consul’s, who asked in a tone of exclamation or admiration (when we were speaking of the extent of the sidereal heavens) ‘and who is the author of all this.’  M. de La Place wished to shew that a chain of natural causes would account for the construction and preservation of the wonderful system; this the First Consul rather opposed.  Much may be said on the subject; by joining the arguments of both we shall be led to ‘Nature and Nature’s God.’
Compromise?  Theistic evolution?  Wishy-washy belief in God, or signs of a true believer?  Hard to say, because he changes the subject in his diary after leaving us hanging with “much may be said.”  At another point, the Royal Society editor leaves a tantalizing footnote about missing letters by Herschel:
These letters, which extend to some 400 pages, are still extant but have not been at our disposal.  We are informed that Herschel in them interweaves his philosophy and even his musical studies with references of an earnest kind to the Creator as a beneficent Deity, expressing his gratitude and addressing him in a prayerful spirit.
Again, this could be said of a unitarian or deist, but hints at something more.  In a philosophical essay on Liberty and Necessity, he comes out opposing the necessitarians (those that believe natural law necessarily leads to the order we observe).  This would be consistent with one who believes God intervenes in human affairs.

Several Christian biographical essays have echoed Henry Morris’ attribution to Herschel of the line, “An undevout astronomer must be mad” (Men of Science, Men of God, p. 30).  Unfortunately, I have not been able to corroborate this quotation.  The slightly different line “An undevout astronomer is mad” is part of a poem entitled “Night thoughts“ by Edward Young, whose life was earlier but overlapped with Herschel’s.  Perhaps the poem was inspired by the life of Herschel, or a statement by him.  It would not be unrealistic to assume that the statement reflected Herschel’s own feelings about his work.  It seems clear that Herschel was devout, prayerful, humble, gracious, kind, and moral – good, but not enough to indicate a true believer in the gospel of Jesus Christ.  The sources I have checked do not provide enough evidence to call William Herschel more than a nominal Christian.  Scientists in this period of the so-called “Enlightenment” were enamoured with natural laws.  They were taking Newton’s emphasis on laws to new extremes, and knowingly or not, tended to distance God from immanent action in the affairs of the world.  Where Herschel fits in this trend is not clear.  But even if he falls short of an example of a thoroughly Biblical Christian, he clearly does exemplify one who believed in a divine Creator and Author of the laws of nature, to whom we owe our worship and admiration.  As such, he was at least continuing in the tradition of empirical science motivated by the Christian world view.

Observatory House was pulled down in 1960, but the tube of his 40-foot telescope was kept at the Greenwich Observatory as a monument to the years of painstaking observation of the skies by a man starstruck by the wondrous majesty and order of Creation.  In the summer of 1986, the Voyager 2 spacecraft made a historic flyby of the planet Uranus.  The St. Laurence Anglican Church in Slough, England, where Herschel is buried, was recently restored after years of damage and neglect, and in February 2001, was adorned with a new stained-glass Herschel Window commemorating his astronomical discoveries.  Another nearby window quotes Psalm 8, “When I consider the heavens, the work of Thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which Thou hast ordained, what is man, that Thou art mindful of him?”

Learn More About
William Herschel
William Herschel was also a composer of many musical works.  Click here to learn about them.

Visit the website of the restored St. Laurence Church in Slough, and see a picture of the new (Feb. 2001) Herschel Window.

Learn all about the planet Uranus from the organization that flew Voyager 2 by it in 1986, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Peruse the Herschel Catalog of Deep-Sky Objects.  The site also has biographical information and a picture.

Visit the Herschel Museum at Bath, England, where William discovered Uranus, and where he and Carolyn resided for a time before moving to Slough.

John Herschel     1792 - 1871  

William Herschel married at age 50 and had one son.  John Frederick William Herschel in many respects surpassed his father.  Though he did not make as many fundamental discoveries, he extended his famous father’s astronomical work enormously, and achieved excellence in other fields as well.  Also, his Christian faith appeared to be deeper and more sincere.  John Herschel became the most eminent scientist in Britain during the first half of the 19th century, and a highly respected philosopher of science.  In his senior years, he witnessed the rise of Darwinism.  Though he opposed evolutionary theory, some of his scientific philosophy may have lent unwitting support to it, as we shall see.

It was a hard act to follow, growing up at Observatory House in the shadow of his father William.  An only child with few playmates, John found himself more often in the company of his father’s scientific friends.  Aunt Caroline loved him and provided a balance to the boy’s intellectual upbringing; the two remained close into her old age.  It is a credit to his father that he was able to inspire his son to continue the work rather than rebel against it.  This apparently was never forced upon him; William desired his son to enter a ministry in the Anglican Church, and John felt the freedom to consider law and other career paths.  Nevertheless, growing up around telescopes, young John learned early how to grind and polish mirrors, and to observe like a good scientist.  The lure of the stars gained a response; John also was destined to spend a good part of his life peering through the eyepiece of homemade telescopes, trying to understand the workings of the cosmos.  (Romantic as this sounds, it is hard work.  At age 30, he spoke of the sacrifice in time, health and strength involved, including “difficulties such as at one period had almost compelled me to abandon it in despair.”)

John’s genius showed up early; at Cambridge, he was “Senior Wrangler” (top of the class) in the math exams, the most rigorous in the world.  Soon after, at age 21, he was elected member of the Royal Society, the youngest to date to achieve that honor.  With the resulting association with the most eminent scientists of the day, John Herschel formed close friendships with many of them, including Charles Babbage, who became a lifelong friend.  The two founded the Analytical Society of London and toured Europe together, where John met many more leading scientists.  He could have taken a government salary, but decided to extend the cataloguing of of astronomical objects begun by his father.  This would require a vantage point from the southern skies.  In 1834, with his wife Margaret Stewart, he sailed to Cape Town, South Africa

For five years, John Herschel scanned the southern skies, cataloguing 1200 double stars, and observing nebulae, the Magellanic Clouds (sister galaxies of the Milky Way, visible only from the southern hemisphere), Halley’s Comet during its 1837 apparition, star clusters, moons of Saturn, sunspots and much more.  In all, his lifetime observations yielded an astonishing catalogue of 70,000 celestial objects, all presented neatly to the Royal Society and the Royal Astronomical Society.  A personal friend, N.S. Dodge, in an 1871 eulogy, stated that “His motives for his long expatriation had not been money, nor pleasure, nor health, nor fame, but increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.”

John was a good theorist of astronomy as well as observer.  Important principles came out of these observations.  He debunked a popular response to Olber’s Paradox (the question of why the night sky is mostly dark, if space is infinitely filled with stars).  Some had suggested that the background starlight was simply being absorbed by dust or gas; Herschel correctly noted that the dust would heat up and re-radiate the light, maintaining the paradox.  (A more lasting answer had to wait till the 20th century, when relativity and the expansion of the universe led astronomers to acknowledge that the universe is not infinitely old.)  In addition, Herschel noted that most nebulae were composed of faint stars.

He wrote of the physical insignificance of man, inhabiting a tiny dot of a planet among an innumerable host of stars.  He said that “we have here attained a point in science where the human intellect is compelled to acknowledge its weakness, and to feel that no conception the wildest imagination can form will bear the least comparison with the intrinsic greatness of the subject.”  The Copernican Principle was well along by Herschel’s time.

Perhaps his most far-reaching conclusion from his observations was the universality of physical laws.  From studying the orbits of binary stars, he deduced that the laws of physics operated the same throughout the universe as they did for our own solar system.  This “memorable conclusion,” the Duke of Sussex wrote, was “justly entitled, by the generality of its character, to be considered as forming an epoch in the history of astronomy, and presenting one of the most magnificent examples of the simplicity and universality of those fundamental laws of nature by which their great Author has shown that he is the same today and forever, here and everywhere.”

John’s diary of the South Africa years reveals that he and his wife attended church services regularly.  One entry, however, seems to indicate he disdained scientists who tried to build their scientific understanding from the pages of Scripture.  John Herschel believed that the Baconian ideal demanded a purely inductive science from observation and experience, regardless of his religious feelings.  Notwithstanding, his Christian commitment was strong.  As with most believers, there was a process of spiritual growth, particularly due to the example of his wife.  Dan Graves writes,

Like his father before him, John Herschel had been a nominal Christian at best.  But following his marriage, he underwent a genuine conversion experience.  Margaret was the daughter of a Scottish Presbyterian.  Her piety and quiet life elevated John from a Christianity verging on pantheistic-deism to a total and clear acknowledgement of Christ as Lord and Savior.
(Scientists of Faith, p. 115.)
Graves says that his conversion fired him with a deeper moral sensitivity to his fellow man; he worked for educational reform in South Africa, stating his belief that schools should “fit them for a higher state of existence, by teaching them those which connect them with their Maker and Redeemer.”  This reveals that Herschel believed in Christ as Savior, and accepted the doctrine of Divine creation.  In a memoir of a visit with the Herschels in 1857, Maria Mitchell described them as representatives of three generations of “sound Protestants, in days when and in places where Protestantism was a reproach.”  She took note of their faithful attendance at a simple church.

John published at least ninety papers in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, many of them of great significance.  In addition, he was president of the Royal Astronomical Society for six years, and presided over the British Association.  Herschel had many other interests besides astronomy, including chemistry, geology, philosophy, poetry and mathematics, any of which could have gained him fame had he been the type to seek it.  His knowledge of chemistry was so advanced, for instance, that he duplicated Daguerre’s discovery in photography one week after hearing about it, with only the “scantiest details of Daguerre’s process” (Graves, p. 115).  He even improved on it, finding additional chemical agents, such that “his photographs are among the earliest we possess” (Ibid.), and was the first to try applying it to astronomy, thus beginning a timeline on a fruitful field that led eventually to Hubble’s photograph plates and, in our day, to the Hubble Space Telescope and digital imaging.  One could only imagine William and John Herschel’s astonishment at today’s images of objects that, to them, were faint points of light that required the utmost in patience and concentration to discern.  To see the surface of Saturn’s moons from a spaceship, or to resolve stars in the faintest nebulae, must have been unimaginable, to say nothing of detecting bizarre objects like quasars, black holes, gravitational lenses, radio galaxies, gamma-ray bursts, pulsars, and so much more that is commonplace today.

John Herschel was a humble, truth-loving man of integrity.  N. S. Dodge’s lengthy eulogy of Sir John William Herschel is almost embarrassingly gushy in its praise of Herschel, not only for his achievements, but for his personal character.  He waxes eloquent about John’s unselfishness and dignity, his willingness to alter any cherished belief if required by the evidence, his moral sensibility, his thoroughness, his “conscientious dealing, with indefatigable industry that characterized his life.”  He calls him “the Homer of science because he was its highest poet.”  Of Herschel’s integrity, Dodge writes:

He was in the utmost degree a well-bred man, not from gentle birth and careful training, not from scholarly pursuits and polite society, not from association with persons of rank and intimacy with men of taste and thought, not even from his loving nature and noble aspirations—not from all these together, so much as from the lofty ideal he cherished from boyhood to old age of perfect manhood. ... the air and manner, and bearing of well-bred man never left him.  He received criticisms upon his own speculations with the same equanimity that he pointed out the errors of his opponents.  His action in discussion was never violent, nor his voice loud.  He readily acknowledged a fault, and still more readily apologized for a wrong. ...

Sir John Herschel’s life-long contemplation of the infinite in number and magnitude, exalting and hallowing his mind, was exhibited in its effects upon his character.  The truths he had learned from the stars were converted into principles of action.  Lofty thoughts promoted noble deeds.  “Surely,” he himself had said ... “if the worst of men were transported to Paradise for only half an hour amongst the company of the great and good, he would come back converted.”

Charles Darwin was strongly attracted to John Herschel’s philosophy of science.  Herschel had written an influential book, A Preliminary Discourse On the Study of Natural Philosophy, in which he advocated an inductive, religiously-neutral, bias-free Baconian ideal type of scientific investigation.  He taught that one should attempt to rid his mind of all presuppositions, and follow the evidence wherever it led.  So Darwin was quite mortified when the eminent scientist he so respected reacted negatively to his book, On the Origin of Species, calling Darwin’s idea of natural selection “The law of higgledy-piggledy.”

Yet Darwin’s so called “law” triumphed.  It could be argued that John Herschel had handed his enemies the rope to hang his Christian faith, because he, like Bacon, had assumed the unbiblical postulate of Thomas Aquinas, that only the spirit of man was fallen, not the intellect.  Accordingly, Aquinas thought that natural revelation could be a means to finding God (or ultimate truth), apart from Scripture and the convicting and converting work of the Holy Spirit.  This incomplete view of the Fall gave secularists a free reign to discover their own truth apart from divine revelation – not only reproducible facts about the operation of nature, but its origin and destiny.

Baconian science slowly evolved into scientism, logical positivism, and naturalism.  Secularists extrapolated methodological naturalism, in which the scientist attempts to discover laws through experiment, into a full-fledged philosophical naturalism, in which God had no place in nature.  The two naturalisms became indistinguishable.  God, spirit, faith and purpose were relegated to inner experience, until they became purely mystical and personal, unverifiable by history or science or logic or any objective means.  Secularists took great glee in capturing the flag of “science” and taking religious belief hostage, relegating any appeal to faith or divine revelation to the wastebasket of superstition and fantasy.

This, of course, is a wholly unwarranted position, and an extrapolation far beyond what both Bacon and Herschel believed.  Both sincerely believed in God as the Creator, and Jesus Christ as His incarnate, resurrected Son.  Their reaction to the authority of Aristotle or any other teacher should not have been used as a rationalization for rejecting the authority of God and His Word.  Not every field of knowledge is open to the scientific method: history, for instance, and the arts.  Yet secularists arrogated to themselves a presumed unbiased inquiry into all fields of knowledge, till it became a substitute religion, unaware that their own position was as metaphysical as any faith.

Though there are signs of change, we are still living today with the legacy of that unwarranted extrapolation of Herschel’s principles.  Phillip Johnson has characterized our secular society as having its own creation myth, and like any creation myth, it has a priesthood – the secular scientific establishment – that has sole custody of that myth.  Evolutionary theory today goes far beyond anything that can be observed or tested.  Cornelius Hunter describes the situation today: “Evolution is now found to be capable of creating just about anything.  We might say that evolution is a closed metaphysical system.  It not only supplies its own creation story but also supplies its own source of morality. ... Furthermore, having rejected divine creation and its Creator, evolution even becomes its own authority.  This story is true for those who believe it, but it cannot be demonstrated by strictly scientific argument, for it requires metaphysical premises” (Darwin’s God, p. 155.

Methodological naturalism is reasonable to a point, as a tentative or default position when examining observable, repeatable phenomena subject to testing.  It is like William Dembski’s Explanatory Filter, in which the flowchart first attempts to rule out natural law and chance as causes before inferring design.  But methodological naturalism today has become an iron-clad rule that eliminates design from the field of causes at the outset.  It is an arbitrary rule that can prevent a scientist from ever discovering the truth, when in fact design was the cause.  It has led to a modern science that is stuck with hand-waving and just-so stories to explain the origin of the universe, planets, life, and eternal destiny – phenomena that are not testable nor repeatable.  Having ruled out the validity of revelation or purpose, evolutionists are hostage to a closed metaphysical system that excludes intelligent design by fiat, not by reason, logic, or evidence.  The hypocrisy of this position is revealed by the fact that scientists routinely invoke intelligent causes in certain fields, such as forensic science, archaeology, and SETI; yet when design is clearly apparent in natural phenomena, the rules of naturalism prevent a design inference.

How would John Herschel have reacted to today’s reign of naturalism?  He probably would be appalled.  He never saw his scientific work as justifying atheism.  On the contrary, he wrote, with years of experience as one of the most eminent practitioners of the scientific method, “All human discoveries seem to be made only for the purpose of confirming more and more strongly the truths come from on high and contained in the sacred writings.”

N. S. Dodge concluded his 16-page eulogy of Sir John:

Herschel’s whole life, like the lives of Newton and Faraday, confutes the assertion, and ought to remove the suspicion, that a profound study of nature is unfavorable to a sincere acceptance of the Christian faith.  Surrounded by an affectionate family, of which he was long spared to be the pride, the guide, and the life, John Herschel died, as he had lived, in the unostentatious exercise of a devout, yet simple, faith.

Herschel was buried in Westminster Abbey not far from Sir Isaac Newton.  In an ironic twist of fate, he was soon to have a strange bedfellow: interred next to him a few years later was an admirer who used some of his philosophical ideas against Christianity: Charles Darwin.

Learn More About
John Herschel
Here is a biography by the Belmont Society.

Read the extended memoir of the Herschels by N. S. Dodge, and Maria Mitchell’s reminisces of her visit at the Herschel’s home in 1857.

There is a short biography of John Herschel, with picture, on the High Altitude Observatory website.

Georges Cuvier: coming soon.

Samuel F. B. Morse     1791 - 1872  

Though an artist by profession, not primarily a scientist or inventor, Samuel F. B. Morse brought a scientific principle to practical use and changed the world.  When the grand idea of instantaneous communication across great distances hit him, Morse caught an obsession that cost him every last penny and earned him scorn and snubbing for twelve years, until at last the country gave him a chance to prove his idea.  It’s a great American story of perseverance, of putting science to use to improve the lives of millions.

Morse, a devout Christian, built on the exploratory work of other Christians and creationists, like Davy, Faraday and Henry.  In the process, he gave the world the first binary code (Morse Code) and a whole new industry (including a huge boost to the American economy and thousands of new jobs), to say nothing of his other achievements – major improvements to the new invention of photography, and some of the most famous portrait and landscape paintings in America.  Did all this go to his head?  When asked to sum up his life’s work, Morse remembered the first message sent across the wires (see below), and said, “It is His work.”  Quoting Psalm 115:1, he confessed, “Not unto us, but to Thy name, O Lord, be all the praise.”

Samuel Finley Breese Morse was born in Boston when America was young, in the period when Ben Franklin had recently experimented with the strange phenomenon of electricity.  Franklin had proven that lightning was the same as the static electricity familiar to those scuffing their shoes across the carpet.  Electricity remained, however, a curiosity with no practical use.  His father, Jedediah Morse, had achieved fame as a minister and geographer who also investigated Flood geology.  Young Samuel Morse was not an exceptional student.  When his father saw he had some talent for sketching things, he reluctantly allowed him to pursue a career as an artist.  Samuel studied with American masters Gilbert Stuart and Benjamin West. 

After a “starving artist” period of time trying to support his new bride Lucretia with his portraiture work, Samuel’s skill garnered fame and aroused the notice of the political elite in Washington.  He was selected to paint the portrait of Lafayette.  While in Washington, meeting the rich and famous, he was unaware that his wife had taken sick and died!  It had taken weeks for the mail to arrive with heartbreaking news.  Regretting he had not even had time to say good-bye, Morse was reminded also of how many soldiers had died in the War of 1812 after peace had been declared, because news traveled so slowly.

Morse had seen demonstrations of electricity during his college years and his travels, but no one had yet put it to a practical use.  It was on board the Sully on a return voyage from France that he overheard a conversation about electricity and magnetism.  A passenger was describing how Benjamin Franklin had passed an electric current through miles of wire, and noticed an instantaneous spark at the other end.  Thus began the spark of an idea that would lead Morse through incredible trials, long hours of work, and near starvation, trying to bring a great idea to reality.

Until the telegraph, communication over long distances was slow and tedious.  The French had perfected a system of semaphores on mountaintops to send messages from peak to peak, but it only worked on clear days.  The proverbial Indians had their smoke signals.  Everyone else used feet and vocal cords.  Morse’s spark of an idea would bring the world the first instantaneous communication across the country and across the ocean, day or night, regardless of the weather.  But first he would have to sell his idea.

Samuel suspended his art work and poured himself into his new project.  Early on he succeeded in making a working prototype.  In his endeavors, he was helped by the most famous American scientist of his day, Joseph Henry (also a devout Christian and creationist).  To his dismay, Morse found few interested in the idea.  He spent all his money trying to garner support; years went by with hopes followed by disappointments: some dismissing the idea as foolish, some promising support but not delivering, few paying him serious attention.  One day, when he had raised enough support to attempt a public display across New York harbor, a passing ship cut the telegraph line and made Morse the laughingstock of the day.  Morse spent years experiencing the three stages of reaction to a new invention: 1. It’s crazy; 2. It’s a good idea, but it will never work; 3. I thought of it first.

Two years later Morse was in Washington with thirty-seven cents left to his name, waiting into the night for a Senate vote on whether or not to fund a test of the telegraph.  His proposal was low on the agenda after 143 other bills, the Senators were eager to adjourn for the season, and support did not look good.  Preparing himself for disappointment, he prayed and committed the work to the Lord, then slept.  At breakfast the following morning, he was approached by Annie G. Ellsworth, daughter of the Commissioner of Patents, with the exciting news that the Senate passed his proposal just before midnight without debate, and it was already signed by President Harrison.  This meant a test between Washington and Baltimore would be funded by the U.S. Government.  Re-invigorated by the news, Morse immediately set to work.

The good news, however, was beset by more troubles: the underground cables shorted out and melted the insulation, wasting the first seven miles of work and thousands of dollars - over half the funding.  By now Europeans were testing telegraph designs of their own; it was a race against time.  With the advice of Ezra Cornell and Joseph Henry, Morse agreed on a new design destined to change the American landscape forever; overhead cables, strung between glass insulators on tall poles.  The work resumed in earnest.  By May 24, 1844, the line was completed and ready for its historic test.  Morse gave Annie Ellsworth the choice of the first message to be sent over the lines.  She chose a phrase from Numbers 23:23, “What hath God wrought.”  Morse was pleased.  It would be sent with the world’s first binary code, invented by Morse years earlier, a concept that would someday lead to ASCII and other binary codes that power the Information Age of the 21st century.  (Interestingly, after the binary system of the telegraph was overtaken by the analog telephone, our modern computerized world has returned to binary digital representation so completely that analog messages may soon be a thing of the past.  A new generation of IP phones that transmit digitized voice over the Internet will probably soon have us making our phone calls through our computers.)

Morse tapped out the message from the Supreme Court building in Washington: • – –   ••••   •–   –     ••••   •–   –   ••••     – –•   – – –   –••     •– –   • ••   – – –   ••–   – –•   ••••   – .  Within seconds, Alfred Vail, 41 miles away in Baltimore, who had not been told the contents of the message, received it and echoed it back.  It typed out in dots and dashes on a strip of paper before the hushed onlookers.  Morse translated the code, and read it aloud.  The crowd erupted with an ovation of congratulations, as the excitement of possibilities this invention would bring dawned like the light of a new day.  After twelve years of hardship, Morse’s hare-brained idea was finally vindicated.  A new chapter in history began overnight.  Within two years, telegraph lines stretched to Maine and Milwaukee.  Soon they would overtake the Pony Express to the west coast.  Within decades, Lord Kelvin (another of the world’s greatest creation scientists), would lay the first successful telegraph cable across the Atlantic.  No more would travelers have to wait weeks for word of a dying relative, or soldiers hear too late of declarations of peace.  Instantaneous communication across continents was now a reality.

(Note: The message was sent in the original “American” Morse Code, which was modified into the later “International” Morse Code.  IMC is identical to AMC in the message “What God hath wrought” except for the letter R, which in IMC is •–• .  Samuel Morse originally planned to represent whole words as codes, but Vail helped Morse decide to use the dots and dashes for individual letters instead.)

The telegraph is considered one of the ten greatest inventions in history.  Morse became one of the most famous men in America, and the world.  In his old age, thousands of telegraph operators came to thank him for creating a whole new industry and giving them well paying, satisfying jobs.  Morse gave all the credit to God, claiming the message Annie had chosen, What hath God wrought, seemed divinely inspired.  “It is His work,” he reminded them; “and He alone carried me thus far through all my trials and enabled me to triumph over the obstacles, physical and moral, which opposed me.  ‘Not unto us, not unto us, by to Thy name, O Lord, be all the praise.’”

Many who learned in school to equate Morse with the telegraph are surprised to hear that he also was one of the greatest American painters.  He painted three hundred major canvasses, portraits and landscapes, which hang in galleries across America and Europe.  One of his paintings sold recently for three million dollars, the highest paid to that date for an American painting.  Morse was also the father of photography in America.  He had seen Daguerre’s studio in France before it burned to the ground, and brought the technology to the United States, where he improved it greatly.  His improvements allowed people to sit for seconds instead of minutes under a hot lamp for their portrait. 

Morse supported education and Sunday School, making the prophetic comment, “Education without religion is in danger of substituting wild theories for the simple commonsense rules of Christianity.”  He saw a perfect harmony between the Word of God, the beauty of the landscapes he painted, and the scientific endeavors he undertook.  After a long and successful career, Morse said, “The nearer I approach the end of my pilgrimage, the clearer is the evidence of the divine origin of the Bible, the grandeur and sublimity of God’s remedy for fallen man are more appreciated, and the future is illumined with hope and joy.”

Learn More About
Samuel F. B. Morse
For an easy yet engaging account, good for young and old, read John Hudson Tiner’s book Artist With a Message: Samuel F. B. Morse, one of Mott Media’s Sowers Series of excellent short biographies of famous Christians.

See Morse’s entry in the National Inventor’s Hall of Fame.

Everything you ever wanted to know about Morse Code, multiplied by a hundred!  Try also

Practice Morse Code with this software tool and improve your speed.

Research some of Morse’s original manuscripts in the Library of Congress archives, including a picture of the paper tape output of the first message, “What hath God wrought?”, and a letter in his own handwriting to his brother Sidney, expressing his humble jubilation after the success.


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