Natural Philosophy Reaches Its Zenith
Faraday Babbage Henry
Joule Kelvin Maxwell
Mathematicians: Napier Euler Riemann
Science as a practical outworking of theology continued well into the 19th century. During this period, especially in the
British empire, some of the most eminent scientists in history gained fundamental understanding of the workings of nature. Their
scientific triumphs had incalculable effects on technology, industry and human health. Several of these men were not even
scientists by training (Joule, Faraday) but stood head and shoulders above their contemporaries. Midway through the 19th
century, Darwinism began its ascendency. The scientists we will highlight here, and a number of others not known to be
Christians, resisted the new movement with its naturalistic ramifications.
While the names of these great natural philosophers 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!
1791 - 1867
Aldous Huxley was once asked what historical persons life he would most
like to relive. His answer was Michael Faraday. Everybody loves
Faraday. Its hard to find any negative comment
about him. His was a Cinderella
story, the embodiment of a Horatio Alger novel, with plenty of human
interest that makes for a satisfying plot.
But its not just a good story; it was a life that changed the
world. Faraday was a nobody who trusted God, applied
himself, and succeeded to his own amazement beyond his dreams.
He became the
worlds greatest experimental physicist. To this day he is often
admired as such, notwithstanding the ultra-tech toys modern chemists
and physicists have at their disposal. The president of the
Institution for Electrical Engineers (IEE), for instance, at the
unveiling of a Michael Faraday statue in 1989, said,
His discoveries have had an incalculable
effect on subsequent scientific and technical development.
He was a true pioneer of scientific discovery.
Faraday enraptured audiences with his public demonstrations.
He discovered some of the most important laws of physics and
chemistry, discoveries which revolutionized the world economy.
But none of this mattered to him as much as one thing: his Christian
faith. He would rather be praying and studying the Bible with his
fellow church members than be at an awards ceremony or have audience
with royalty. Steadfast and humble, Faraday remained absolutely
committed to Biblical truth from early childhood throughout his long
life. He would have been considered a fundamentalist Christian,
had the term existed in his day. Nothing, not even the rising
tide of skepticism in Britain leading up to the Darwinian revolution,
shook his confidence in the word of God. And Faraday was not one to
ever hear a snicker from skeptics; he was too highly
esteemed for that. His contemporaries would have concurred with
the praise Lord Rutherford expressed in 1931, 64 years after his death:
The more we study the work of Faraday with the perspective of time,
the more we are impressed by his unrivalled genius as an experimenter
and natural philosopher. When we consider the magnitude and extent
of his discoveries and their influence on the progress of science and
industry, there is no honor too great to pay to the memory of Michael
Faradayone of the greatest scientific discoverers of all time.
Start listing the things that run on electric motors
automobiles, fans, clocks, airplanes, pumps, vacuum
cleaners, and so much more and you begin
to get a hint of what Faradays work brought forth.
Add to the list generators, transformers, electrolysis devices,
electromagnets, and many other products of his lab, and
Faradays importance to the history of science and technology
starts to come into focus. It has been said that the wealth
generated by the inventions based on Faradays discoveries
exceed the value of the British stock exchange. This is probably
an understatement. Yet Faraday remained a modest, unpretentious
soul who never sought financial profit from his work. He accepted
a cottage from the government in his senior years,
but rebuffed honors. When the queen wanted to knight him,
he declined, wishing to remain plain old Mr.†Faraday to the
end. The glory of Jesus Christ was the only reward he sought.
This series on scientist Christians (too bad we cannot reverse
the order of the terms, no thanks to Mary Baker Eddy) has a
recurring theme: circumstances
are not the sole determiner of success. There have been some
who came from well-to-do families (Boyle, Joule) but others
(Newton, Kepler, Carver) seemed to have everything
against them. Teachers should take note that a child from a
poverty-stricken family and a bad neighborhood might turn out
to be the next Michael Faraday. Man looks on the outward
appearance, Samuel reminded Jesse, the father of a ruddy
shepherd boy destined to become King David, but God
looks on the heart.
The most precious gift a poor mother and father can give their
children is an example of faith, diligence, and godliness.
The Faraday household had little of this worlds goods, but they
had the intangible treasures of Gods Word. The centrality of worship in
their life made them resolutely confident in the sovereignty
and grace of God. Michael gained from his faith a sense of
purpose and drive and fortitude to withstand the rigors of life.
He developed values that subjugated worldly passions and
promoted honorable work. And for the benefit of science, his
faith provided curiosity about Gods creation and a deep belief
in the unity of nature. As we will see, this belief steered
him right toward his most fundamental discoveries.
In this regard, young Michael Faraday was a rich child, even though
outwardly his clothes were shabby, his shoes were worn out with
holes, and he knew hunger. His father, a blacksmith, became an invalid
and went for extended periods without work. More than
once Michael was given a loaf of bread by his mother and told
it needed to last him a week. The boy had to learn how to
work hard and bear responsibility at an early age. Properly
understood and applied, these challenges can build character:
Jeremiah said, It is good for a man to bear the yoke in his
youth (Lam. 3:27). Faraday was living proof of that.
Rather than turn him into a thief or vagabond,
hardships and deprivation instilled in Michael an appreciation for the few good
things he had, a desire to succeed, and a deep hunger for
knowledge. That hunger began to be satisfied when he took a job
as an apprentice bookbinder at the age of 13.
Prior to his apprenticeship, he had attained only the rudiments of
education through Sunday school: reading, writing, and arithmetic.
Though math would never be his strong point, he learned good penmanship,
mastered writing and note-taking, and was a voracious reader.
In the print shop, he often read the books that were to be bound.
At first, his boss found him wasting his time on fiction, and urged him
instead to read things of real value. To his credit, Faraday accepted the
advice and began reading articles on science. A book on chemistry
attracted his attention so much, he began imitating the experiments.
When he read in
Encyclopedia Britannica about the new discoveries being made
about electricity, including Voltas new invention that
could supply a constant current, he was so fascinated, he cobbled
parts from around the shop, including bottles, rags and clamps, and
made his own Voltaic pile, a recently-invented battery; with this and
jars he purchased with meager savings, he made his own capacitor and
Around this time,
Faraday was also strongly influenced by a book written by the English hymnwriter
Isaac Watts, author of such famous hymns as O God, Our Help In Ages
Past, When I Survey the Wondrous Cross, I Sing the Mighty Power of God,
Jesus Shall Reign and Joy to the World. The book was
entitled The Improvement of the Mind. Michael
resolved to discipline himself by reading profitable books,
taking good notes at important occasions, and observing the habits
of influential people. These helped to fill in deficiencies
from his substandard schooling. Whenever he could, he asked
friends and acquaintances to help him with grammar, spelling
and punctuation. He also began attending
scientific lectures and formed friendships with other like-minded
young men eager to improve their circumstances.
Michael dreamt of becoming a scientist, but felt confined by his poverty
and lack of education to a shopkeepers vocation. His mother and
family members depended on his income, even more so when his
father passed away when he was 19. By now he was
a journeyman bookbinder working for Mr. Riebau, a French businessman.
One day, he was given a stub of paper that was to become
the ticket to his dreams: free passes to four scientific
lectures at the Royal Institution by one of Britains
most eminent scientists, Sir Humphry Davy.
The Royal Institution was a showcase of science built in 1799 by
Benjamin Thompson (1753-1814), an eccentric but intelligent
philanthropist born in Massachusetts, who became Count Rumford in Bavaria
before moving to London (later to marry Lavoisiers widow in France).
He designed the Royal Institution, a combination research laboratory, library and
lecture hall, as a showcase of applied science. It contained one of the largest Voltaic piles
of the era. Well stocked with chemicals, wire and magnets,
it was the place to learn physical science in London. Humphry
Davy, famous for inventing the miners safety lamp, was
an early experimenter with electrolysis and used it to discover
six elements: potassium, sodium, calcium, strontium, barium,
and magnesium. Davy was another Christian man of science.
Henry Morris summarized his testimony: he was a Bible-believing
Christian, highly altruistic and generous, though not as spiritually
minded and patient as was Faraday. He was also a poet and,
for a while, something of a Christian mystic. In his declining
years, however, he returned to Biblical Christianity and found
peace therein. (Men of Science, Men of God, p. 38).
Sir Davys public lectures at the Royal Institution were very
popular and brought in revenue from wealthy patrons (since it relied
on subscribers). One can imagine how Faraday, now a young
man and well read in chemistry and electricity, would have longed
to hear Davy. He had already been attending Wednesday night
meetings of the City Philosophical Society, a group of working men
interested in science. He kept voluminous notes of these meetings, which his
boss often showed off to customers. One customer was so
impressed, he gave Michael free tickets to four lectures by Sir
Humphry Davy at the Royal Institution. The year was 1812; Faraday was
now 21. He came early with ample note-taking materials and sat on the front
Spellbound by all Davy presented on stage, Faraday wrote down
everything, recopied it neatly at home, and bound it into a
book 386 pages long. Months went by as Faraday continued
to dream of becoming a scientist like Davy. His apprenticeship
over, he took a job as a bookbinder across town, but found the business
tedious and unsatisfying. He took a bold step. He wrote to Davy
and asked for a job. With his request, he enclosed a bound
volume of notes he had taken at the lectures. Davys
reply was polite, but disappointing; there were no positions
available. In October of that year, Davy was temporarily
blinded by an explosion in the laboratory. Faraday managed
to become his secretary for a few days, but when Davy recovered,
there were still no positions available.
A carriage pulled in front of Michaels home one evening with
a letter from Davy. Excitedly, Michael tore it open.
It was a summons to appear at the Royal Institution the next day!
Davys assistant had just been dismissed for involvement in
a brawl, so now a position was available, and Davy had not forgotten
the eager young man. Davy had discovered many things, but as
he later admitted, his greatest discovery was Faraday.
It would require a substantial pay cut to take the job, but Michael
enthusiastically accepted. His position at first was little more than
janitor: washing bottles, setting up for lectures, keeping
records, repairing things, and assisting the master as needed.
But to have the opportunity to learn at the feet of one of the greatest
scientists in England was a science education par excellence for
the disadvantaged young man. Faraday applied himself diligently.
He learned everything he
could, keeping detailed notes, studying books in the evening,
and working long hours willingly.
In short order, Michael became the equal of any chemist in the world.
Whats more, in 1813, Davy invited him on come along as his personal
secretary on a tour of Europe, including Italy, Switzerland,
Holland and Germany, for a year and a half. Faraday had the
opportunity to meet some of the most important scientists
on the continent, including Volta and Ampere. It was not
always easy; the talkative and snobbish Mrs. Davy had the
habit of treating Michael like a servant, but overall, the experience
was an invaluable supplement to Faradays ongoing education.
Faraday was like a kid in a toy shop at the Royal Institution.
His experiments are legendary. Encyclopedia
Britannica summarizes some of his important discoveries:
Faraday, who became one of the greatest scientists of the 19th
century, began his career as a chemist. He wrote a manual of
practical chemistry that reveals the mastery of the technical aspects
of his art, discovered a number of new organic compounds, among them
benzene, and was the first to liquefy a permanent gas
(i.e., one that was believed to be incapable of liquefaction).
His major contribution, however, was in the field of electricity and
magnetism. He was the first to produce an electric current
from a magnetic field, invented the first electric motor and
dynamo, demonstrated the relation between electricity and chemical
bonding, discovered the effect of magnetism on light, and discovered
and named diamagnetism, the peculiar behaviour of certain substances
in strong magnetic fields. He provided the experimental, and a
good deal of the theoretical, foundation upon which James Clerk
Maxwell erected classical electromagnetic field theory.
This summary conceals decades of hard work, and many lonely yet
adventurous days and nights in the laboratory. Sometimes
Faraday used his tongue as a voltmeter or chemical taster, and
explosions were not uncommon. But he was a stickler
for accuracy, kept good records, and published faithfully.
Work, finish, publish was his motto, as he constantly
strove to explore the frontiers of physical science.
Michael also developed skill in the art of lecturing. Understanding his
responsibility to his audience, he made it a personal project
to determine the most effective techniques for holding an audiences
interest and giving them a satisfying and edifying hour in the lecture hall.
Within a decade of his employment by Davy, Faraday had exceeded his
master in eminence. He was now a skilled lecturer, well-known
experimentalist, and published scientist, with many major papers to his
credit. He was also a married man, having wed Sarah Barnard,
a member of his church, in June, 1821. By 1824, this self-educated
bookbinder was elected to the Royal Society, and the following year succeeded
Sir Humphry Davy as Director of the Royal Institution.
The Faradays lived upstairs at the Royal Institution for forty years.
Michael would usually work long hours at his lab in the basement, where Sarah
would often bring him dinner. She never pretended to understand his
research (which was fine for Michael, because she could be the pillow
for his mind after long hours focused on experiments), but the two
of them loved each other deeply and faithfully all their lives.
It was their deepest misfortune not to have children of their own,
since both were fond of children. The disappointment was partially assuaged
by the presence of two nieces who came to live with them. Though not
opposed to socializing, Michael was most content to be working at experiments
in his laboratory; experiments were beautiful things, he felt,
and they provided the confidence he needed in his investigations of the
laws of nature. So confident was he in natures laws, he once
performed a risky experiment with himself as the subject. He built
a twelve-foot-square metallic cage and charged it so high with static
electricity that lightning-like sparks leaped off the sides. To prove
that the electric field on a conducting surface resides only on the
exterior, he went inside the cage to verify the absence of any
detectable field in the interior.
Michael made some
of his most important discoveries in the early years of their marriage.
These included the physical foundations of the electric motor, generator and
transformer. Many consider his crowning achievement the discovery of
electromagnetic induction, the production of a steady electric current from
the mechanical action of a magnet. (This principle was apparently discovered
simultaneously and independently by Joseph Henry in America, another committed Christian,
but Faraday published it first.) This became the foundation of the
electric dynamo or generator, a new source of cheap energy that was to outpace
the steam engine in the coming years and revolutionize the world energy economy.
Though known primarily as the great experimentalist,
Faraday also possessed outstanding theoretical insight. His concept of
an electromagnetic field, the idea that space was permeated with energy
that followed lines of force (as demonstrated by the common childrens
experiment with iron filings aligned by a magnet on a sheet of paper), was
revolutionary in its day. It provided the fruitful insight that
Maxwell later rigorously developed into his four laws of
Since Faraday lived on a meager salary and the
Royal Institution was often strapped for funds, most of his
epochal discoveries were made with
clever contraptions he devised himself out of inexpensive materials.
Hermann von Helmholtz remarked, A few wires and some old bits of wood
and iron seem to serve him for the greatest discoveries.
The breadth of fundamental discoveries this math-challenged, poorly-paid,
self-taught scientist made continues to astonish historians today.
(For a good review of his work, with illustrations, see John Meurig Thomas,
Michael Faraday and the Royal Institution, ch. 4). His work
in chemistry alone would have made him famous; add to that
electromagnetism, electrolysis, diamagnetism, paramagnetism,
field theory, acoustics, light, and more, and his
lifetime record stands unexcelled. He is the only physicist
with two international units named after him: the faraday (a unit of electrical
quantity) and the farad (a unit of capacitance). He is also remembered
for the Faraday effect (the influence of magnetism on polarized light) and
Faradays laws of electrolysis. Each of these had immense practical
application that were soon exploited by entrepreneurs.
Added to his experimental fame,
Michael Faradays public lectures and stage demonstrations set a high
standard that influenced
many who followed, and continues at the Royal Institution to this day.
As a popularizer of science, Faraday is emulated but rarely surpassed. How he
managed to design and execute so many Friday Night Lectures at the Royal Institution,
each thoroughly planned and rehearsed, illustrated with experiments usually of his own
making, is remarkable, considering how busy he was and how little he earned.
One of his most poignant legacies was the annual Christmas Lectures for children.
Adults had to stand in the back as the children got all the front seats for these
delightful events. Faraday could keep the young audience in rapt attention as
he made the ordinary seem extraordinary. His most popular Christmas
Lecture series was called The Chemical History of a Candle, which,
transcribed into book form, remains a classic today (there have been 70 Japanese
editions alone). Faraday could take a simple household object, a candle, and draw out of it all the
diverse wonders of nature. Thats a prime illustration of Muirs Law:
Any time we try to isolate something by itself, we find it hitched to everything
else in the universe.
What turns a poor young man into the worlds greatest experimental
scientist? What separated Michael Faraday from the other poor boys of
his neighborhood? Undoubtedly, his Christian faith was the biggest factor.
His parents grounded him in the Biblical world view. Historians find it
intriguing that Faraday, a scientist, remained so loyal to his church all his life.
The Faradays were Nonconformists, in that they rejected the official state church,
with its high church liturgy (and social acceptance), preferring instead
to meet in small groups to study the Bible and obey the teachings of Jesus Christ.
Puritanism and Methodism are other examples of Nonconformist groups;
John Dalton, Joseph Priestly and Joseph Henry were also scientists of nonconformist
faith. The Faraday family belonged to a
denomination known as the Sandemanians, a breakaway sect from the
Scottish Presbyterian church, founded a century earlier by John Glas.
The name Sandemanian comes from his son-in-law, Robert Sandeman, who became the
leader. The Sandemanian church was basically a back-to-the-Bible
movement. Critical of the traditions the high church had added to the
Scripture, and the corruption that often ensued, they sought to return to the
primitive, apostolic Christianity of the New Testament. Some distinctives of their
worship included a plurality of elders, closed communion, foot washing, reading of Scripture and long prayers.
Members were treated as equals, with no division between clergy and laity.
They frowned on wealth accumulation and other forms of worldliness, and
extolled humility, simplicity, and charity.
Their services and fellowship meals took up a good part of each Sunday.
Faithful attendance on the Lords Day and at Wednesday night prayer meetings
was expected, especially for elders (Faraday lost his eldership for missing church
to visit with the queen; only after a period of contrition over his lack of
priorities was his position restored.)
How could such worship habits, seemingly so devoid of scientific interest,
influence the lab work of a young scientist? This topic is explored
by Jack Meadows in a sidebar of his chapter on Faraday in The Great
Scientists, entitled Nonconformist Religion and Science (p. 135).
The growth of modern science overlapped the dramatic religious changes of
the Reformation, he begins. Though he admits the connection between these
developments is sometimes obscure, he points out some features of
Nonconformism that contributed to scientific endeavor and produced some of the
greatest scientists from the ranks of Nonconformists.
For one thing, Nonconformists were social outcasts to one degree or another;
though often tolerated, they had been been through severe waves of persecution at times
(one only has to remember the Pilgrims leaving all to sail to the New World
primarily for religious freedom; later, Robert Sandeman also immigrated to
America because of religious pressure in England).
This kind of treatment harked back to the Reformation itself,
a nonconformist tradition of the first order; yet when some Protestant churches
became the new establishment, new reformers often felt compelled to break away.
In so doing, they suffered some of the same reproaches endured by the early Reformers
(Here is where you can use that longest word in the English language,
This much is attributable to human social weakness
(the us vs. them mentality), but often the outcast group, now on the defensive,
becomes the more eager to delineate their positions, and the more motivated for
change attitudes that sometimes can reap positive results in other areas.
Secondly, as outcasts, they were rugged individualists.
Nonconformists were often subject to legal restrictions.
They were prevented from attending the state schools and universities, intertwined as
those institutions were
with the state church. One result of this was a fresh infusion
of new attitudes and nontraditional methods in education.
Nonconformists developed dissenting academies, whose curriculum
was much wider than in traditional schools and universities, Meadows
explains; in particular, it contained a significant science component....
The dissenting academies became an important seedbed of science.
But why would religious people concerned about imitating the early church
care about science? This is where Meadows draws the most pertinent
connection: Many of the Nonconformist sects continued to hold a favorable
view of science and technology, and the industrial revolution in England in the
18th century owed a great deal to them. He doesnt mention it
explicitly, but this favorable view of science could only have been derived from a
commitment to the Biblical doctrine of creation.
A conviction that God created a world of order, beauty and purpose,
operating under His natural law, gives impetus to scientific endeavor;
for that reason, It is not surprising that a person of Faradays
Nonconformist background should develop an interest in science.
Add to that belief the promotion of excellence (whatsoever ye do, do all to the
glory of GodI Corinthians 10:31), the
well-known Protestant work ethic (if any would not work, neither
should he eatI Thessalonians 3:10), and the commitment to Truth
(Thou shalt not bear false witnessExodus 20:16) and you have the
qualifications for a good scientist.
Many have noted that Faradays conviction that the forces of nature were
unified, a belief that stemmed from his Biblical belief that they all derived
from one Creator, strongly influenced his lab work. It directly motivated
his experiments on electromagnetic induction and other attempts to relate
electricity, magnetism, chemical energy, motion and even gravity (though he failed in the
latter; some are still seeking that unification today). Although the unity of
the forces of nature is not a uniquely Christian doctrine (it was also shared by some
ancient Greeks and by modern cosmologists), in Faradays case it provided a
clear instance where belief in creation led directly to outstanding scientific
accomplishment. His confidence in the Biblical worldview is also seen in
his writings about the conservation of force: To admit, indeed, that force
may be destructible or can altogether disappear, would be to admit that matter
could be uncreated.... (Thomas, pp. 101-102).
Moreover, because Faraday loved God, he loved Gods
creation. John Meurig Thomas writes, the beauty of nature, especially
the hills of Devonshire, the vales of South Wales, all the Alpine landscapes
and the seascapes of Brighton or the Isle of Wight, could move him to lyrical
ecstasy. And in contemplating waterfalls, the rainbow or lightning,
his responses were often Wordsworthian, though never expressed in verse
(Thomas, p. 118). No wonder he viewed the pursuit of scientific
discovery as a holy calling, the understanding of nature as a gift of God.
Christian faith was Faradays energy source. His friend and
successor John Tyndall, though a skeptic, could not help but notice:
I think that a good deal of Faradays week-day strength and
persistency might be referred to his Sunday Exercises. He drinks from
a fount on Sunday which refreshes his soul for the week.
That persistency nearly drove him to exhaustion at one point. Faraday
was strong and athletic, but the long hours and stress caught up with him,
producing a period of mental muddiness, as he called it.
His friends insisted he take an extended rest. Would that we all had
the energy of the resting Michael Faraday. Mulfinger writes,
His body was still strong, and when he took a rest in Switzerland when
he was fifty, he took daily walks of thirty miles. His wife worried
about him only on the day he walked forty-five miles.
Faraday lived through the Darwinian revolution, but it never troubled him.
Thomas writes, Serene in the security of his religious conviction,
he was untroubled by the apparent conflict between science and religious
beliefs (apparent being the key word).
Faraday was no easy believer; gullibility was definitely not part of his
character, as judged by his zeal for accuracy in all his measurements and his
reluctance to state a conclusion before proved by experiment.
He angrily scorned the naivete of the spiritualists, for instance.
Speaking of the table-turning craze in his time (a fad that even captivated
the co-discoverer of natural selection, Alfred Russell Wallace)
Faraday scolded with rare impatience, What a
weak, credulous, incredulous, unbelieving, superstitious, bold, frightened,
what a ridiculous world ours is, as far as concerns the mind of man.
How full of inconsistencies, contradictions, and absurdities it is
(Thomas, p. 127).
Yet his confidence in the Word of God was unshakeable. When asked if he
had any speculations about the afterlife, a reporter must have been startled
by his abrupt and firm response: Speculations? I have none. I am resting on
certainties. Quoting I Timothy 1:12 with the apostolic conviction of
St. Paul, he continued, I know whom I have believed,
and am persuaded that he is able to keep that which I have committed unto Him
against that day.
That persuasion carried him into his old age. Michael suffered from
memory loss that began in his twenties and gradually became severe in his
later adulthood. It was not incoherence or mental incompetence, but
simple forgetfulness, perhaps brought on by exposure to mercury or other
lab chemicals. One benefit for historians is that his condition forced
him to write everything down; Faraday left a monumental legacy of letters and
documents that provide glimpses into his character, written with an elegance
and expressiveness that has a hypnotic quality according to Thomas,
and continues to reward the historian of science, kindle the hearts of the
young and to strike sparks in the mind of aspiring and mature scientists
alike (Thomas, p. 95; see Faradays Writings, ch. 5).
Thomas brags on not only the style, but the content, the elegant simplicity
of his arguments written in a magical way that elicits admiration
and conveys information in equal measure.
This is all the more remarkable considering the meagerness of his early
education. Thomas provides some extended quotes to show off this legacy
of literature, which includes 450 original papers and 2000 letters.
Faradays humility and faith shine in his words: There is no hunger
after popular applause, no jealousy of the work of others .... His versatility,
originality, intellectual energy and sheer stamina leave us in awe. There
is also the wonder with which, as a natural philosopher, he is imbued as he
contemplates the world and the forces and mechanisms that hold it together
(Thomas, pp. 96-97). His tactful, self-effacing, thoughtful wordsmithing could calm a
disputatious opponent, gently express righteous indignation, graciously decline
a favor or humbly accept an honor.
In a book review in Nature (29 May 1997, pp. 469-470) celebrating a new
publication of The Correspondence of Michael Faraday, Thomas said,
The letters of Faraday are remarkable not only for their vivacity and
freshness but for their elevated tone and excellent composition
they are true specimens of the lost art of letter-writing.
In his biography, Thomas was especially struck by Faradays gift at
introducing a subject; due to space, one example must suffice:
The science of electricity is that state in which every part of it requires
experimental investigations; not merely for the discovery of new effects,
but what is just now of far more importance, the development of the means
by which the old effects are produced, and the consequence more accurate
determination of the first principles of action of the most extraordinary
and universal power in nature: and to those philosophers who pursue
the inquiry zealously yet cautiously, combining experiment with analogy,
suspicious of their preconceived notions, paying more respect to a fact
than a theory, not too hasty to generalize, and above all things, willing
at every step to cross-examine their own opinions, both by reasoning and
experiment, no branch of knowledge can afford so fine and ready a field
for discovery as this. Such is most abundantly shown to be the case by
the progress which electricity has made in the last thirty years: Chemistry
and Magnetism have successively acknowledged its over-ruling influence;
and it is probable that every effect depending upon the power of inorganic
matter, and perhaps most of those related to vegetable and animal life,
will ultimately be found subordinate to it.
In this prediction and many others, his insight proved correct.
As he aged, his body remained strong, but his memory continued to fail.
Faraday continued lecturing till age 70, but only with difficulty.
He accepted his lot with equanimity and grace. He wrote to a friend,
I am, I hope, very thankful that in the withdrawal of the power and
things of this life,the good hope is left with me, which makes the
contemplation of death a comfortnot a fear. Such peace is alone
in the gift of God, and as it is He who gives it, why shall we be afraid?
His unspeakable gift in His beloved Son is the ground of no doubtful hope;
and there is the rest for those who like you and me are drawing
near the latter end of our terms here below (quoted in Mulfinger, p. 94).
Upon his retirement from the Royal Institution, the queen awarded him and
his wife a house in Hampton Court near the palace, in appreciation for his many
contributions to science. He shrugged off knighthood and requested only
his name be written on his tombstone. One thing he never forgot as the
mental fog crept in was his love for the Lord and confidence of His good
promises. He spent the remaining nine years of his life
at Hampton Court, quietly fading away, looking forward to heaven, which he entered
on August 26, 1867. The world below basks in the light of discoveries made
by plain old Michael Faraday.
Jack Meadows mentions a remarkable footnote that points out Faradays acumen
in scientific deduction. Faraday had secretly deposited a sealed
envelope at the Royal Society, unknown to his contemporaries or anyone for over a
century. In 1937 it was opened. It was then found to contain
a proposal that electromagnetic waves exist which are analogous to waves on
the surface of water, Meadows says. This described qualitatively
what Maxwell predicted quantitatively.
Afterword: Lessons Learned
Undoubtedly you have been encouraged by Faradays story. Not an ounce of
guile or inconsistency mars his memory. We can, however, with the benefit
of hindsight, speculate on some things that might have been. One area of
particular interest to the historian of science is the fact that Faradays life
spanned the Darwinian revolution, the rapid rise of evolutionism and materialism
that in twelve short years (1859-1871) turned the science of the natural
philosophers, mostly Christians, into the science of the skeptics like
Huxley and Haeckel. Even John Tyndall, Faradays admirer and
successor, was part and parcel of the revolution. Faraday personally
knew almost all the great scientists of his day; why did the Darwinian
revolution occur on his watch? Why did his Christian testimony have so
little influence on those who were sowing the seeds of skepticism, atheism,
methodological naturalism, and higher criticism all around him?
For one thing, Faraday was 69 when Darwin published On the Origin of Species;
by then, his memory was severely impaired. Nevertheless, movements
have roots, and throughout the late 18th and early 19th centuries, seeds of
doubt that were to undermine Biblical faith were already growing.
Lyells geological theories had cast doubt on Biblical chronology.
Pre-Darwinian evolutionary tracts and books, like Robert Chambers Vestiges,
were gaining a widespread hearing.
Though Faraday was undoubtedly aware of such skeptical movements, it is
difficult to find any account of Faraday speaking out against them, even
though his outburst over spiritualism shows that he was capable of having
Its troubling to read in an appendix of Thomas biography of
Faraday, that as Director of the Royal Institution, he personally invited a mixed
bag of scientists to give lectures: Christians, like Maxwell, Kelvin, Stokes
and Whewell, but also skeptics, like Tyndall, Lyell and even Darwins bulldog, Thomas
Huxley. Huxley spoke four times at the Institution from 1852 to 1861,
two years after The Origin was published, a year
when England was ablaze with controversy over evolution.
Huxleys 1861 topic was On the nature of the earliest stages of the
development animals. Its not hard to imagine
what Huxley, the most avid popularizer of Darwin in Britain, had to say about that.
In 1855, Faraday wrote a letter to Tyndall that is a model of conciliation
and peacemaking; but within 20 years, this same Tyndall would announce before
the British Association the triumph of scientific naturalism.
Just a few years after Faradays retirement,
his Royal Institution became another mouthpiece of the Darwinians.
In all fairness, the Royal Institution was a non-religious body, and Faraday
had a responsibility to allow leading scientists to speak; inviting a speaker
does not imply endorsement. Yet the silence is puzzling.
Why didnt Faraday speak up, write essays, lecture on science and the
Bible, or do more to prevent the war over science and the nature of reality
that he should have seen coming?
Without having Faraday here to defend himself, it would be unfair to judge his
apparent inaction as real; he may have done and said more than history recorded.
All we can do is argue from the silence, make inferences from rare
quotations, and analyze cultural and political trends of the day.
We have the benefit of hindsight to see the evil fruit these skeptical
trends produced eugenics, Marxism, Nazism, social Darwinism and
higher criticism. To Faraday, they were philosophical
issues bantied about in a culture that still survived by inertia on
Christian presuppositions. Michael Faraday strived to live peaceably,
a good and noble personal goal, but there is a time and place to oppose evil.
Faraday had the gifts and the credibility to help define the issues and
influence the direction of science. He certainly advanced the secular
part of it, and his personal character was impeccable, but the dichotomy between
his church life and scientific life seems almost schizophrenic. It is
regrettable, knowing what followed, that he did not speak and write more on the
Christian philosophy of science and the relation of Biblical faith to scientific
endeavor, or to respond to the increasing arguments favoring naturalistic
evolutionism when it was most needed. He underlined I Timothy 6:20-21 and Romans 1:20
in the privacy of his study, but did he spread the message?
Another factor was the growing acceptance of methodological naturalism
that can be traced to Sir Francis Bacon: the assumption that it is possible,
even desirable, to approach science secularly, to discover truth through the
pure accumulation of empirical facts and making inductive conclusions from
the facts. Presumably, this does not imply metaphysical naturalism,
that nature is all there is. Ultimately, however, the naturalistic method
of science led to scientism, logical positivism and to
the complete takeover of all branches of knowledge, even history and the arts,
by secularists and materialists. The Christian natural philosophers did not predict
this outcome; they thought God was glorified in our discovering the laws of
nature that He had set up. This is a half truth of course the
discovery of Gods natural laws honors His wisdom, but the emphasis on natural
law, and the de-emphasis on His sovereignty and free will, gradually had the
effect of removing the possibility of God intervening in any way in His world.
Nature became the clock that God wound up at the beginning and left to run
down on its own. Ultra-Newtonianism pictured a predictable, clockwork universe
that could be described by equations, provided we knew all the variables.
That such a view of nature is naive and simplistic is acknowledged by most
moderns, but if we transport ourselves to Faradays world, we can understand
the obsession to uncover natural laws a worthy, though incomplete, goal.
John Herschel, William Whewell and others who promoted methodological naturalism
were Christians who believed in an all-wise Creator, but their assumption
nature could be approached inductively without metaphysical presuppositions
denies the Lordship of Christ in all areas of life. Methodological naturalism
works to a point, as when measuring charge, force, temperature and other observable, repeatable causes
and effects, but what are the limits? By not defining the limits of
science, the natural philosophers opened the door for the secularists to consider all fields open
to secular inquiry, even psychology and origins. The intelligent design movement is the latest skirmish in the
battle of worldviews. The secularists think that the universe can
be described fully in terms of particles acting under chance and necessity or
a combination of the two. The design scientists add another fundamental
entity: information. Information is the fingerprint of
designing intelligence that cannot be reduced to natural law. If information
is detectable and conserved, trying to reduce the universe and life to equations
about particles is doomed to failure. William Dembski has diagrammed an
Explanatory Filter that ensures that chance and necessity are given
appropriate consideration as causes, and that information (from an intelligent
designer) is the explanation of last resort. This approach addresses the
concerns of earlier philosophers over God of the gaps explanations,
without reducing science to the art of just-so storytelling in vain
attempts to force evidences of design into the molds of chance and necessity.
In part also and here is a lesson for modern Christians the
Sandemanian church may carry some blame for allowing the Darwinian revolution
to succeed without a fight. They so emphasized
separation from the world, it appears they failed to be the salt
of the earth and light of the world Jesus admonished.
Their members tended to marry within the group. Their beliefs forbade them to fellowship with other
groups of Christians, and frowned on
getting involved in political or social issues. Their faith seemed to be
a personal thing, shared fervently on Sunday and Wednesday nights, but producing little
impact on their community the rest of the week. Undoubtedly they expected
believers to work honestly and diligently in their careers (as Michael Faraday exemplified), but
evangelism did not seem to be a high
priority. Consequently, they never became a large or
This may be an incomplete evaluation of a long-defunct denomination, but why are references
to God, the Bible, Jesus Christ, creation, or any other Biblical theme so
rare in Faradays scientific writings? Is not the author of Scripture
the author of nature? Faraday would certainly have believed it,
and his personal faith is vibrant in his letters,
but it appears he said little about this to his colleagues.
His scientific letters and lecture notes, though imbued with Christian
presuppositions, seem as secular as any. To what extent was Faraday
influenced by his closed-door, uninvolved church? A famous evangelist warned,
It takes evangelistic unction to make orthodoxy function.
The Sandemanian movement stressed orthodoxy, but lacked the unction to share
their faith, and so petered out. The movement would be almost totally forgotten
were it not for their famous member, Michael Faraday. Churches today need
to get their salt out of the shaker. Its savor must flavor every part
of life, including science. Salt stings, but bad things happen when
it is the missing ingredient.
George Mulfinger and Julia Mulfinger Orozco, Christian Men of Science:
Eleven Men Who Changed the World (Ambassador Emerald International, 2001),
Jack Meadows, The Great Scientists: the story of Science told through the
lives of twelve landmark figures (Oxford 1989), ch. 7.
Learn More About|
One of the best Christian biographies of Faraday was written by George Mulfinger
and completed by his daughter, Julia Mulfinger Orozco, as part of the book
Men of Science.
The book The
Great Scientists by Jack Meadows has a whole chapter on Faraday.
This book is worthwhile not only for the detailed informtion, but for the many
illustrations, rare photos and timelines. Meadows seems fair with the
Christian influence on science, and has a page on Nonconformist Protestant
of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) has an article by Robert D. Friedel
called Lines and Waves that tells about the life and discoveries of both
Faraday and Maxwell.
Visit the Royal Institution of
Great Britain where Michael Faraday made his discoveries, and where
Lectures continue the tradition begun by Faraday.
The Ri Heritage
Section has a Faraday
Page with a biography, summary of Faraday correspondence, and gallery of
photos of actual devices used by Faraday.
The Royal Institution also hosts
the Davy Faraday Research Laboratory
named after its two most illustrious leaders, Sir Humphrey Davy and Michael
Read Faradays own words: Here are his 1859
Lectures on the
Forces of Matter and his famous childrens Christmas lecture,
History of a Candle.
The Faraday Project
has a list of links on Faraday.
Here is a brief history of the Sandemanian
(Glasite) Church, its relationships, and how it went extinct.
1791 - 1871
Theres a humorous scene in the movie Back to the Future III, in which
Doc operates a crazy contraption he had built in a barn. He and Marty had
been transported back from 1985 to the Old West. He asks Marty to turn
a valve, then he pulls a lever on the large wooden machine. Marty watches
quizzically as wheels turn, gears engage, steam hisses, and all kinds of
racket ensues. Finally, as Doc proudly smiles, an ice cube tumbles down a chute
into his cup of tea. Go back even further in time, and a contraption even more amazing,
though never built, was conceived in the mind of our scientist of the month, a genius
named Charles Babbage. Like Doc, he appears like a man trapped in the wrong century,
because he envisioned not the first ice cube maker, but the first general
purpose computer in 1832!. This is one of historys classic if only
stories. If only Babbage had finished it, if only the British government
had approved the funding he needed, then Windows 98 might have
been Windows 1898. Despite this failure, Charles Babbage did succeed
in many things, and was always strong in his Christian faith during a period of
tremendous intellectual and social change in Britain.
Born in 1791 as son of a wealthy banker, young Charles grew in love with
mathematics, a subject he nearly taught himself: in fact, he could have taught his
tutors. He excelled to the point of occupying the Lucasian Chair of Mathematics
at Cambridge for 11 years, the same position Newton had held. In personality,
Babbage was too smart for the common people. Like cowboys trying to figger
a scientific genius, they thought him stuffy, arrogant and eccentric.
His obsession with facts, figures and statistics contributed to his geek
reputation; he might be found measuring the amount of food consumed by zoo
animals, the proportion of sexes among poultry, or the causes of broken windows,
which he wrote up in a Table of the Relative Frequency of the Causes of
Breaking of Plate Glass Windows (conclusion: drunks and boys cause 3%).
Like a good Baconian, Babbage believed
facts were worth collecting and preserving, because the preservation of any
fact might ultimately be useful and he wanted to set an example others might
emulate. Unfortunately, he expected everyone to
possess his basic civility and honesty; such naivete predisposed him to victimization.
Socially, Babbage had friends in high places and got along with his intellectual colleagues,
but stupid and thoughtless people irritated him: street musicians, especially.
When he tried to get them outlawed, because they ruined his concentration, the
townspeople retaliated by
tormenting him mercilessly, purposely playing out-of-tune violins, tin whistles,
and brass instruments outside his windows.
This went on for years. The rabble who considered him a grouchy
recluse or an old villain did not know
they were harassing one of the intellectual geniuses of the 19th century,
a man their descendants would honor (too late for Babbages own satisfaction)
as a seminal figure in the development of the computer.
Charles Babbage turned his mathematical genius to many things.
He believed in practical science. A railroad aficionado when the technology
was young, he invented the first cowcatcher in Britain, and applied his statistical
knowledge to argue for standardized wide gauge track. The industrial
revolution was in full swing during his prime. Babbage became the worlds
first efficiency expert. He is considered a pioneer of a field that,
100 years later during World War II, became extremely important for industry and
the military: Operations Research, the mathematical study of
how to get the most productivity in the shortest time at the lowest cost.
Babbage was hired to advise the government on postal rates. His analysis,
like modern time and motion
studies, demonstrated that a flat rate stamp was the best fee for moving mail
efficiently. The idea seems contrary to
common sense; why should someone sending a letter across town have to pay the
same price as someone sending it across the country? Nevertheless, he showed
that it made economic and practical sense, and today we still enjoy the benefits
of that research. Babbage also invented an opthalmoscope (a device for
examining the interior of the eye), a skeleton key, and a speedometer.
The story of his computer is a tale often told. Its an
interesting and complex mix of
genius, politics, love and frustration. In 1827, Babbage received government
funding to build a machine for the construction of mathematical tables.
As construction began on the project, he found he had to design many of his own
tools. Disputes with contractors frustrated him. Worse, before he
completed a working model of his proposed Difference Engine,
he conceived of an even better one, which he dubbed the Analytical Engine,
and changed plans midstream.
By this point he calculated it would cost more to complete the old model than
to begin the new one, but this was a hard sell in Parliament;
politicians were understandably reluctant to release more
funds when there was nothing to show for the money already spent. Though Babbage
never profited monetarily from the invention, one politician railed, We have
got nothing for our £17,000 than Mr. Babbages grumblings.
(What Babbage possessed in intelligence, apparently, he lacked in diplomacy and the art of
We should at least have had a clever toy for our money, his political
enemy continued. Sir George Airy, an astronomer, dubbed the contraption worthless
and it didnt help that Britain was in the woes of a depression in the 1840s.
Babbage did have one ardent supporter, however. After his wife
died at age 35 in 1827, Babbage developed a Platonic friendship with Lady Ada
Augusta, Countess of Lovelace, the daughter of poet Lord Byron. Her enthusiasm
for the project matched his, and she helped him keep the dream alive.
Some have called her the first computer programmer (a bit of a stretch), since she
wrote some sample problems the engine might solve. And what an engine it
would have been: a complicated contraption of gears, levers, wheels, rods, cylinders
and racks, all driven by steam. Babbage was inspired by the Jacquard Loom,
a French invention that wove complex patterns in cloth with the use of punched
cards. Babbage incorporated punched cards into his design. He envisioned
his engine as being programmable such that it could solve any problem, even calculus
using Newtons method of numerical approximation. Lovelace envisioned it
someday composing music or generating graphics. Consider how far ahead
of his time his design was: it would be fully programmable, have input, a central
processor, memory, and a printer for output all worked out in Babbages
head long before these became everyday concepts. Despite 50 years of work on this idea,
Babbage was to die in obscurity in 1871, nearly forgotten by his
countrymen. His drawings and descriptions gathered dust despite a feeble posthumous
attempt by his son to build the Analytical Engine. (It is rumored that Bill Gates
bid on this device when it was auctioned recently for $300,000.)
Babbage, though embittered in old age at short-sighted politicians, never lost
confidence that his idea was a good one
and that its eventual success and benefit for humanity was only a matter of time.
Steps toward fulfillment of the general-purpose computer were slow at first.
Punched cards became important in the early 20th century after
Herman Hollerith employed them for the U.S. Census in 1890, and later founded a
company that in later years defined the cutting edge of computer technology:
International Business Machines, or IBM.
John Hudson Tiner describes the delayed renaissance of Babbages vision:
In 1937, Howard H. Aiken, a student at Harvard University, came across Babbages
description of the analytical engine. He caught the enthusiasm Babbage had
for creating a calculating machine.
And the rest, as they say, is history.
Technology had improved enough to do it. Aiekn, working with
IBM, constructed Mark I, the first general-purpose calculating machine.
An electronic computer replaced it a few years later. Charles Babbage
had been a hundred years ahead of his time.
As for his personal faith, Charles Babbage believed the Bible and
was convinced that science and faith were not in conflict. He was close friends
with other Christian intellectuals of the day, including
John Herschel and William Whewell. Sadly, he was also undiscerningly cozy with
liberal religious scientists like Charles Lyell, whose work he admired, unaware of the
erosion of faith Lyells doctrine of uniformitarianism and long ages would cause
for many believers, especially the young Charles Darwin.
Nevertheless, Babbage strongly supported the pre-Darwinian belief in Natural
Theology, the proposition (as fully expounded by William Paley) that design in nature
demands a Designer. That Babbage identified that Designer as the God of the Bible
is clear, because he fully accepted the miraculous resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Tiner says that While a student at Cambridge, Charles Babbage met with
others who were Christians. They resolved to dedicate their lives to God.
The Earl of Bridgewater had left a sum of money in his will to
direct leading scientists to write treatises for the purpose of advancing arguments
in favour of Natural Religion. By the time Babbage was 46 and fully
involved in developing his calculating machine, eight
prominent British scientists had published their entries in what had become a
well-known and popular set of books, the Bridgewater Treatises.
The suite included works by the Rev. Dr. Thomas
Chalmers on The Adaptation of External Nature to the Intellectual and
Moral Constitution of Man, William Buckland on geology, William Whewell
on astronomy and physics, William Kirby on zoology, John Kidd on the same subject
as Chalmers, Charles Bell on design in the human hand, and Peter Mark Roget on
animal and vegetable physiology. Perhaps Babbage felt the series need a
ninth, like the Beethoven Symphonies, so in 1837 he added his own unofficial
submission. He said,
I have, however, thought, that in furthering the intentions of the testator,
by publishing some reflections on that subject, I might be permitted to connect with
them a title which has now become familiarly associated, in the public mind, with
the evidences in favour of Natural Religion.
Employing his skill at mathematics and statistics, Babbage tackled the
subject of the Biblical miracles: specifically, to counter the arguments of
David Hume who had called miracles violations of natural law, and therefore
impossible. Though slightly off topic
from the rest of the series, Babbage felt I was led so irresistibly, by the
very nature of the illustrations employed in the former argument [of the first
eight treatises], to the view there
proposed, that I trust to being excused for having ventured one step beyond the
strict limits of that argument, by entering on the first connecting link between
natural religion and revelation. In other words, he wanted to take the
arguments of natural theology beyond the conclusion of an unspecified Designer, and link them to the
historical accounts in Scripture. Babbage set out to prove mathematically
that the Biblical miracles were not necessarily violations of natural law.
Babbages Ninth Bridgewater Treatise (hereafter, NBT) is available online
and makes for interesting reading, especially for those who admire the recondite and
embellished prose of the Victorian intelligentsia. Some caveats must be noted,
however; with the benefit of historical hindsight. It is obvious that Babbage was
(as we must confess ourselves to be) a product of his times.
First, as mentioned before, Babbage uncritically
accepted the old-earth arguments of Lyell, which were becoming popular at the time,
as irrefutable scientific facts. He speaks, for instance, of the facts in which all
capable of investigation agreefacts which it is needless to recite, they having
been so fully and ably stated in the works of Mr. Lyell and Dr. Buckland
that indicate distant and successive periods. Babbage conflated the
facts of nature with the interpretations imposed on those facts.
To Babbage, the existence of fossils and geological strata provided a clear,
unmistakeable record of vast ages of time that was so obvious, one would have to
make leave of his senses to deny it. If Babbage could have learned contrary evidence that large
deposits of strata and fossils could have formed rapidly, indeed must have,
including formations that some geologists long claimed must have required millions
of years, such as the Redwall Limestone in Grand Canyon, it might have tempered his
dogmatism. Instead, jumping on the Lyellian bandwagon forced Babbage to
conform the Bible to these facts of nature rather than trust the authority
of Scripture and doubt the fallible interpretations of man a fallacy made by some
creationists today. Predictably, therefore, we find Babbage in NBT making excuses for
why the Genesis creation account might not mean what it clearly says. In Chapter IV of his
treatise, he argues that we cannot trust the transmission or translation of the ancient texts of
Genesis to be accurate. Arguments like this, unfortunately, hand skeptics
the rope to hang all of Christianity: if we cannot trust what the Bible says about the
history of the world, how can we trust its claims about eternal life? Though
his doubt apparently applies only to the early chapters of Genesis, since he appears
to find the rest of the text reliable, he should have known that science has
very limited interpretive validity when investigating the unobservable past, and is
frequently wrong. And why did he not tremble to contradict Jesus Christ, who
treated the writings of Moses, including the creation account, as historically fact?
This leads to a second caveat: the myth of scientific progress.
Babbage wrote like a positivist, assuming, as was common in Victorian
Britain, that science was an upward, progressive path to nearly infallible truth. It was
easy to fall into this assumption, seeing the progress taking place rapidly all around
during the Industrial Revolution. Victorians were obsessed with progress,
and since so much of the progress was due to scientific discovery, it was easy to
grant science more powers than it can muster. Babbage did not have our vantage
point, with two world wars, the atomic bomb, the Darwinian Revolution, Social
Darwinism, eugenics and many other fatal evidences that science is not the
value-free, objective, progressive enterprise he assumed it to be.
Babbage knew nothing of Kuhn, Popper and the
revolutions in scientific philosophy that have made moderns (and
post-moderns) demote science from unwarranted exaltation. Nor did he foresee
how the Darwinian Revolution and the rise of Big Science institutions would trample the very Biblical faith
he professed. One must read the NBT, and any other writings of the time,
with the maturity of hindsight.
A third caveat regards Babbages position on natural law.
Nineteenth century scientists were obsessed with natural law; Newton, the British hero,
had demonstrated that nature ran with clockwork regularity that could be described
in mathematical terms. Newtons successors extrapolated the
faith far beyond what Newton himself believed, to the point where Enlightenment
scientists and thinkers of the late 18th and early 19th centuries subjugated all
of reality to natural laws, inviolable, and presumably as simple and
straightforward as Newtons laws of motion. The search for natural
laws got out of control. By the end of the 19th
century, Freud was searching for natural laws of human behavior; others were
seeking to describe biology and earth history with equations. They could
not have known that the 20th century would bring quantum mechanics, relativity,
and chaos theory. Ultra-Newtonianism, expressed in LaPlaces claims that could
one know the motions of all particles, one could predict the future, was dealt a
death blow by Heisenbergs Uncertainty Principle, which revealed a fundamental
unpredictability in the very fabric of physics.
Scientists today despair of finding laws of planet formation or animal behavior
or human psychology that would allow them to predict such phenomena with any
meaningful degree of accuracy. The
faith lives on among some cosmologists who believe that one day scientists will derive
a Grand Unified Theory of Everything, a set of physical laws that will describe the universe.
Many philosophers today, however, believe this to be a chasing after wind.
A bizarre example of Babbages faith in Newtonianism can be
seen in chapter IX of NBT, in which Babbage claims that every word we utter is
indelibly impressed on the earth, according to the law of action and reaction.
He believed anything anyone ever said could be retrieved if we had instruments sensitive enough.
Working just before Thomson, Maxwell, Carnot and other scientists who were developing
the laws of thermodynamics and entropy, Babbage was unaware there could be limits
on the reversibility of natural processes; therefore, as one biographer notes,
information cannot be shuttled between mill and store without leaking.
The law of increasing entropy leads to irreversible processes, one consequence
being that information uttered into the world can be irretrievably lost.
When the reader understands where Babbage is coming from, he can find
much of value in the Ninth Bridgewater
Treatise. Most interesting is his rebuttal to
the arguments of David Hume (1711-1776), the skeptical philosopher who had created
quite a stir with his seemingly
persuasive argument against miracles. Again, it was based on the Newtonian obsession with
natural law. Hume argued that it is more probable that those claiming to have
seen a miracle were either lying or deceived than that the regularity of nature had
been violated. Babbage knew a lot more about the mathematics of probability
than Hume. In chapter X of NBT, Babbage applied numerical values to the
question, chiding Hume for his subjectivity. A quick calculation proves that
if there were 99 reliable witnesses to the resurrection of a man from the dead
(and I Corinthians 15:6 claims there were over 500), the probability is a trillion
to one against the falsehood of their testimony, compared to the probability of one in 200 billion against
anyone in the history of the world having been raised from the dead. This simple
calculation shows it takes more faith to deny the miracle than to accept the testimony of
eyewitnesses. Thus Babbage renders specious Humes assertion that the
improbabiliy of a miracle could never be overcome by any number of witnesses.
Apply the math, and the results do not support that claim, Babbage says:
From this it results that, provided we assume that independent witnesses can be
found of whose testimony it can be stated that it is more probable that it is true
than that it is false, we can always assign a number of witnesses which will,
according to Humes argument, prove the truth of a miracle. (Italics
in original.) Babbage takes his conquest of Hume so far that by Chapter XIII,
he argues that It is more probable
that any law, at the knowledge of which we have arrived by observation, shall be
subject to one of those violations which, according to Humes definition,
constitutes a miracle, than that it should not be so subjected.
The heart of NBT is an argument that miracles do not violate natural
law, using Babbages own concept of a calculating machine. This forms
an engaging thought experiment. With his own Analytical Engine undoubtedly fresh on his mind, he
asks the reader to imagine a calculating engine that might show very predictable
regularity, even for billions of iterations, such as a machine that counts integers.
Then imagine it suddenly jumps to another natural law, which again repeats itself
with predictable regularity. If the designer of the engine had made it that
way on purpose, it would show even more intelligent design than if it only
continued counting integers forever. Babbage extends his argument through
several permutations, to the point where he convinces the reader that it takes
more intelligence to design a general purpose calculating engine that can operate
reliably according to multiple natural laws, each known to the designer, each
predictable by the designer, than to design a simple machine that mindlessly
clicks away according to a single law. So here we see Babbage employing his
own specialty the general-purpose calculating machine to argue his
point. He concluded, therefore, as he reiterated in his later autobiographical
work Passages from the Life of a Philosopher (1864), miracles are not
the breach of established laws, but... indicate the existence of far
higher laws. (Note again the obsession with natural laws.)
Since some might argue his view is just as deterministic as Newtonianism,
Babbage devotes a chapter to explaining why his view does not lead to fatalism. He also briefly
touches on the question of free will (Chapters III, XV), though he declines to
become embroiled in that abstruse discussion.
His calculating engine analogy is intriguing despite possible theological problems it might raise.
Today it might best be suited for convincing a modern Newtonian that
miracles can be scientific; they are not necessarily violations of natural law.
Otherwise, NBT is very much a product of its time, with a weak view of Scripture,
but valuable for its thought experiments and glimpses into the mind of Charles
Babbage himself. At the more mature age of 73, Babbage wrote,
Almost all thinking men who have studied the laws which govern the
animate and inanimate world around us, agree that the belief in the existence of one
Supreme Creator, possessed of infinite wisdom and power, is open to far less
difficulties than the supposition of the absence of any cause, or of the existence
of a plurality of causes.
Charles Babbage stood shoulder to shoulder with the leading scientists
of Britain. He was a principal founder of the Royal Astronomical Society
and the British Association for the Advancement of Science, and promulgated the
improvement of British science and mathematics. John Hudson
Tiner says of him, and his Cambridge fellow students who had resolved to dedicate their
lives to God, that They agreed to strive to leave the world a better place than
they had found it. Babbage certainly did that. He had his
idiosyncrasies, as would be expected of a visionary and genius, and modern creationists
might decry what his Victorian weak view of Scripture did to Christianity in later
years. But there can be little doubt Charles Babbage intended his words and his
works to glorify God as Creator, and that he tried
to live and work according to his sincerely held Christian principles.
His life also exemplifies the point of this series. Look at the most eminent and
influential scientists in history, and they overwhelmingly were Christians and
creationists. Let the computer you are using to read this story be an ever
present reminder of that fact.
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(to be continued)
1797 - 1878
Question: Which of the following institutions is led by a born-again,
Bible-believing Christian who prays for guidance and accepts the Biblical
creation account as true?
If its the 19th century, it is all of the above. These distinguished
positions were held by one man: Joseph Henry. Remarkably, these honors are less
important than the scientific contributions made by one of Americas foremost early scientists.
- Smithsonian Institution
- American Association for the Advancement of Science
- Princeton University science department
- National Academy of Sciences
1. Smithsonian. Joseph Henry was the first Secretary and Director of the
Smithsonian in 1846. (James Smithson, a British scientist, had established in
his will that his estate should go to the United States of America, to found
at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an establishment
for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.
By the time of the appointment, in his fifties, Henry was considered one of Americas
leading scientists, and well deserving of the honor. His work helped build the
reputation of the Smithsonian as a world class institution of science, history and art
(for background, see the
particularly the part about
During his tenure at the
Smithsonian, Joseph Henry was an advisor to
President Abraham Lincoln on the use of ironclad ships, served on
numerous governmental advisory boards, began projects that led to the establishment
of the U.S. Weather Bureau, and encouraged the building of Lick Observatory in
California. He built a telegraphic network for monitoring weather around
the country. He projected the suns disk onto a white screen and
discovered that sunspots are cooler than their surroundings. He did much
to put the Smithsonian on a strong footing and to promote the rapid dissemination
of scientific knowledge. Today, the Smithsonian is the largest complex of
museums in the world.
2. AAAS. In 1848, Joseph Henry was a founding member of the
for the Advancement of Science. Though known today for its
pro-Darwin advocacy and anti-creationism, several of the founding fathers,
including Henry, Louis Agassiz, Benjamin Silliman and James Dwight Dana were
3. Princeton. Joseph Henry was a distinguished professor at
from 1832 to 1846.
4. NAS. Henry was an original member of the
National Academy of
Sciences and served as its second President from 1868 till his
death in 1878.
Now that his credentials are beyond question, who was Joseph Henry, and what did
he believe? Henry has been called the American Faraday, because
like Michael, he was raised in poverty yet became a great scientist. Similarly
scatterbrained as a boy, without a clue to the direction his life would take,
Henry discovered the world of science by reading books. Like Faraday, he had
a mind that could tackle a problem methodically and reduce ideas to their basic
simplicity. Henrys Smithsonian
rivaled the prestige of Faradays Royal Institution. Even more coincidental,
his discoveries overlapped those of his British counterpart. In fact,
when Henry met Faraday in 1837, he taught him a thing or two about electricity.
He did a demonstration of self-induction to Faraday and Wheatstone that led Faraday
to clap his hands in delight and exclaim, Hurrah for the Yankee experiment!
(Wilson, p. 63).
Joseph Henry had a penchant for making important scientific discoveries for which others
got the credit. He actually
discovered electromagnetic induction before Faraday, but because Faraday published
it first, history rewards him for discovering this most important principle that,
according to the
practically created electrical engineering.
Priority in discovery was a big thing to
a scientist then, as it is now; finding out a European had beat him to the press
was a deep disappointment to Henry, something
he regretted the rest of his life. But he
was such a perfectionist, and had been so busy with his teaching responsibilities at Princeton
he had not had time to publish the discovery till the following summer vacationtoo late.
He almost gave up publishing his electromagnetic experiments at all. If it
hadnt been for Benjamin Sillimans encouragement, history might have
lost the record of the American scientists discoveries.
Added to that, he anticipated Samuel F. B. Morse by
at least five years by creating the electromagnetic relay and constructing a
telegraph with it. He even shared it with Morse and Wheatstone (inventor of the
British telegraph), and they both used it, and got the credit for inventing the
As if that were not enough, he essentially discovered the transmission of radio
waves half a century before Hertz did, and had made a statement before
that the propagation of electricity through space was identical to that of
light. Because these discoveries were
published late in obscure journals, he seemed doomed to be the overlooked winner
watching others get the blue ribbons.
If for nothing else, he is credited with the discovery of self-induction
(the magnetic effect of a current on itself), and the
unit of induction the henry (plural, henries) was named after him.
In spite of his prestigious appointments later in life,
recognition for Henrys fundamental contributions to electromagnetism
was a long time in coming. Even today he is lesser known than his peers.
Mitchell Wilson wrote that much of the knowledge that
bridged Benjamin Franklins experiments and James Clerk Maxwells
electromagnetic theory was gathered by one manJoseph Henry, in the 15
years between 1829 to 1844. Why was he not recognized? To the
Europeans, he was ignored because he was an American; to his fellow Americans,
his friends mistook his scientific idealism for lack of the American
spirit. Wilson continues, Not until after he was dead and
the contemporaries of his youth were gone did younger men realize that he had
been a giant and that the considerable fame he had achieved during the latter
half of his life had been for the least of his works.
The Smithsonian is trying to correct these oversights through its
Joseph Henry Papers Project,
where some of his writings are being published; they even cataloged
after him, such as the
in Utah, the SS Henry Liberty ship and Cape Henry at the North Pole.
Joseph Henry was born into a Scots Presbyterian family of little means, and
held strong religious beliefs, according to a book review printed in Nature
30 April 1998. As to his beliefs and character, some quotes found on the
Joseph Henry Papers
Project provide glimpses:
If we act conscientiously and faithfully, endeavouring before God to do
our duty, the result in the long run cannot be otherwise than good.
...he has not lived in vain who leaves behind him as his successor a
child better educated morally, intellectually, and physically than himself.
I am a sensitive man, perhaps nervously so, and though I have not been
insensible to the value of true fame, and have striven to connect my name with
the history of the science of this country, I have shrunk from notoriety and
have neither coveted nor sought popular applause.
God has created man in his own intellectual image, and graciously permitted
him to study His modes of operation, and rewards his industry in this line by
giving him powers and instruments which affect in the highest degree his
How short the space between the two cardinal points of an earthly career,
the point of birth and that of death; and yet what a universe of wonders are
presented to us in our rapid flight through this space.
Let the fact be constantly before our minds not to lessen our interest in
the affairs of this life but to render us less anxious as to the events of
this world whether they turn out for our advantage or not or how long we may
be permitted to remain on Earth. Let us put our trust more fully than
ever in Him who will order all things for the best who put full reliance on Him.
Let us labor like servants who are certainly and shortly to give an account
of their stewardship diligently seeking to know our duty and faithfully and
fearlessly strive to do it; constantly mindful of the fact that nothing but
purity of heart is acceptable to God and that we are constantly in his presence
and known to him are all our thoughts and intentions however they may be
hid from our fellow men.
The great object of the Bible is the revelation of moral, not physical
truth, and that of Physical Science the discovery of physical law, not
Again when we pass from the phenomena of life to those of mental and moral
emotions, we enter a region of still more absolute mystery, in which our light
becomes darkness and we are obliged to bow in profound humiliation,
acknowledging that the highest flights of science can only reach the threshold
of the temple of faith.
Knowledge to be converted into wisdom must be made our own.
More than a thousand words could, this anecdote found by Henry
Morris (Men of Science, Men of God, p. 49) speaks volumes about
Joseph Henry, the man:
He was also a devout Christian, making it a regular practice to stop,
to worship God, and then to pray for divine guidance at every important
juncture of the experiment.
Mitchell Wilson, Joseph Henry, Scientific Genius and
Creativity, Readings from Scientific American (W. H. Freeman and Co.,
New York, 1952, 1987), ch. 8.
Henry Morris, Jr., Men of Science, Men of God (Master Books, 1988), p. 49.
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An internet search will reveal a great deal about Joseph Henry. Here are some samples.
Find out whats happening at
Joseph Henry Papers Project. See also this book,
The Joseph Henry Papers.
has a short biography with links to other articles.
About the Smithsonian and its first leader:
Magazine has an article on Joseph Henrys Legacy by L. Michael Heyman,
Secretary. The National Park
Service can give you a tour of the Castle where Joseph Henry worked.
website tells about the birth of the institution and its illustrious first Secretary (chief
Herbert S. Bailey wrote a short biography at
Find the Henry Mountains on a stunning aerial map of Utah made by
A. Bowen, retired geography professor at Cal State University, Northridge.
It might inspire you to go hiking in the
Henry Mountains Wilderness Area
and help keep it protected.
Learn about the ranges human
history and natural
history of this remote area. The website tantalizes, The Henry Mountains and the surrounding
deserts are located in central Utah. Here, almost 2 million acres of public land
are administered by the Bureau of Land Management. There is a wide variety of
outstanding recreational opportunities including, hunting, hiking, camping, sightseeing,
photography, and nature study available for those who are willing to seek them out.
Maybe this Photo
Gallery will entice you, especially
James Prescott Joule
1818 - 1889
If any principle in science deserves to be called a law,
what would it be? Undoubtedly, the law of conservation of
matter and energy: neither of these fundamental entities
can be created or destroyed. Also known as the first
law of thermodynamics, this law has no known exceptions anywhere
in the universe. Whoever discovered
this law must have been a scientist of the highest rank, a PhD,
director of a reputable university research department,
respected the world over, and interred in Westminster Abbey, right?
Actually, he was none of the above. For him, science was just a
hobby. He had trouble getting his ideas published.
Professional scientists looked down on him, and were it not for the help
of a friend, his work might have been lost in obscurity. Yet his
experimental procedures and measurements were of the highest caliber,
and the principles he deduced from them are of fundamental importance.
They helped shape our modern world, and every housekeeper is a beneficiary
of the discoveries he made. Units and laws of physics were named
after this somewhat reserved, unassuming, serious-minded citizen
scientist by the name of James Prescott Joule.
Second son of a wealthy brewer in England, James Joule was home-schooled
till age 15. He was not a spoiled rich kid, even though he could spend a
workmans annual income on a painting if he wanted it (and once did).
James loved playing outdoors with older brother Benjamin and younger brother John.
Together they engaged in the typical boyish amusements
like playing guns, rowing on the lake, climbing hills and throwing snowballs.
Their play included observational skills like measuring the depth of a lake,
estimating the distance to a lightning bolt by timing the thunder, and using electricity
to see if a lame horses muscle would jump. Once as a young man he stuffed a pistol with
three times the normal charge trying to get a better echo across the water; J. G.
Crowther describes the scene: His brother was startled by a tremendous report
and when he turned round he found that James pistol had jumped out of his
hand into the lake. At another time he shot off his own eyebrows.
Boys will be boys, but at least theirs were not idle minds.
The brothers had a variety of interests; Benjamin was an enthusiastic musician,
and James developed skill in painting and photography; he even collected art.
At 16, James had been sent to Cambridge and was tutored for a time by John Dalton,
the elderly Quaker scientist considered to be the
father of modern atomic theory. Spurred by in an interest in science,
and having the family wealth at his disposal, James took a keen interest
in devising experiments to measure things: heat, energy, motion, electrical
currents, magnetism and gas pressures. Like Faraday, he expected to
find simple laws that governed diverse natural phenomena, a motivation
that derived from strong theological beliefs.
Throughout his twenties, working at his fathers brewery,
young James Joule was actively demonstrating through a series of clever
experiments that different forms of energy were related.
For instance, he measured the temperature of water being forced through
narrow holes in a piston. He measured electrical current and heat output
from an electromagnet that spun as he turned a crank. And he
measured the temperature of water and sperm whale oil as paddles turned, powered
by falling weights, proving that heat output was equivalent to the mechanical
energy input. The precision of his measurements was remarkable,
sometimes measuring temperatures accurate to a 30th of a degree.
His numerous creative
experiments convinced him that all forms of energy were equivalent,
to the point where he said in 1843 at age 24, I shall lose no time
in repeating and extending these experiments, being satisfied that the
grand agents of nature are by the Creators fiat, indestructible;
and that wherever mechanical force is expended, an exact equivalent of
heat is always obtained.
Joule had discovered the mechanical equivalent of heat, but the scientific
community was not ready to accept it. Though the phlogiston theory
of heat had been discredited by the late 1700s, heat was still considered a
property of a body, not a form of energy released by work in converting
one form of energy to another.
In 1843, he journeyed to Cork and read
a paper describing his experiments to the Chemical Section of the
British Association, but he says,
the paper did not excite much attention, except for two who
were interested. Polite disdain, perhaps, but in retrospect,
J. G. Crowther, author of British scientists of the 19th Century,
thinks more highly of it:
Reynolds [biographer of Joule, Memoirs, 1892] considers the experiments
described in this paper were technically
the most difficult that had ever been accomplished by a physicist.
They are certainly unsurpassed in the history of science.
Crowther finds it remarkable that young Joule was so meticulous
in measuring things, because young scientists are nearly always
impatient of measurement. Joule had the middle-aged passion of
measurement from his earliest youth. His notes are equally
meticulous, orderly and filled with profound insight into the implications
of the measurements. He wrote other papers during his twenties,
one comparing the capabilities of electromagnets, steam and horses as
sources of motive power. At age 28, his genius matured with a
lecture that contained a philosophical statement of the law of conservation
The combination of superb experimental skill with clear
thought and philosophical depth makes this paper the finest expression
of Joules genius. He was twenty-four years of age, and had
been engaged in research for five years. Though he was friendly
with Dalton, Scoresby, Davies and others, he had worked in extraordinary
intellectual independence. His chief supports were his own genius
and his father, who, to his memorable credit, liberally financed his
In a groundbreaking lecture, Joule stated that bodies carry with them a living
force of inertia, and it cannot be destroyed though that was the common
opinion of philosophers. Friction does not destroy it, or
the earth would have come to a standstill long ago, he said.
Rather than being destroyed, it was transformed into another thing when
it disappears: that thing is heat. He had proved experimentally
that heat and work are equivalent and can be converted one to the
other. Joule demonstrated his grasp of this laboratory principle
by extending it to the motion of the earth, the burning of meteors,
the motion of the trade winds and the heat generated by motion of our
limbs, as when a man ascends a mountain. Joule showed how his
dynamical theory of heat explains melting, latent heat, evaporation,
and much more. We may conceive, then, that the communication
of heat to a body consists, in fact, in the communication of impetus,
or living force, to its particles.
Crowther is unreserved about the import of this lecture: He
had discovered the law as the outcome of a long series of completely
conclusive experiments. He had conceived it clearly and powerfully,
and applied it with much imagination. So where was this
epochal lecture On Matter, Living Force, and Heat delivered?
At the Royal Society or the British Association? No: at St. Annes
Church in Manchester, and Joule had trouble getting it published.
The Manchester Guardian only wanted to print excerpts of their
choosing. James needed his brothers persuasion to convince
the Manchester Courier to print it, which they did in two parts
in May, 1847. Since it was published in a newspaper instead of
the scientific journals, it went virtually unnoticed for 37 years.
The month following the publication of this lecture, Joule had an
opportunity to address the British Association about his experiments
on the mechanical equivalent of heat. As Joules
previous papers had raised little interest, the chairman of his
section requested him to confine himself to a short verbal description
of his experiments, writes Crowther. A contemporary
described James Joule as under the medium height; that he was somewhat stout and
rounded in figure; that his dress, though neat, was commonplace in
the extreme, and that his attitude and movements were possessed of
no natural grace, while his manner was somewhat nervous, and he
possessed no great facility in speech. So the short
and stout and nervous Joule endeavored to make it quick, and
commented that the communication would have passed without
comment if a young man had not risen in the section, and by his
intelligent observations created a lively interest in the new
theory. That man was William Thomson the future
Lord Kelvin (our next story).
Though Thomson was seven years his junior, he had the connections
to bring James Joule into scientific circles. Their collaboration
developed into a lifelong friendship. About a week after this meeting,
Joule married Amelia Grimes, daughter of a city official.
Thomson was surprised another week later to
run into Joule near Mont Blanc, and find him with a lady, not knowing he
was getting married, and here he and his bride were on their honeymoon.
He was probably more surprised to see him with a long thermometer in his
hand. Joule explained that he wanted to measure the temperature elevation in
waterfalls, so Thomson offered to join the fun and help him a few days later
with this project, another demonstration of the mechanical equivalent of heat.
Unfortunately, they found their chosen cascade too broken up into spray
to get good data.
Was Amelia put off by this intrusion into their romantic vacation?
Not at all; Crowther writes, His young wife, as long as she lived,
took complete interest in his scientific work.
Amelia died in 1854 after just seven years of marriage, having given birth to a son and a
daughter. James took the children with him to live with his father, but soon
experienced other losses; his father died in 1858, and in the same year,
James was a victim of a train derailment when a stray cow got onto the tracks.
The carriage in which he had been reading a mathematics book overturned,
and he had to crawl out for his life only to
find the engine men nonchalantly eating their dinner, apparently unconcerned
that three people had died in the accident. This made him somewhat
phobic about riding trains from then on. In 1864, his younger brother died.
In spite of these traumas, his collaboration with Thomson grew productive
and soon yielded more discoveries of fundamental importance.
Joule respected Thomsons mathematical abilities, and tended to play
second-fiddle to the Glasgow professor, acting as his chief laboratory assistant,
even though he possessed enough of his own genius to be his peer. Perhaps
physical or psychological ill-health from recent trials affected his self
confidence. Nevertheless, they made a great team. Do you like
having a refrigerator in the kitchen? Heres the story; it comes
right out of this historic collaboration, and it took Joule seven years of difficult - and
dangerous - experiments. The new theory of thermodynamics was driving
physics at the time; Joule and Thomson were at the crest of the wave.
Joule measured air as it compressed and expanded, and found that it departed just slightly from
Boyles Law for an ideal gas. From this, they deduced that air
should cool slightly if allowed to expand through a small hole without
performing any work. Thomson suggested Joule prove this with experiments.
Small-scale tests showed promise, but Joule decided he needed a bigger
apparatus powered by a 3-horsepower steam engine to get more reliable
measurements. The Royal Society provided the
funds, and the machine was built. For the first year, he was able
to operate it at the family brewery. But in 1854 the brewery was sold, so he had
to move the contraption to his house, with some of it sticking out in the open air because
his lab was not large enough to contain it all. His older brother described the scene:
for several months James could not find time to take his meals
properlyjust ran in and out again. The experiments were so
delicate that many were carried out in the night, because a cab or cart
passing along the road disturbed them, though the laboratory was at the
back of the stables (Crowther, p. 193).
Joule had to transport the
contraption again in 1861 when he moved to a new house, but then a neighbor
complained about the commotion so much he got the authorities to put a stop to
it. James was deeply upset by this action, Crowther says.
Nevertheless, after seven years working on the thermal properties of gases
with Thomson, they published their crowning achievement, an explanation of the cooling
as being due to the absorption of heat in the performance of work separating
molecules that have a slight mutual attraction. This is the Joule-Thomson
effect, the basis of liquid air production and the refrigeration industry.
The rest is history; the refrigerator today is one of the most-used
electrical appliances in the home, allowing families to cool and freeze food,
preserving it for long periods without the chore of calling the ice man every few days
to deliver big blocks of ice that had been stashed during the winter.
But thats not all; we havent yet mentioned
Joules Law, an important equation known by every electrician.
It relates electrical power to resistance and current, and is the basis
of the space heater and toaster and electric range; current forced through a strong resistor like nichrome
wire generates power proportional to the resistance and to the square of the current.
All that power is output as heat. When you watch that wire turn red,
you are watching Joules Law at work.
At age 57 Joules money had run out, and he became poor while
working on a more detailed verification of the mechanical equivalent of
heat. Fortunately, the Royal Society funded the work, and the
queen provided him a pension to live on. He published this, his
last paper, in 1878, then lived out his final 11 years in relative
privacy till succumbing to a long illness at age 71.
Clerk Maxwell said of him, There are only a very few men
who have stood in a similar position and who have been urged by the
love of some truth, which they were confident was to be found though
its form was as yet undefined, to devote themselves to minute observations
and patient manual and mental toil in order to bring their thoughts
into exact accordance with things as they are.
The Royal Society, who had years earlier paid little attention to this
non-professional hobbyist, venerated Joule in his old age.
He was described as kindly,
noble, and extremely chivalrous, but hated quackery, especially from
persons of standing. As one who had been disparaged himself,
he encouraged the efforts of workers as yet unknown and
resented disparagement of their work, as though his own early
experience had left him with a fellow-feeling with those who were
struggling to secure recognition of their results (Crowther,
p. 144). J. G. Crowther
thinks Joules life resembles that of Leonardo da Vinci, in that they both
pursued perfection, and continued the refinement of technique,
subtle thoughts following the solitary contemplation of the results
of their accessions of manual skill. Joule needs no stone
monument in a cemetery; your home is filled with them, and from now on, you will
no doubt remember this unique character with the magnificent full beard
when you use your refrigerator, space heater, hair dryer, toaster, iron, or any
of the other modern appliances that soon sprang from his discoveries in
fundamental physics. Most important, Joules proof of the law
of conservation of energy is one of the supreme achievements of modern
science. Of this most basic and universal of all scientific laws,
Henry Morris writes, It is surely appropriate that the privilege
of making such a vital discovery was given by God to a man of sincere
Christian faith. (Scientists of Faith, p. 53.)
To understand fully the motivation that makes a man like James Joule work
so long and hard, often alone, we need only hear his own thoughts.
Here are excerpts found on loose sheets of paper after his death of what
Crowther believes was to be an address to the British Association in
1873. Joule had been elected President, but due to ill health
had to resign, so the address was never delivered. Its about
time for the world to hear the wisdom of these words, because rarely has
such a clear statement been given on why science should be the enthusiastic
pursuit of the devout Christian. In the notes, Joule
talks about many things; the value of science education for the
youth, his opposition to science being applied to warfare or
politics, the value of mathematical rigor, and the need for precision
and planning in experimentation.
He describes the ideal moral character of the scientist: one must be humble,
diligent, energetic, prudent and zealous, pursuing science due to
a love of wisdom which unfolds, a love of truth for its own sake
independently with regard to the advantages of whatever kind are
expected to derived from it. Science and knowledge elevate
us above the beasts that perish, and enriches our lives with varied
and fresh enjoyments.
Among these random but uplifting thoughts (click
here for full text),
we end with two quotes that so well express the theme of this book, that
good science the best science is the fruit of devout
love of God as Creator. To Joule, the study of nature and her
laws is essentially a holy undertaking, second only to
worship as the rightful response to the Maker of all things.
Hear the words of James Prescott Joule:
After the knowledge of, and obedience to, the will of
God, the next aim must be to know something of His attributes of wisdom,
power and goodness as evidenced by His handiwork.
In science labs and hardware stores around the world today,
the most fundamental property of the universe energy
is measured in joules.
It is evident that an acquaintance with natural laws means no less than
an acquaintance with the mind of God therein expressed.
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A concise biography with links can be found on
Wikipedia, the online
Heres another online
biography with bibliography
including reference to Crowthers book.
Ann Lamont has a biography from a Christian perspective on
Answers in Genesis.
This one claims to be the official
James Joule website.
This page explains Joules
Law (technical), and at the Spark
Museum, you can see Joule state the law in his own words. If you want to try it,
check out this lab
A Joule pun:
Q: Watts a joule per second?
(A watt is a unit of power, measured as one joule of energy per second.)
Read Joules own words. Click here for
the full set of excerpts from his planned address to the British Association,
as reproduced by J. G. Crowther.
William Thomson, Lord Kelvin 1824 - 1907
William Thomson, Scottish physicist, mathematician and engineer, later awarded the barony Kelvin of Largs which gave him the
more familiar title Lord Kelvin, was the most eminent scientist of his day in the British Isles. He was professor of mathematics and natural philosophy at the University of Glasgow in Scotland for over 50 years.
Lord Kelvin was largely responsible for the rise of engineering, taking the meteoric discoveries being made by 19th century
scientists to practical uses for man. He supervised the first successful transatlantic cable that brought
instantaneous communication across the ocean for the first time. This succeeded only with his invention
of signal amplifiers and sensitive receivers. With James Joule, he discovered the
Joule-Thomson effect that ushered in the invention of refrigerators. His name is also commemorated
in the Kelvin temperature scale, that begins at absolute zero (a concept he originated), which is widely
used in physics and astronomy. Perhaps Lord Kelvins most significant achievement was defining
the concept of energy and formalizing the laws of thermodynamics.
Applying the Second Law to the universe as a whole, he predicted the heat death of the universe in the
future, which also ruled out an infinitely-old universe.
As a Christian, Lord Kelvin was a gentle, wise and generous family man, faithful in his church, an ardent student
of the Scripture and a promoter of Christian education. He believed church members should study the maps
in the back of the Bible and understand history. He often expressed awe at the beauty, design and orderliness of
creation and natural law. But he also recognized the rise of Darwinism both
for its bad science and evil influence. Accordingly, he contested the arguments of Huxley and others that
the earth was millions of years old. In a well-known interchange with Huxley, he calculated mathematically that
the earth and the sun could not be that old, based on his own knowledge of thermodynamics. His
argument for a maximum age for the earth was made before the discovery of
thermonuclear reactions, and has been largely discounted unfairly on that basis. (In actuality,
the age of the earth and sun are difficulties for evolution even today, and his arguments are largely ignored.)
Nevertheless, Lord Kelvin was
respected even by Darwins bulldog Thomas Huxley as a gentleman, a scholar, and a
formidable opponent: he called him the most perfect knight who ever broke a lance. Known for his self-confidence, Kelvin held the Darwinists feet to the fire of scientific rigor and didnt let
them get by with mere storytelling. His students respected him for his skill at demonstrating
underlying, unifying principles (rather than requiring memorization of facts), and motivating them to do their best.
William Thomson, Lord Kelvin published over 600 research papers and served as president of the Royal Society. Showered with 21 honorary doctorates from around the world, he had right to more letters after his name than any of
his contemporaries. He received numerous awards and was knighted by the queen. Not only did he advance science in fundamental ways
himself, he mentored Joule, Maxwell, Tait and other eminent scientists. He was buried in Westminster Abbey
after a long and successful career.
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Here is a secular biography of Lord Kelvin.
Learn about Lord Kelvins arguments against an old earth in this
ICR Impact Article.
James Clerk Maxwell 1831 - 1879
In our roll call of great scientists of Christian faith, it would be hard to find a better role model than James Clerk Maxwell.
Just take a look at his report card! His scientific work alone puts him in a triumvirate with
Newton and Einstein, but no matter what other way you examine his life intellect, personality, creativity, wit, work ethic,
Christian character, integrity, breadth and depth of knowledge and accomplishments Maxwell comes out on
top. He pursued science with exuberance, and with grace and charm and unselfishness, giving glory to God.
In his too-brief life of 48 years, Maxwell changed the world.
Do you use a cell phone? A pager? A remote control for
your TV? A radio? Television? You owe these inventions in large part to Maxwell. Radar,
satellite, spacecraft and aircraft communications any and every means of transferring information through thin air
or the vacuum of space, comes out of his work. The inventors of all these devices all built on Maxwells
exceptional discoveries in electromagnetism, discoveries that required the best in experimental method with the
best in mathematics and theory. Maxwell discovered many things, as we shall see, but his crowning achievement
was the summation of all electromagnetic phenomena in four differential equations, appropriately named
Maxwells Equations in his honor. These equations, that express natural laws, not
only brought together all the work of Faraday, Ohm, Volta, Ampere, and everyone else who had studied the curious
properties of electricity and magnetism, but made an absolutely astounding and important prediction: that light itself
was an electromagnetic wave, and through manipulation of electromagnetic waves, it might be possible to transmit
information through empty space. Thus, our modern world. The importance of these equations can
hardly be overstated. Dr. Richard Feynman, Nobel laureate and influential 20th-century modern physicist,
paid his respects this way: From a long view of the history of mankindseen from, say, ten thousand years from now
there can be little doubt that the most significant event of the 19th century will be judged as Maxwells discovery of
the laws of electrodynamics.
Electricity and magnetism, mere curiosities when explored by Faraday and explained by Maxwell, turned out to generate
more economic wealth than the entire British stock exchange. Our modern world is inconceivable without
the experimental and theoretical foundation laid by these two great Christians and scientists who harnessed mysterious
laws of nature for human benefit.
And that was only one of Maxwells claims to fame. One biographer described him, a man of immense
intellectual capacity and seemingly inexhaustible energy, he achieved success in many fields, ranging from colour vision
and nature of Saturns rings to thermodynamics and kinetic theory. In a short life he published
a hundred scientific papers and four books. His was perhaps the last generation of scientists to whom so wide a
field of interest was possible: with the rapid increase in knowledge in the latter part of the 19th century specialization became
unavoidable . . . . on any assessment Maxwell stands out conspicuously among a race of giants. How much more
might he not have achieved had his life run a normal span.
We are fortunate to have a great deal of original source documents on Maxwell, thanks largely to his biographer and lifelong friend, the Rev. Lewis
Campbell, who collected many personal letters, essays, anecdotes and tributes into his excellent 1882 biography, The Life
of James Clerk Maxwell, co-authored by William Garnett, one of his Cambridge colleagues.
In addition, Cambridge University (where Maxwell was a distinguished scholar) has recently (1990, 1995) published two thick annotated volumes
of Maxwells collected scientific papers and lettersincluding even his postcardsand a third volume was
just completed in late 2002. Yet in spite
of these resources, few have even heard of James Clerk (pronounced Clark) Maxwell and his work, because these books
are rare and costly. The biography, long out of print, can only be found on dusty shelves of large libraries, and the new
volumes of his collected papers cost $300 apiece. But now, a Maxwell devotee software engineer has put the whole
Lewis Campbell biography online, so Maxwells personal life story, the kind you never get in the textbooks, is accessible again (see sidebar, right).
We will include some choice examples here, but if there is one of the great scientists in this series you would pick to study in more detail, try this one. Youre in for a treat, because Maxwells personality is as captivating as his
equations. He was the kind of fellow you would want to chat with over dinner every chance you could. No matter what the subject, he
would keep you entertained and fascinated for hours.
Most important, Maxwells Christian faith was the core of his being. It guided
his lifes work and personal habits, and motivated him to search out the laws of the great Lawgiver with diligence, as a mission from
God. Thoroughly versed in classic literature and philosophies ancient and modern, Maxwell was uniquely qualified
to speak to science, theology, and philosophyand he did. He was a true Christian in heart as well as mind; he loved the Lord Jesus Christ
with all his heart, mind and soul. And, he knew his
Bible inside and out. Clerk Maxwell opposed any philosophy (like the new Darwinian evolution) that exalted itself against the
God of creation, yet he did it with wit and grace (sometimes even in clever poetry) that earned the attention and respect of all.
Maxwells letters sparkle with a joie de vivre that is infectious, but he also knew hardship and tragedy. He knew
what it was like to be taunted and bullied as a young boy at school (like when he was inadvertently sent to a new school a bit overdressed
for his peers taste). He knew what it was like to have to learn to defend himself and earn respect without losing his composure. At age
eight, he faced a devastating tragedy for a boy: he watched his mother suffer and die of stomach cancer.
Fortunately, his father, John Clerk Maxwell, filled the emptiness better than most
single parents could. He became his sons dearest mentor and supporter, well into James college years. His fatherly letters reveal his
proud interest in everything his son was doing. Johns expansive Scottish estate at Glenlair (which you can visit on
the Web), provided young James with woods, streams, horses and books enough to fill his sponge-like mind, a repository that could not absorb
enough fast enough. Playful and jocular, young James would one moment be swinging from trees, tubbing in the
creek, creating his own spinning tops, reading books, or surprising his friends with a frog leaping out of his mouth. All his life
James never tired of a good joke, though his humor became much more sophisticated at Cambridge
To his university colleagues he would sign his postcards dp/dt, which being
translated in the language of mathematical physics, became JCMhis initials. Sometimes he would write
backwards, or pose puzzles or riddles for his friends. His writing is peppered with Latin, Greek, French, and German quotes. It would take a
scholar in Greek mythology and Sophocles plays, for instance, to comprehend this whimsical line from a postcard to his friend Peter G. Tait:
The Hamiltonsche Princip., the while, soars along in a region unvexed by statistical considerations while the German Icari flap
their waxen wings in nephelococcygia. His best wit, though, can be found in his poems. Early on in grammar school, Maxwell
also became quite the poet. (Part III of Campbells biography contains examples both witty and profound). He was often known to slip his latest verse to a friend, his wife, or to a philosophical
rival. Many of these make excellent reading and allow us to peer into his soul.
The Scottish schools of Maxwells youth were old-fashioned. Instead of building self-esteem,
they forced students to learn Latin, Greek, and classic literature. Good thing, because
Maxwells grasp of history, philosophy, and rhetoric served him well as a writer,
professor, scholar, and defender of Christianity. As a young student at Cambridge, Maxwell once wrote Lewis Campbell that he intended to plow up all the secret
hiding places of philosophy and world religions, the sacred plots their owners want you to tiptoe around. Not Maxwell; he was going to charge in and
investigate whether their claims could stand up to scrutiny. And he was unafraid to apply the same rule to the Bible. He
said, Christianitythat is, the religion of the Bibleis the only scheme or form of belief which disavows any possessions
on such a tenure. Here alone all is free. You may fly to the ends of the world and find no God but the Author of Salvation.
You may search the Scriptures and not find a text to stop you in your explorations. Christianity, to Maxwell, was not stifling to the
scientist or truth seeker; it was liberating.
At age 22, Maxwell graduated at the top of his class at Trinity College, the
Second Wrangler (tied for the highest grade), and Smiths prizeman.
In those arduous days of preparing for the Cambridge final exams, the toughest in the world,
he composed a ten-verse poem, A Students Evening Hymn.
He must have taken a moment away from the intense pressure of studies to go outside a watch a sunset.
As the stars came out and reminded him of Gods great power in creation, he pondered the big picture
of his life and priorities, and put his thoughts into verse.
This gem of poetic worship and supplication, long forgotten after 148 years, we have
reproduced here and set it to a new original melody.
These eloquent lines can be seen as an encapsulation of Maxwells purpose in life.
He never deviated from these sentiments, even through his final, greatest trial.
Graduation opened the door to a 26-year career in science characterized by a series of exceptional
discoveries, culminating in his famous equations. Maxwell became a Cambridge scholar par
excellence, always humble and devout, and loved and admired by his colleagues. He was close
friends with Peter Guthrie Tait, the father of vector calculus, Michael Faraday, and Lord Kelvin. He
served as professor at Kings College and Trinity, but always kept close ties to Glenlair, his home for life.
At age 27, he married Katherine Mary Dewar. Though described by some as a difficult woman and
frequently ill, Katherine was this model husbands target of loyalty and love, though they bore no children. Some of
his love letters and poems have survived, including Bible studies they shared, in which Maxwells deep
understanding of and reverence for the Scriptures is manifest. Through their married life, they
attended church faithfully where the Word of God was preached, supported their church, and walked their
talk. Clerk Maxwell even took time out of his busy schedule to teach poor working men science, to give
them a chance at a better life than the dismal factories that enslaved them. Always the lover of wisdom,
his many letters, essays, lectures and articles are both deep and cheerful, and, however they traverse the
theories of the day, always lead back to the wisdom of God. Maxwell stood firmly against the creeping
atheistic Darwinism that got its foothold in the scientific establishment, but was perhaps too much the
gentleman. We have good statements by him on the matter of evolution, but with hindsight of the
atrocities committed in the name of Darwinism in the next century,
we could only wish that Maxwell and Faraday both had spoken out even more firmly than they did.
Perhaps it would not have made a difference, but this is perhaps the only criticism that can be made against
these great Christian heroes of science.
Maxwells scientific work was varied and colorful.
When a contest for the Adams Prize was announced, Maxwell took up the challenge and set to
explain the nature of Saturns rings. His 60-page analysis, filled with recondite mathematical logic,
proved that the rings must be made of separately orbiting particles following their own Keplerian orbits.
Along with the paper he provided a
mechanical model of how the ring particles orbit the planet. He easily won the prize in 1857, but the real
honor came 124 years later in 1981, when the Voyager 1 spacecraft visited Saturn and verified his theoretical proof with
direct observations. Maxwell also explained color vision and demonstrated a technique for color photography,
taking the first color photograph by combining monochromatic images taken through filters with the three primary
colors. In addition to being the father of electrodynamics, Maxwell was the father of statistical
thermodynamics and kinetic theory, which deals with the aggregate motion of large numbers of particles.
He thus gave thermodynamics a firm foundation in mechanics. A puzzle he left for future theoreticians came
to be known as Maxwells demon. He surmised that it might be possible to violate the
Second Law of thermodynamics and separate hot from cold molecules in a gas if you had a little man at a trap door
able to sort them out as they flew by. Later physicists proved that the entropy of the little man would more
than compensate for the ordering of the molecules, thus the Second Law would not be violated.
Maxwell and Faraday gave us our modern world of motors, radio, and telecommunications; they complemented
each other perfectly. Where Faraday was weak in mathematics and theory, Maxwell excelled. Maxwell
took the results of Faradays years of experimentation with magnets and wires and organized them into his
famous four equations. This was a monumental step, requiring years of analysis, thought, experimentation,
insight, and genius, culminating in the publication of his 1873 Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism.
Here is a case of one little item starting a revolution: in the fourth equation, Maxwell (through theory and experiment)
added a term to Amperes Law (a law which relates the magnetic effect of a changing electric field or of a
current) he called the displacement current i. Such a little
thing, the letter i; what does it mean? It means, as he wrote, light consists in the transverse undulations of the same
medium which is the cause of electric and magnetic phenomena. Thus, he unified light with electricity
and magnetism, and formed the theoretical basis for radio, TV, radar, and all the spinoffs of these technologies such
as remote controls, spacecraft telemetry and cell phones which poured like gold from Maxwells Equations in
the years after his death. Concerning these equations, Ludwig Boltzmann (quoting from Goethe) remarked,
Was it a god who wrote these lines . . . J. R. Pierce, in a chapter titled Maxwells
Wonderful Equations, wrote, To anyone who is motivated by anything beyond the most narrowly
practical, it is worth while to understand Maxwells Equations simply for the good of his soul. A
college physics textbook states, The scope of these equations is remarkable, including as it does the fundamental
operating principles of all large-scale electromagnetic devices such as motors, synchrotrons, television, and
microwave radar. Interestingly, Maxwells Equations needed no revision when Einstein published
his theories of relativity 40 years later, but Newtons laws did. Maxwells Equations already had
relativity built in they are invariant in all frames of reference. Truly remarkable. Engineers
frequently use these wonderful equations in the most advanced work today. Another phenomenal result of
these equations is that it became possible to derive the speed of light from theoretical considerations alone.
In his forties, Maxwell devoted himself to building the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge, named for the pioneering
physicist who in 1798 first measured the gravitational constant G. This laboratory was destined to become
the hub of many major discoveries in atomic and nuclear physics in the coming century. But by 1879, Maxwell became
ill. Hiding his discomfort so as not to worry his wife and his colleagues, he continued working until it was too late;
he was diagnosed with the same stomach cancer that had taken his mothers life forty years earlier.
Throughout his ordeal, Maxwells thoughts were only for others, especially for his wife Katherine. As grieving friends and pastors
visited him in his sick bed, Maxwell would quote Scripture and Christian poems from memory:
Christ is my only head,
Also frequently quoting from a hymn,
My alone only heart and breast,
My only music, striking me een dead;
That to the old man I may rest,
And be in Him new drest.
Lord, it belongs not to my care,
His faith in the atoning work of Jesus Christ was his great consolation that eternity lay before him as a joyous entrance to heaven.
Toward the end, after giving the glory to God for all his achievements, he said, I have been thinking how very gently I have
been always dealt with. I have never had a violent shove in all my life. The only desire which I can have is like David to
serve my own generation by the will of God, and then fall asleep. That he did on November 5; his doctor observed,
His intellect also remained clear and apparently unimpaired to the last. While his bodily strength was ebbing away to
death, his mind never once wandered or wavered, but remained clear to the very end. No man ever met death more consciously
or more calmly.
Whether I die or live;
To love and serve Thee is my share,
And that Thy grace must give.
Tributes poured in after James Clerk Maxwells death. Few grasped the significance of what he had discovered, and what
it would bring to civilization, but all who knew him honored his intellect and reputation. Not diminishing his scientific achievements, however, Dr. Butler at the funeral
focused on his spiritual side:
. . . we may well give thanks to God that our friend was what he was, a firm Christian believer, and that his
powerful mind, after ranging at will through the illimitable spaces of Creation, and almost handling what he called the foundation
stones of the material universe, found its true rest and happiness in the love and the mercy of Him whom the humblest Christian calls
his Father. Of such a man it may be truly said that he had his citizenship in heaven, and that he looked for, as a Savior, the Lord
Jesus Christ, through whom the unnumbered worlds were made, and in the likeness of whose image our new and spiritual body will be
To get a true glimpse at the spirit of Maxwell, you need to read his own writings. We will provide samples of his best wit and
wisdom here soon, but could only whet your appetite. In the meantime, see if you can find a copy of Lewis
Campbells biography. May the
testimony of James Clerk Maxwell, and other great Christians in science like him, inspire a new generation to fulfill their calling
with similar zeal, humility, joy, and dedication. Maxwell expressed his work ethic in these profound words:
He that would enjoy life and act with freedom must have the work of the day continually before his eyes.
Not yesterdays work, lest he fall into despair, nor to-morrows, lest he become a visionary,not that which ends with
the day, which is a worldly work, nor yet that only which remains to eternity, for by it he cannot shape his actions.
The largest, tallest mountain on Venus over 10 miles higher than the average height is named after Maxwell, the
only feature named after a historical person. A crater on the moon on the moon is also named in his honor. On the
summit of Mauna Kea in Hawaii. the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope is exploring the universe in the microwave region of the
Happy is the man who can recognise in the work of To-day a connected portion of the work of life, and an
embodiment of the work of Eternity. The foundations of his confidence are unchangeable, for he has been made a partaker
of Infinity. He strenuously works out his daily enterprises, because the present is given him for a possession.
Thus ought Man to be an impersonation of the divine process of nature, and to show forth the union of the infinite
with the finite, not slighting his temporal existence, remembering that in it only is individual action possible, nor yet shutting out from
his view that which is eternal, knowing that Time is a mystery which man cannot endure to contemplate until eternal Truth enlighten it.
His name stands magnificently over the portal of classical physics, and we can say this of him; by his birth James Clerk Maxwell belongs to Edinburgh, by his
personality he belongs to Cambridge, by his work he belongs to the whole world. Max Planck, physicist
Learn More About|
James Clerk Maxwell
The year 2006 was declared Maxwell Year by the
James Clerk Maxwell Foundation, for the
purpose of celebrating the man who changed everything,
upon the 175th anniversary of his birth.
Take a look at the pictures, documents, anecdotes and links for more information about him at
Maxwell Year 2006.
Check out these Tributes to Maxwell by
Read the Lewis Campbell biography The Life of James Clerk
Maxwell online! Get it in PDF Format or
order it on CD-Rom. If in a hurry, at least read the Preface
Read Maxwell and the Christian Proposition by Ian Hutchinson,
an illustrated biographical sketch emphasizing Maxwells Christian motivations for science. This makes for a
good summary of Lewis Campbells biography if time is limited.
Take a tour of the Maxwell
House at Glenlair (but bring your own coffee). Loaded with links and pictures.
Check out books by or about Maxwell at the CalTech
Library or search for them on Amazon.Com.
Here is a secular Biography of
Visit the James Clerk Maxwell Foundation website.
Read the IEEEs tribute to Faraday
and Maxwell and description of the importance of their work on electromagnetism. It also lists and briefly explains
Let Professor Michael Fowler explain Maxwells
Study the Electromagnetic Spectrum.
Find Crater Maxwell on the Moon.
Find Maxwell Montes, the highest mountain on Venus (taller than Mt. Everest!), in this global view. And heres a
stunning rendition of Maxwell Montes from an oblique angle (click
here for the caption).
Take a Virtual Tour of the Maxwell Telescope.
Play Maxwells A Students Evening Hymn at the piano.
GREAT CHRISTIAN MATHEMATICIANS
John Napier 1550 - 1617
Who was the first prominent scientist from the British Isles?
Who, in the early 17th century, stands in the line of pioneers of
calculating machines? Who doubled the productivity of early
scientists? Who according to David Hume was one of the greatest
men Scotland ever produced, yet would have argued against Humes
skepticism? A man who studied the Bible seriously, and fervently
defended Biblical Christianity against error. A man whose most
famous discovery would have profound impact on the sciences, yet
considered his Christian faith primary and his mathematics secondary.
A man most students never heard of, John Napier.
John Napier (the most common, but probably inaccurate, spelling of his name)
was born of a wealthy landowner in Scotland. The year he entered
St. Andrews University at age 13, his mother died. At the
university, and later in studies in Europe, he learned higher mathematics
and classical literature, but he first became passionately interested in
theology at St. Andrews. After his marriage in 1572, he and his
bride moved into a castle on the Merchiston estate when it was completed
in 1574. His cleverness as an inventor became apparent as he managed
his estates. He found ways to increase productivity of the soil
using scientific approaches to fertilization. His wife died in
their seventh anniversary year; a few years later he remarried.
He had two sons, one from each marriage.
Napier was born the year when the Scottish Reformation commenced, 1550.
During Napiers lifetime, disputes between Protestants and Catholics
threatened to split the country in two. The controversy was not
merely intellectual, because the Catholic Church had made an alliance with
the Spanish in 1593 to invade Britain with the goal of conquest.
Napier, fiercely committed to Scriptural authority, determined to defend
Scotland from the errors of papistry. On three occasions he accompanied
deputations to make their case before the king. On his own initiative,
he also wrote a commentary on Revelation called A Plaine Discourse on the
Whole Revelation of St. John in which he interpreted the harlot that
sits on seven hills (Rev. 17:9) as Rome, the seat of the Catholic pope.
A sense of his zeal can be gained from his preface, where he explains his
response to a sermon on the Apocalypse:
... I was so mooved in admiration, against the blindnes of Papists,
that could not most evidently see their seven hilled citie Rome, painted
out there so lively by Saint John, as the mother of all spiritual whoredome,
that not onely bursted I out in continual reasoning against my said familiar,
but also from thenceforth, I determined with my selfe (by the assistance of
Gods spirit) to employ my studie and diligence to search out the remanent
mysteries of that holy Book: as to this houre (praised be the Lorde) I have
bin doing at al such times as conveniently I might have occasion.
He wrote humbly as one who did not feel adequate to convey such important
truths, yet was compelled by the urgency to prevent the rising againe
of Antichristian darknes within this Iland, then to prolong the time in
painting of language. His commentary, which took years of study,
was widely published in the British Isles and on the continent, and has been
called, for Scotland, the first published original work relating to
theological interpretation, and is quite without a predecessor in its own
Napier is best known as the inventor of logarithms in 1614. His
discovery has been called second only to Newtons Principia
in importance to the foundational history of British science.
Logarithms (a term coined by Napier) provided a shortcut to calculation,
replacing tedious multiplications and divisions with simpler additions
and subtractions. It was not an accidental discovery. Napier
set his mind to find a way to make the mathematicians life easier,
because the effort required for long calculations made the work tedious
and error prone. His work was original and detailed, without
precedent or anticipation by previous writers. The publication
consisted of a 57 page treatise in Latin, with 90 additional pages of
tables. His first approach was not to any base, but this was later
improved with the help of an admiring mathematician from London, Henry
Briggs, who made the four-day journey with the express purpose of meeting
the esteemed Scot. Briggs understood the potential value of Napierís
discovery. Together, they improved upon the concept, setting
logarithms to the familiar base 10, the common logs as still
used today, although natural logarithms are often set to the
base e in the sciences (see Euler).
Logarithms were to become extremely valuable for the advance of planetary
science by Kepler and later astronomers. Laplace said that by
shortening the labors, they doubled the life of the astronomer.
Keplers biographer Max Caspar claims that another mathematician on
the continent, Jost Burgi, a friend to Kepler, could have scooped the fame
for this invention in Germany but published six years too late,
so the rightful priority goes to Napier, who had independently developed
the method out of his own gifted mind. One encyclopedia remarks,
The more one considers the condition of science at the time, and
the state of the country in which the discovery took place, the more wonderful
does the invention of logarithms appear. Napier lived in an era of
tumult and superstition, but appears to have been a man of good sense and
reason. The same encyclopedia elaborates, Considering the time
in which he lived, Napier is singularly free from superstition: his
[Plaine Discourse] relates to a method of interpretation to a later age ...
and none of his writings contain allusions to astrology or magic.
Although he probably accepted some aspects of astrology (as did practically
everyone in his era) some biographies suggest Napier did practical jokes
playing upon the superstitions of his neighbors, hinting of his disdain
Three years after the publication of his logarithms, Napier invented another
aid to calculation that puts him in the timeline of calculating machines and
computers. He constructed rods of ivory with integers on them,
constructed in such an ingenious way that, laid side by side, one could
quickly adduce sums, quotients, products, and square and cube roots.
Later dubbed Napiers Bones by others, these devices again revealed
the creative mind that preferred theology as his first love and mathematics
just a sidelight. Other achievements in mathematics included decimal
notation for fractions and the concept of negative numbers. But this
inventor also put his ingenuity to practical matters of warfare, for the
defense of his homeland in light of the perilous times. He conceived
of a shielded chariot that would protect its drivers while allowing artillery
to be fired in all directions, a mirror that could burn a ship from a distance,
and a device that could sail underwater. So it could be claimed that
Napier was the visionary father of the tank, the death ray, and the submarine.
John Napier was the first major contributor to science from the British Isles.
The encyclopedia states, There is no British author of the time except
Napier whose name can be placed in the same rank as those of Copernicus, Tycho
Brahe, Kepler, Galileo, or Stevinus, all from the continent. The
story of the inventor of logarithms reminds us again that Christian faith, and
zealous commitment to the defense of the Word of God, is no impediment to
scientific progress. On the contrary, science was born, grew and flourished
among Christian stalwarts like John Napier.
Learn More About|
Scotland is proud of its intellectual heroes, as in this eulogy of
Heres a British museum entry about
and at this next site you can even buy a set:
check out the photos of these handcrafted kits.
The History of
Computing Timeline (PDF format) puts Napiers Bones on the path to computers.
What are you beating on that log,arithm? Learn all about
logarithms and why they are so useful at the
Math website. Not ready for college math?
Try this simpler High
School Math Forum where Dr. Math answers your questions about logarithms (he also
explains why the discovery was so important
tells how Napiers logarithms were instrumental in helping
Kepler formulate his Third Law of Planetary Motion.
of Mathematics website has a decent biography of Napier, with portraits.
The 1911 Edition Encyclopedia
has a more detailed biography (but scroll down to the second John Napier).
Leonhard Euler 1707 - 1783
Here is the true story of a very interesting individual, one whose
name will ring a bell for anyone who has studied higher mathematics, because his name is
associated with dozens of theorems, proofs, algorithms, constants and laws. Though not a
scientist by training, he contributed immeasurably to science by advancing its language
(mathematics) and its toolkit of operations. According to math professor Howard Anton,
he made major contributions to virtually every branch of mathematics as well as to the
theory of optics, planetary motion, electricity, magnetism, and general mechanics.
His name was Leonhard Euler (pronounced oiler), a true genius who was also a
committed Christian all his life.
Euler was so smart its almost scary. In his thick textbook Calculus,
Howard Anton includes brief biographies of famous mathematicians; his entry on Euler sounds
like an episode from Ripleys Believe It or Not
Euler was probably the most prolific mathematician who ever
lived. It has been said that, Euler wrote mathematics as effortlessly as most men
breathe. .... Eulers energy and capacity for work were virtually boundless. His
collected works form about 60 to 80 quarto sized volumes and it is believed that much of his
work has been lost. What is particularly astonishing is that Euler was blind for the last 17
years of his life, and this was one of his most productive periods! Eulers flawless
memory was phenomenal. Early in his life he memorized the entire Aeneid by Virgil and
at age 70 could not only recite the entire work, but could also state the first and last sentence on
each page of the book from which he memorized the work. His ability to solve problems
in his head was beyond belief. He worked out in his head major problems of lunar motion
that baffled Isaac Newton and once did a complicated calculation in his head to settle an
argument between two students whose computations differed in the fiftieth decimal
This gives us cause to ponder the possibilities inherent in the human brain. It makes us
wonder what initial abilities the Creator gave to man that have been degenerating since the
creation, only to surface occasionally to above-average levels in rare geniuses like Euler.
It also makes us wonder how any theory of evolution could ever produce such a superabundance
of potential, far more than needed for mere survival. The ability to perform abstract,
symbolic reasoning in the human mind, unknown in the animal kingdom, provides strong
evidence for the special creation of man. Nothing comes from nothing. A mind as
gifted as Eulers could only come from a bigger Mind, one that is all-knowing and infinite
in wisdom and knowledge.
Did Eulers genius make him an aloof braggart or freakish savant? Not at
all. He was a gracious and unselfish person, a loving father of a large family, a teacher, a
diplomatic gentleman and a man of deep faith and conviction. People loved and
respected him. He was a hard worker and a lover of the truth. There are no
indications he thought highly of himself, but that he pursued his area of expertise in the desire to
advance knowledge and aid the sciences. But when it came time to defend his faith, he
was prepared, like Pascal, to take up the challenge.
Leonhards father was a pastor who also enjoyed mathematics. After home-
schooling the boy for his elementary years, Paul Euler sent his son to the University of Basel,
Switzerland (their home town), hoping he would follow in his theological footsteps.
Though faithful to his Calvinistic upbringing all his life, Leonhards interest and
proficiency in geometry convinced his father a change of career was warranted. Tutored
under Johann Bernoulli, Leonhard by age 16 had a Bachelor of Arts and a Masters in philosophy,
and by 18 was doing mathematical research and producing original work that continued
unabated for the next six decades. His career took him beyond the University of Basel to
the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences in Russia, and for 25 years to the Berlin Academy of
Sciences, then back to Russia. In this brief biography, we are more interested in the
beliefs and personal life of this amazing individual, who singlehandedly was responsible for
about a third of all mathematical output of the 18th century.
Christian living was a practical reality, not a Sunday formality, to Euler. Dan Graves, in
his excellent chapter on Euler in Scientists of Faith says, Despite his turn to
math, Euler retained his firm Calvinist beliefs throughout life, holding daily prayer and worship
in his home and sometimes preaching. Unable to find work in Switzerland,
Leonhard moved to St. Petersburg, Russia where, at age 26, he met and married another Swiss
emigrant, Katharina Gsell, his bride for 40 years. Graves describes their family life:
Katharina bore him thirteen children, whom he loved dearly. He often carried on
his work with children sitting on his lap or clinging to his back. But Dan Graves
also illustrates a theme we have seen often in these biographies, that the individuals we know
primarily for their intellectual achievements were real human beings who often had to overcome
severe trials and misfortunes.
Not only did Euler lose sight in one eye at age 28 while straining on a particularly difficult
problem, he lost sight of his other eye at age 59 in great pain, as Graves describes: An
operation to restore the better of the two was successful, but infection invaded both eyes.
After horrible agony he permanently lost his sight. He later said that only his faith in
God enabled him to bear those days of torment. As stated earlier, however, some
of his greatest work was yet to come, fully half his lifetime output, as Euler wrote out his
complex derivations on the black slate of his mind. Taking this disability
in stride, he said, Now I will have less distraction.
Additional trials came from political and philosophical enemies. In his thirties, Euler
moved from an unstable political situation in Russia, when spies were everywhere and purges
were the rule, and worked under the Prussian emperor Frederick the Great. There he
served 25 years and added immensely to the prestige of the Berlin Academy of Sciences.
But his patron Frederick, an Enlightenment skeptic, sneered at the Christian faith of his nieces
tutor. In response, Euler wrote Letters to a German Princess, in which he gently
combined piety with the sciences. The book became a best-seller in seven languages, but
Frederick was not impressed. Voltaire, the French Enlightenment anti-Christian deist, joined in mocking
Eulers Biblical world view. Euler corresponded with apologetic works defending
Christian doctrine against Voltaire, Leibniz, Wolff and other Enlightenment skeptics, until
the interference and opposition by Frederick became intolerable and he
had to uproot again. At age 59, he moved back to St. Petersburg to accept a position
under Catherine II (the Great). The Russians welcomed him as a returning hero.
But that was the year, 1766, when he became totally blind. In 1771, his house burned
down and he escaped with his life and his manuscripts. Two years later, his wife died.
Undeterred by misfortune, upheaval and disability, Euler continued his work. With only his
minds eye, he worked through detailed algorithms and dictated them to his sons.
Dan Graves said that his work actually became clearer and more concise. An online
biography at Ryerson Polytechnic Institute states that He was apparently able to do
extensive and complex calculations in his head, remembering every step so that he could recite
them for his sons to record. ... he published more than 500 books and papers during his lifetime,
with another 400 appearing posthumously. Another online biography claims that
his death in 1783 left a vast backlog of articles that the St. Petersburg Academy continued to
publish for nearly 50 more years. Dan Graves tallies his publications at 886, which he
claims have only recently been brought together, and constitute the size of a large set of
encyclopedias. The Encyclopedia Britannica says the compilations began in 1911 and are
still continuing! Thats an incredible volume of writing for anyone, let alone
technical writing, especially for a blind man!
What is contained in all this prodigious output? Just about anything and everything
dealing with mathematics. Eulers work transformed the look of homework
around the world: the convention of using the letter pi for the ratio of the circumference
to the diameter of a circle, the letter e for the base of the natural logarithm, the Greek
letter sigma for the sum of a series of numbers, and the letter i for the unit of
imaginary numbers. The theory of infinities and continuity. Important work on
our present understanding of functions, including the highly-used f notation such as
y = f(x). Greater perfection in differential and integral calculus, including
many new techniques for solving indefinite integrals and the introduction of the well-known
integral sign. More simplicity in analytical operations. Advances in the theory of
linear differential equations. The properties of integers and the theory of numbers,
leading to the foundations of pure mathematics. Eulers criterion.
Eulers constant. Euler numbers. The list goes on.
In addition, Euler tackled numerous theoretical and practical physical problems, including work
on the basic principles of mechanics, optics, acoustics and astronomy. The Encyclopedia
Euler devoted considerable attention to developing a more
perfect theory of lunar motion, which was particularly troublesome, since it involved the so-
called three-body problemthe interactions of Sun, Moon and Earth. (The problem
is still unsolved.) His partial solution, published in 1753, assisted the British Admiralty in
calculating lunar tables, of importance then in attempting to determine longitude at sea.
One of the feats of his blind years was to perform all the elaborate calculations in his head for
his second theory of lunar motion in 1772. ... Euler and Lagrange together are regarded as the
greatest mathematicians of the 18th century; but Euler has never been excelled either in
productivity or in the skillful and imaginative use of algorithmic devices (i.e.,
computational procedures) for solving problems.
Phenomenal as his intellectual achievements were, we should see beyond them the heart of a
faithful Christian, strong enough to defend his faith against the most powerful skeptics of his
day, yet humble enough to depend totally on the Lord for comfort in the midst of
suffering. We should see in his popular writings and textbooks for elementary schools a
desire to help the young. We should see in his Letters to a German Princess a
belief in the unity of knowledge and virtue. We should see a loving father taking time to
play with his children, the fruit of such love being evidenced years later in his sons
willingness to help transcribe his mental output during his 17 years of total blindness.
We should see an active senior working tirelessly till the day of his death at age 76. We
should be reminded that steadfast faith in the Word of God is not a hindrance, but rather a
stimulus, to the advance of knowledge. We should see that a mind in touch with its
Creator, whether its physical windows are open or shut, can be a beautiful and powerful
Learn More About|
Euler 2007 is a website devoted to compiling as much
information on Euler as possible before his 300th birthday. It is already loaded with
material and has portions of a very detailed biography. Check out the Berlin period
which mentions some of the philosophical debates Euler had with Enlightenment skeptics.
It also contains transcripts of some of Eulers letters.
The Euler Society is a related group dedicated to
scholarly research into the life and work of Leonhard Euler. They started publishing
a monthly newsletter in 2002.
The History of
Mathematics site has a good biography of Eulers personal life and mathematical
The Australian Mathematics Trust has another
short biography on Euler.
Clark Kimberlings short biography of Euler lists
thirty-six mathematical items tied to Eulers name.
The Euler Project is a springboard for
further information on his life.
Want to buy 82 volumes of Eulers work? Shop
Bernhard Riemann 1826 - 1866
Lets turn now to another remarkable Christian mathematician who,
like Blaise Pascal,
changed the world but never reached his 40th birthday: Georg Friedrich Bernhard Riemann
Mathematics is the language of science and the two are almost useless without one another. There
are textbooks both in mathematical physics and physical mathematics. Sometimes the scientist presses the
mathematician to produce better tools for computation, but sometimes the mathematician opens
up new vistas for the scientist to explore. Riemann was such a man. He liberated
mathematics from the strictures of Euclidean geometry that for 2,000 years had seemed intuitively
obvious and inviolable. In so doing, he created a new space for Einstein to apply his mental
powers. Howard Anton called Riemanns work brilliant and of fundamental importance,
and lamented that his early death was a great loss to mathematics. Yet such achievement
would have seemed unlikely for a boy who wanted to become a preacher.
Like Leonhard Euler in the previous century, Riemann was the son
of a Protestant minister. Wanting to follow in his fathers
footsteps, Bernhard had a trait that would not have suited the preaching profession,
according to John Hudson Tiner: he was excessively shy. Nevertheless, throughout his
life, he was devoutly religious and sincere in his Christian faith. Early on, his
propensity for mathematics became obvious. Dan Graves says that he outpaced his teacher
at age ten, and at age 16 he mastered Legendres (1752-1833) massive and
difficult Theory of Numbersin just six days. He breezed through
Eulers works on calculus and studied under the great Carl Friedrich Gauss, under whom
he received his PhD with a thesis on complex functions.
In order to obtain an assistant professorship, Riemann had to deliver a lecture on one of
three topics. Gauss selected the topic for which his student was least prepared: the
foundations of geometry. After hastening to prepare, he delivered a paper so brilliant
it astonished his aging master. Riemanns work led to a bizarre concept hard for
many to grasp: curved space, in which Euclids rules of geometry broke down.
One of Euclids primary assumptions was that parallel lines never meet; another was that the
shortest distance between two points is a straight line. A few,
including Gauss, had speculated whether it would be possible to question these assumption, and
thereon build a non-Euclidean geometry. By proposing that space was curved,
Riemanns method succeeded far better than earlier attempts. In curved space, parallel lines
could meet, and the shortest distance between two points would be a curve on the curved
surface. These ideas, mere curiosities among the learned in the 1850s, were fundamental to
Einsteins theories of relativity 50 years later. Riemann also formalized the modern
understanding of the definite integral and made other important contributions in both
physics and mathematics, yet he did not achieve fame or recognition in his lifetime.
Personally, Riemann was bashful, reserved, and a perfectionist. These traits led to two
breakdowns from overwork, and contributed toward ill health much of his life. For
most of his short career he had low-paying jobs. Though poor himself, he unselfishly
supported his unmarried sisters. Within a month of marrying at age 36, he suffered
respiratory diseases that sent him into a downward spiral. Through all his troubles, he
maintained a steadfast faith and conducted daily spiritual examination. As he was
succumbing to tuberculosis, the Lords prayer comprised the last words on his lips.
His tombstone bears the inscription of Romans 8:28,
All things work together for good to them that love God.
Calculus students today learn about Riemann sums, Riemann surfaces and Riemann integrals.
Knowing a little about the person behind the terms is definitely integral to appreciating them.
Learn More About|
Here is a biography of Riemann
on the History
of Mathematics website.
goes into more detail about some of his mathematical discoveries.
Eric Weisstein can link
you to further information about Riemannian mathematics.
TO BE CONTINUED