Friday, August 24, 2012

7 Quick Takes Friday (vol. 41)

I’ve been all about astronomy lately (thanks, Curiosity). And while I’ve talked about it before, it still baffles me that people think Christianity and science don’t go together. I don’t know who bothers me more, secularists who dismiss all believers as illogical idiots or the ignorant believers who perpetuate that stereotype (actually, I do know; it’s the latter). So my quick takes are about some religious men that made big contributions to math and science:

1. St. Albert the Great is the patron saint of scientists, philosophers,  the natural sciences, and medical technicians. He entered into the priesthood after a vision from Blessed Virgin Mary. He studied Aristotle and Muslim academics and wrote on reconciling philosophy with the natural sciences. He set up personal laboratories where he experimented in chemistry and physics and collected insects and plants. He believed knowledge of nature pointed to knowledge of God. (St. Thomas Aquinas studied under Albert.)

2. Georges Lemaitre was a Belgian priest and astronomer. He was the first person to propose the theory of the expanding universe and the Big Bang, which contrasted with Einstein’s static universe model of the time. Lemaitre’s conclusions suggested that there was a finite point, “a day without yesterday,” from which the universe began and continues to expand. He kept his research and religious life separate, believing there was neither confirmation nor conflict between the two.

3. Gregor Mendel was an Augustan friar who is often credited as the father of the study of genetics. His work included beekeeping and plant breeding. He tested around 29,000 pea plants; his studies showed the presence of recessive and dominant traits. His theories were carried over to his beekeeping. At the time (mid-nineteenth century), most scientists believed traits were a blend of the parents in animals, but Mendel’s work demonstrated the theory of recessive and dominant genes that was later accepted and became known as Mendel’s Laws of Inheritance.

4. Roger Boscovich was a Jesuit from what is now Croatia who studied physics and astronomy. He developed the first geometric procedure for determining the circumference of a rotating planet. For example, he found a way of determining the Sun’s equator and the period of its rotation by observing spots on its surface. His ideas on explaining physical behavior in terms of force rather than static matter are credited as the foundation for nineteenth century atomic theory. In 1753, he was the first to note the absence of an atmosphere on the moon. He travelled often, and also served as an engineering consultant. One of these consulting projects was repairs to St. Peter’s Dome, where he also served as a confessor.

5. Landell de Moura was a Brazilian priest and inventor who studied sound wave transmissions after being introduced to Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone while in Europe. In 1904, he received U.S. patents for his wireless telephone (which used a combination of three earlier telephone systems) and wireless telegraph. He worked to increase Brazil’s technical knowledge and demonstrate that scientific study was compatible with Church doctrines.

6. Francesco Faa di Bruno was a nineteenth century mathematics professor from Sardina. He was heavily involved in creating refuges for the elderly, poor, and prostitutes. He joined the priesthood late in life, hoping Holy Orders would help him continue his service. In his career, he studied algorithmic approaches to eliminating between polynomials of variables in algebraic geometry. A formula, which generalizes the chain rule to higher derivatives, is named after him. Faa di Bruno was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1988.

7. A note on Galileo Galilei: the house arrest of Galileo is probably the most common event thrown around when someone is trying to say the Church is anti-science. The reality is that the Church had supported Galileo’s astronomy studies. However, an inquisition found that his heliocentric theory lacked the credentials of the day to be considered absolute fact and would be considered only a scientific possibility. In 1632, Galileo wrote a defense of his theories in Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems. It was written with permission from Pope Urban VII, however, after it was published, Galileo was found guilty of heresies. It was believed that Pope Urban’s arguments were unjustly presented in the book by the buffoonish character Simplicio and that Galileo had tried to tell the Church how to interpret the Bible. Galileo’s trial had more to do with the political atmosphere of the time than any Church position on astronomy. 

To be fair, fear of the theological ramifications of a moving Earth did play some role. Books on heliocentric theory were banned by the Church from 1615 to 1757. (Isaac Newton’s works helped in lifting the ban.) So, I’m not saying the Church has always been on the forefront of science, but I really wish people would stop using the Galileo as the go-to example of religion v. science. 


  1. Came over from Jen's QTs. Great list! I knew about Mendel and Galileo but the others are new to me. As a grad student in bio, the false choice between religion and science always irks me. I found that science actually drew me closer to God.