The 19th century saw the culmination of what we now call Classical physics and the high water mark of the mechanistic view of the universe. Clergy remained important contributors of science, even as the field (now called, for the first time, “science”) was becoming a viable way for laypeople to make a living. Two giants of this era were Gregor Mendel, the father of genetics (and a priest), and Angelo Secchi, the father of astrophysics (and also a priest).
- 304 pages
- Level: high school and above
This 2015 book, published by Harvard University Press (HUP) and edited in part by Ronald Numbers, is a follow-up to the 2009 book Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion which was also published by HUP and edited by Numbers. From HUP:
A falling apple inspired Isaac Newton’s insight into the law of gravity—or so the story goes. Is it true? Perhaps not. But the more intriguing question is why such stories endure as explanations of how science happens. Newton’s Apple and Other Myths about Science brushes away popular misconceptions to provide a clearer picture of great scientific breakthroughs from ancient times to the present. Among the myths refuted in this volume is the idea that no science was done in the Dark Ages, that alchemy and astrology were purely superstitious pursuits, that fear of public reaction alone led Darwin to delay publishing his theory of evolution, and that Gregor Mendel was far ahead of his time as a pioneer of genetics. Several twentieth-century myths about particle physics, Einstein’s theory of relativity, and more are discredited here as well. In addition, a number of broad generalizations about science go under the microscope of history: the notion that religion impeded science, that scientists typically adhere to a codified “scientific method,” and that a bright line can be drawn between legitimate science and pseudoscience. Edited by Ronald Numbers and Kostas Kampourakis, Newton’s Apple and Other Myths about Science debunks the widespread belief that science advances when individual geniuses experience “Eureka!” moments and suddenly comprehend what those around them could never imagine. Science has always been a cooperative enterprise of dedicated, fallible human beings, for whom context, collaboration, and sheer good luck are the essential elements of discovery.
- Level: all audiences (Italian)
Nove papi, una missione: Cento anni della Specola Vaticana, by Fr. Sabino Maffeo, a physicist with the Vatican Observatory since 1985, was published in 1991, on the occassion of the 100th anniversary of the Vatican Observatory. It is also available in English translation as In the Service of Nine Popes.
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- 4 pages
- Level: high school and above
This is an 1868 paper by Fr. Angelo Secchi, who conducted pioneering research into the nature of stars and whose work laid the foundations for the modern Vatican Observatory. Here Fr. Secchi groups stars by the characteristics of their spectra, noting that stars seem to fall into a certain number of types. He writes, “We have therefore, without doubt, in the heavens a grand fact, the fundamental distinction between the stars according to a small number of types; this opens a field for very many important cosmological speculations.” He also notes that observing the spectra of stars can tell us something about their motions. Indeed, studying the motions of stars by means of their spectra has yielded all sorts of information about them, including whether they have planets orbiting them.
Fr. Secchi’s paper was published in the Report of the Thirty-Eighth Meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science .
Click here to access this article, courtesy of Google Books.
- 18 pages
- Level: university
In this 2008 article published in the journal Physics in Perspective, historian of science Helge Kragh discusses Pierre Duhem and the status of science and religion in the second half of the nineteenth century, when developments in the science of thermodynamics challenged the idea of an eternal, unchanging or cyclic universe. Kragh writes:
The French physicist and polymath Pierre Duhem was strongly devoted to Catholicism but insisted that science and religion were wholly independent. In an article of 1905 he reflected at length on the relationship between physics and Christian faith, using as an example the cosmological significance of the laws of thermodynamics. He held that it was unjustified to draw cosmological consequences from thermodynamics or any other science, and even more unjustified to draw consequences of a religious nature. I place Duhem’s thoughts on “the physics of a believer” in their proper contexts by relating them to the late-nineteenth-century discussion concerning the meaning and domain of the law of entropy increase. I also consider Duhem’s position with respect to Catholic science and culture in the anticlerical Third Republic….
Duhem was a scientist and scholar of unusual breadth whose contributions ranged from the history of medieval natural philosophy to mathematical physics. He began his academic career in the 1880s with works in chemical thermodynamics and continued over the years to develop this branch of science, intermediary between physics and chemistry, into still more general formulations…. Duhem counts as one of the pioneers of physical chemistry.
- 264 pages
- Level: high school and above
This 1895 autobiography of Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to receive a medical degree in the United States. Blackwell concludes her autobiography with the following:
It has become clear to me that our medical profession has not yet fully realised the special and weighty responsibility which rests upon it to watch over the cradle of the race; to see that human beings are well born, well nourished, and well educated. The onward impulse to this great work would seem to be especially incumbent upon women physicians, who for the first time are beginning to realise the all-important character of parentage in its influence upon the adult as well as on the child — i.e. on the race.
To every woman, as well as to every man, the responsible function of parentage is delegated. Our nature is dwarfed or degraded if the growth which should be attained by the exercise of parentage, directly or potentially, be either avoided or perverted.
The physician knows that the natural family group is the first essential element of a progressive society. The degeneration of that element by the degradation of either of its two essential factors, the man or the woman, begins the ruin of a State.
It is a source of deep gratitude in a long medical life to have been enabled by physiological knowledge, as well as experience, to perceive the true point of view from which the special nature of man and woman must be regarded. It is well worth the efforts of a lifetime to have attained knowledge which justifies an attack on the root of all evil — viz. the deadly atheism which asserts that because forms of evil have always existed in society, therefore they must always exist; and that the attainment of a high ideal is a hopeless chimera.
The study of human nature by women as well as men commences that new and hopeful era of the intelligent co-operation of the sexes through which alone real progress can be attained and secured. We may look forward with hope to the future influence of Christian women physicians, when with sympathy and reverence guiding intellectual activity they learn to apply the vital principles of their Great Master to every method and practice of the healing art.
Though a Christian, and though she worked with Catholics on various occasions, Blackwell “blessed Heaven for the fact” that she was a Protestant, an view which shows forth periodically within the book.
Click here to access this book, courtesy of Google Books.
Click here to access this book, courtesy of Archive.org.
- Papal document
- 1600 words
- Level: university
De Vaticana Specula Astronomica Restituenda Et Amplificanda, issued by Pope Leo XIII (1810-1903; elected Pope, 1878) in 1891, is the founding document of the Vatican Observatory. Pope Leo writes:
Among all of these [natural] studies astronomy holds a preeminent position. It proposes to investigate those inanimate creatures which more than all others proclaim the glory of God and which gave marvelous delight to the wisest of beings, the one who exulted in his divinely inspired knowledge, especially of the yearly cycles and of the positions of the heavenly bodies (Wisdom VII.19).
- 369 pages
- Level: university
Searching the Heavens and the Earth: The History of Jesuit Observatories, is a 2003 book by Agustín Udías, S. J. of the Department of Geophysics and Meteorology, Universidad Complutenese (Madrid, Spain). From the publisher:
Jesuits established a large number of astronomical, geophysical and meteorological observatories during the 17th and 18th centuries and again during the 19th and 20th centuries throughout the world. The history of these observatories has never been published in a complete form. Many early European astronomical observatories were established in Jesuit colleges.
During the 17th and 18th centuries Jesuits were the first western scientists to enter into contact with China and India. It was through them that western astronomy was first introduced in these countries. They made early astronomical observations in India and China and they directed for 150 years the Imperial Observatory of Beijing.
In the 19th and 20th centuries a new set of observatories were established. Besides astronomy these now included meteorology and geophysics. Jesuits established some of the earliest observatories in Africa, South America and the Far East.
Jesuit observatories constitute an often forgotten chapter of the history of these sciences.
Below are two reviews of this book by astronomers with the Vatican Observatory:
- Book review by Fr. Sabinao Maffeo, S. J., in the Journal for the History of Astronomy, 2005 (PDF, courtesy of NASA ADS).
- Book review by Br. Guy Consolmagno, S. J., in the Archivum Historicum Societatis Iesu, 2007 (PDF).
- 2 pages
- Level: all audiences
A 2001 article by Agustín Udías, published in the journal Astronomy & Geophysics. Udías reflects on the Jesuit scientific tradition in astronomy and geophysics, by considering those who were also Fellows of the Royal Astronomical Society (Udías counts 31 Jesuit Fellows):
Abstract: The Society of Jesus has a venerable tradition of scientific observation and enquiry, as has the Royal Astronomical Society. Their paths have frequently crossed over the years and this tradition of shared enquiry continues to this day.