Physics and Psalms

The door to the old Cavendish lab, with inscription

Over the main entrance of the Cavendish Laboratory, the home of the Department of Physics in the University of Cambridge, is an inscription: ‘The works of the Lord are great; sought out of all them that have pleasure therein’. This use of a Bible passage in architecture is somewhat unusual for a university physics laboratory that was built in 1973.

The passage was placed there at the suggestion of Andrew Briggs, who was a PhD student at the time. Briggs is now Professor of Nanomaterials at Oxford University. He appreciated the Latin inscription of Psalm 111 verse 2 carved on the doors of the first Cavendish Laboratory, almost certainly at the instigation of the first Cavendish Professor, James Clark Maxwell. He suggested that it should be put up, in English, at the entrance of the new building.

The inscription above the doors of the new Cavendish Laboratory

The incident is described by AB Pippard, formerly Cavendish Professor in the University of Cambridge, in the European Journal of Physics. ‘The great oak doors opening on the site of the original building had carved on them, by Maxwell’s wish, the text from Psalm 111 Magna opera Domini exquisita in omnes voluntates ejus. Shortly after the move to the new buildings in 1973 a devout research student suggested to me that the same text should be displayed, in English, at the entrance. I undertook to put the proposal to the Policy Committee, confident that they would veto it; to my surprise, however, they heartily agreed both to the idea and to the choice of Coverdale’s translation, inscribed here on mahogany by Will Carter.’

This is a great example of how open minded Cambridge science departments can be, and their willingness to recognise the Christian heritage that was so important in the development of modern science. It’s also an example of what a student can achieve if they put their mind to it.

Many thanks to Professor Briggs for helping me with my research on this story.

7 thoughts on “Physics and Psalms

  1. Dr Ike Okadigwe December 17, 2010 / 1:48 pm

    Dear Ruth,

    Thank you very much for the post and the research. It is interesting that a number of physicists have an open mind or are actually followers of Jesus, but not too surprising when you consider Sir Isaac Newton and Galileo. The evolutionary biologists…. well that is a different picture.

    Like

  2. Ruth Bancewicz December 21, 2010 / 11:57 am

    Here’s a comment from Paul Wraight, who taught both physics and engineering at the university of Aberdeen

    ‘I was fascinated by the bit about “the works of the Lord are great” – Brian Pippard was my supervisor, and was doing some of the initial planning of the new cavendish while I was there. I knew he was involved in putting up the english version in the new cavendish, but did not know the details. I have seen both old and new!’

    Like

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