Testing Faith

First colour photopgraph, Maxwell, 1861

As I write, the Faraday Institute summer course is in full swing. On Tuesday  I attended a lecture by MIT physicist Professor Ian Hutchinson on James Clerk Maxwell. A text of the talk, given at MIT, is here.

James Clerk Maxwell was quite a character. He grew up in the country, running away from his tutor by sailing a washtub across a pond, and finally being sent to school in Edinburgh. He published his first scientific paper when he was still at school (he invented a method for drawing ovals, and published it in the proceedings of the Royal Society of Edinburgh). He later went to Edinburgh University, and I love this extract from a letter around this time.

… So I get up and see what kind of day it is, and what field works are to be done; then I catch the pony and bring up the water barrel … Then I take the dogs out, and then look round the garden for fruit and seeds, and paddle about till breakfast time; after I that take up Cicero and see if I can understand him. If so, I read till I stick; if not, I set to Xen. or Herodt. Then I do props, chiefly on rolling curves … After props come optics, and principally polarized light. Do you remember our visit to Mr Nicol? I have got plenty of unannealed glass of different shapes …

Here is someone working hard at something he enjoys so much that it feels like playing. Maxwell then moved to Cambridge, where he devised a scheme to test his Christian faith.

Now my great plan, which was conceived of old, … is to let nothing be wilfully left unexamined. Nothing is to be holy ground consecrated to Stationary Faith, whether positive or negative… Never hide anything, be it weed or no, nor seem to wish it hidden. …

Christianity – that is, the religion of the Bible – is 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. …

The Old Testament and the Mosaic Law and Judaism are commonly supposed to be “Tabooed” by the orthodox. Sceptics pretend to have read them, and have found certain witty objections … which too many of the orthodox unread admit, and shut up the subject as haunted. But a Candle is coming to drive out all Ghosts and Bugbears. Let us follow the light.

Maxwell’s idea was that if Christianity was founded on something true, it should withstand proper scrutiny. I come across this approach again and again among scientists of faith, and it doesn’t see the light of day very often in media discussions of science and faith – I hope this small contribution helps…

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.