The Research Scientist’s Psalm

Image courtesy of NASA

Psalm 111 is often called the ‘research scientist’s psalm’.

Great are the works of the Lord, studied by all who delight in them. Psalm 111: 2

I’ve already told the story of how the second verse of this psalm came to be on the door of both the old and new Cavendish laboratories in Cambridge. James Clark Maxwell’s successor as Cavendish Professor of Experimental Physics was the Nobel Prize-winning Lord Rayleigh. Rayleigh was also a Christian, and he had the famous verse printed on the front of each volume of his collected papers. Geneticist R.J. Berry writes in the journal Science & Christian Belief that Psalm 111 demonstrates wisdom rooted in the study of reality. If verse two is the scientists (and artist’s) charter, it needs to be balanced by verse ten.

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice it have a good understanding. Psalm 111: 10

God’s provision comes on God’s terms. In other words, the correct response to a study of nature is ‘reverence mingled with delight, gratitude and trust’. This psalm also demonstrates that wisdom is best shared in community: scientists should communicate their findings so that others can ‘delight in them’ too.

I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart, in the company of the upright, in the congregation.

Psalm 111: 1

Finally, there is a seamless relationship between history and science. God’s creation, his generous provision and his interaction with us are all part of the same story. As Berry has said:

We are here for God’s purposes, on God’s terms and in (and for) his world. For Christians, science should be both a religious activity and an intellectual discipline.

R.J. Berry, The Research Scientist’s Psalm, S&CB (2008) 20, 147-161

Johannes Kepler may have had Psalm 111 in mind when he wrote his now famous prayer, which came at the end of one of his scientific works:

If I have been enticed into brashness by the wonderful beauty of your works, or if I have loved my own glory among men, while advancing in work destined for your glory, gently and mercifully pardon me; and finally, deign graciously to cause that these demonstrations may lead to your glory and to the salvation of souls, and nowhere be an obstacle to that. Amen.

(The Harmony of the World (1619), end of Book)

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.