Earthworms and Orchids: Why the founders of modern science cultivated virtue

© Alfred Borchard,
© Alfred Borchard,

I met a man at a conference this year who said he has spent his whole life studying. I have no idea how he funds his insatiable appetite for new knowledge, but it seems he has spent his days going from one topic to the other, modelling himself as a renaissance man. He told me stories of people in 1970’s Germany who spent ten to fifteen years on a single undergraduate degree, often taking just one class at a time. For him, learning was of such value that it was worth approach it steadily and patiently, as a means in itself. I find this attitude a bit extreme, but it’s an interesting way of looking at life!

I recognised this perspective when I heard Richard Bellon, Assistant Professor with a joint appointment in the Department of History and the Lyman Briggs College at Michigan State University, speak recently on values in the scientific community. Bellon has been studying Victorian scientists, or – as he says on his website – ‘obsessing about men with muttonchops who obsessed over the sex lives of plants’. Continue reading

What’s in a name?

Mateusz Stachowski,
© Mateusz Stachowski,

I recently discovered that a poet is at least partly responsible for the label ‘scientist’. Before the nineteenth century people who studied the material world called themselves natural philosophers.[1] Samuel Taylor Coleridge objected to this title, and although I’m sure he was not the only one who initiated a change, he was certainly involved in the renaming process. Coleridge’s suggestion was opposed by two famous scientists, and the resulting story is a fascinating insight into the real world of science and religion.

Not content with writing innovative poems like Kubla Khan and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Coleridge was also a philosopher and literary critic. He was great friends with the pioneering chemist Humphrey Davey and a number of other Continue reading

The Christian Roots of Modern Science

16th century manuscript, Andrew Beierle,
16th century manuscript. Photo © Andrew Beierle,

If I could travel back in time to ask Isaac Newton about the relationship between science and religion, he would probably be completely nonplussed by the question. In the late seventeenth century, when Newton was teaching maths at Trinity College, Cambridge, the word ‘science’ was used more broadly to refer to a body of organised knowledge. Theology, maths, classics, astronomy and all the other sciences were integrated into the body of ‘natural philosophy’, which was taught by ‘natural philosophers’. William Whewell, another Cambridge academic and Master of Trinity College, coined the word ‘scientist’ in 1834 to describe someone who carried out experiments to discover things about the natural world, and it wasn’t until the late nineteenth century that British natural philosophers actually began to call themselves scientists.

Denis Alexander used this story to illustrate his lecture on the history of the dialogue between science and religion at a recent retreat led by Faraday staff at Launde Abbey. He described the development of science as a relay race where the baton was passed from ancient Greek philosophers to Islamic scholars, and then on to Christians in Europe, including Newton. Obviously the early stages were important, but a number of ideas stemming from Christian theology were absolutely key to the development of what we now know as science. Continue reading