Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Allesandro Volta

On this great feast of the Incarnation, when the Eternal Word humbled Himself to be a single cell - the literal expression in flesh of the three billion "letters" of the DNA "word" - I struggled to make a selection. I wanted to mention someone whose faith was remarkable, and had already done Pasteur. I thought it might be appropriate to do Marie Curie, a mother and winner of the Nobel Prize twice - but when I began the research, it seems that she fell away from her youthful faith, and I did not have the time or tools to go further.

So I decided to look for those who had a special connection to Mary and the Rosary... and found the two Catholics whose names appear most often throughout the world... Almost certainly their names appear very near to you as you read this, on the back of your computer or video screen... and today, we shall hear Father Kneller tell of one of them, with a remarkable "profession of faith" written by one of the great founding scientists of electricity:
Alessandro Volta (1745-1827) the discoverer of current electricity, was a man about whose religious position there is no room for doubt. "He was", writes a biographer, "much given to investigation of the grounds on which Catholicity is based, and had a wide and comprehensive grasp of them. Every utterance of his gave evidence of unusual lucidity of mind and large erudition. But in every matter affecting the dogmatic substance of faith, or the observation of prescribed religious duties, he was, for all his learning, as teachable as a child." Throughout his professorate at Como he was in the habit of devoting academic holidays to religious studies, and he made constant use of the Monastery libraries, especially of that of the college formerly occupied by the Jesuits. But in spite of his extensive acquaintance with these matters, perhaps because of it, he never set out to teach theologians or to reform theology in the name of scientific progress. "Modern discovery", he once wrote, "the laws which we have brought to light, the paths which we have opened, ought not to excite any prejudice against the older truth, nor ought it presume to obstruct or draw men away from the one way, trodden by so many feet."

Volta suffered no human respect to estrange him from the exercises of religion. During his visit to Paris he was scrupulous never to miss Mass, and it was the same during his presence at the Assembly of Notables at Lyons, although in this latter place (as his letters in form us) he had great difficulty in finding an "unsworn" priest. When at home he went daily to Mass, and received the Sacraments on all Feast-days. On Corpus Christi he decorated his house and street for the passing of the procession, took part in the public devotions offered before an ancient Crucifix which stood in the Church of the Annunciation, and in all those testimonies of love and veneration practiced by pious Catholics towards the Mother of God, showed himself as ardent as the humblest of his townsmen. He had over his door a picture of the Blessed Virgin, and, when entering, invariably raised his hat in salutation. Every Saturday a lamp was lighted before it, and if the servant forgot to light it, Volta himself repaired the omission. From his father and mother he had learned to recite the Rosary every evening, and this practice he continued throughout life.

We find still stronger evidence of his love for the Christian belief in his earnest endeavours to implant and confirm it in the hearts of others. Anyone visiting the parish Church, San Donnino, on the afternoon of a Feast-day would have found Volta in the midst of a group of children to whom he was explaining the Catechism. Precisely the same desire to do something for the salvation of others gave birth to the remarkable document in which he makes an express and solemn Confession of Faith. Early in 1815 Canon Giacomo Ciceri had in his care a dying man whom he vainly sought to convert. Every appeal was met with the reply that religion was only for the vulgar and the rabble, and that men of science, among whom the speaker counted himself, no longer concerned themselves with it. Ciceri instanced in disproof the name of Volta, a man who certainly knew something about science and yet was an exemplary Christian. The name made an impression on the freethinker; he replied that if Volta's religion was not a mere external show, but a reality, he would be willing to make profession of it. The Canon, who was acquainted with Volta, appealed to the latter to send a few lines to the poor sinner and received the following response):
I do not understand how anyone can doubt the sincerity and constancy of my attachment to the religion which I profess, the Roman, Catholic and Apostolic religion in which I was born and brought up, and of which 1 have always made confession, externally and internally. I have, indeed, and only too often, failed in the performance of those good works which are the mark of a Catholic Christian, and I have been guilty of many sins: but through the special mercy of God I have never, as far as I know, wavered in my faith. If my offences and transgressions have given occasion to anyone to suspect me of disbelief, I here, by way of reparation and for any other good purpose that may be served, assure such or any other persons, and am prepared to maintain this declaration in any circumstances, cost what it may, that I have always believed and still believe the Holy Catholic faith to be the one true and infallible religion: and I constantly give thanks to God, Who has infused into me this belief in which I desire to live and die, with the firm hope of eternal life.
In this faith I recognise a pure gift of God, a supernatural grace; but I have not neglected those human means infallible which confirm belief, and overthrow the doubts which at times arise. I studied attentively the grounds and basis of religion, the works of apologists and assailants, the reasons for and against, and I can say that the result of such study is to clothe religion with such a degree of probability, even for the merely natural reason, that every spirit unperverted by sin and passion, every naturally noble spirit must love and accept it.
May this confession which has been asked from me and which I willingly give, written and subscribed by my own hand, with authority to show it to whomsoever you will for I am not ashamed of the Gospel, may it produce some good fruit!

Milan. Jan. 6., 1815.
(signed) Alexander Volta.
Such was the judgment of Christianity formed by a man of whose intellectual greatness an eloquent token is furnished in his discovery of the voltaic pile. In this discovery nothing is to be assigned to chance, it was wholly the outcome of piercing, logical, and patient reflection. When, after years of study, Volta stepped into his laboratory one day and built up his pile out of pieces of silver, zinc and moistened cloth no other physicist save himself could have foretold what would result. But Volta was sure of his ground, and this knowledge he owed to a supreme intellect and patient inquiry. Starting from Galvani's more or less accidental discovery of the twitching of a frog's muscle he had been the only scientist to furnish a valid explanation of the phenomenon. From this he had moved on step by step, conquering one difficulty after another, till at least "the most wonderful instrument of man's device" stood out before his mental vision. This same piercing vision was directed, as his Confession tells us, to a scrutiny of the reasons for and against Christianity, and his conclusion was that from precisely such an examination the strongest arguments for Christianity are to be derived. The lesson from Volta's life is that there is no mind so rich and lofty but can find perfect content within the Christian dispensation.
[Kneller, Christianity and the Leaders of Modern Science, emphasis added]
Wow, did you catch that? From his father and mother he had learned to recite the Rosary every evening, and this practice he continued throughout life. One of the founders of the science of electricity said the Rosary daily! Let no one say there is an "impassable divide" between science and religion!

Amazingly powerful. Volta's name is perpetuated in the unit of electrical force, the "volt" which is a "joule per coulomb" a unit of energy per quantity of electrons (one Newton-meter per 6E18 electrons), and hence appears on countless electrical devices all over the world, like another great Catholic, Andre Ampère, who we shall hear about another day.

See here for more. Another reference is Makers of Electricity by Brother Potamian and Dr. Walsh - which recounts that Volta wrote a Latin poem of some 500 verses on Priestley, the discoverer of oxygen!

As a kind of afterword I shall add a curious little note from one of Fr. Jaki's books, which I think suggests the grand idea that God repays us for our efforts on His behalf in the most amazing ways...
One of the dozen or so students who witnessed Oersted’s historic experiment emphatically asserted, years later, its accidental character. This is indirectly supported by Oersted himself, who in an article prepared for the Edinburgh Encyclopedia in 1830, or almost ten years after the experiment, wondered over the fact that he had not repeated the experiment for another three months and that those present had not at all been impressed with it. Equally accidental was Galvani’s observation that the calf-muscles of a frog, suspended on a metallic support, contract under the effects of an electric spark produced in their vicinity. It was further purely accidental that Volta was on hand to note the most significant feature of an in-itself very complicated process.
[Jaki, God and the Cosmologists, Chapter 7 note 53]


At 15 December, 2011 21:12, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very interesting, tnx for this post and blog.

it is a gread read


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