Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Joachim Barrande

A paleontologist - a fervent Catholic - who discovered thousands of species of trilobites...

On the 5th October 1883 there died at Frohsdorf near Vienna, far from his native France from which he had voluntarily exiled himself, one of the most distinguished paleontologists of the nineteenth century, Joachim Barrande. All over the learned world the death of this man was felt to be a heavy loss to science.
In every land in which Palæontology has a place", writes Ferdinand Roemer, "the announcement of this death will be received with sympathy and sorrow. For who is there to whom his name is unknown? Who is there but has contemplated with a mixture of admiration and astonishment the long row of mighty quartos that bear his name, marvelling, even though he be ignorant of their contents, that such a mass of work could proceed from a single pen? But what student of palæontological remains is there that has not occasion, almost every day of his life, to consult Barrande's works, and to thank him for the almost inexhaustible ocean of information which he has brought together in them?"
The investigator who is praised in this wise was born on his father's estate near Sangues, in the department of Haute-Loire. A strong Legitimist, he left France in 1830 with the banished royal family, and settled in Bohemia as tutor to Count Chambord. From 1833 he devoted himself to the investigation of the geological and palæontological conditions of that country. Supported by the kingly generosity of his former pupil he achieved wonderful results.
"By the epoch making work of Joachim Barrande", says Von Zittel, "Bohemia became a classic ground of the oldest fossil-bearing formations." A preliminary sketch of the Bohemian silurian basin, issued in 1846, was followed in 1852 by the first volume of his great work on the silurian system in Bohemia. There is practically nothing that can bear comparison with it in the whole literature of Palæontology. In 22 mighty quarto volumes, with 1160 wonderfully executed tables, Barrande from 1852 to his death in 1883 described the trilobites and other crustaceans, molluscs and brachiopoda, to be found in the Bohemian silurian basin."
Barrande investigated in the first place the geological formation of the Bohemian Silurian district. He recognised it as a tolerably regularly formed basin of elliptical shape, consisting of several successive layers and veins. The earliest layers appeared on the outer circumference, the latest in the middle.
"He next sought to investigate with the greatest zeal the organic contents of the different veins, and their subdivisions. He collected fossils as no one ever did either before or after him. He kept in his pay all the year round an army of collectors and labourers; he worked numerous quarries for no other purpose. He thus brought together a collection of fossils the like of which has not been gathered from any other area of palæozoic strata. It contains some 5000 species, and numerous examples of almost every one of these."
After years of preparation he began the publication of his work. "Its appearance", says Roemer, "was received by his colleagues with amazed admiration. It was difficult to know what to admire most, the fulness of the new materials, the keen observation, the careful description, the comprehensive knowledge of all relevant literature or, finally, the unsurpassed fidelity to nature and the clearness of the drawings. The volume not merely gives a description of the Bohemian trilobites, but brings forward for comparison everything that was previously known from other countries concerning these remarkable animals. The description thus assumes the proportion of a great monograph on trilobites."
When Barrande began his work in Geology there were 13 species of trilobites known; at his death he bequeathed to the Bohemian museum S000 species, 3060 of which he had himself examined and described. In order to attain such results he had to exercise an indomitable patience and pertinacity, for the trilobites break up very easily after the death of the animal. You may find thousands of fragments before you meet a specimen in which the parts preserve their original arrangement. To attain certainty in respect of one particular kind of trilobite (Dalmanites socialis) took a ten years' search although traces of it were to be found at every step. Occasionally in his excavations he would encounter for years only the same types at the place of his search and then there suddenly would come to light a quite new and important fossil.

Barrande was a fervent and practical Catholic. His religious temper of mind finds frequent expression in his great work. We take as an instance a passage in which he is writing of instinct and intelligence as they present themselves in the animal kingdom. In the contrivances which enable the nautilus to swim, he contends, we discern clear tokens of a shaping intelligence, an intelligence which does not reside in the tiny creature itself.
"We are forced then to the conclusion that the marvellous structure and organs of the cephalopods are the work of a Mind superior not only to them but to man. This great Mind, author not only of these but of all the other wonders of life, can be no other than the Creator and Sovereign Lord of all things.... Man, created in the image of God, possesses moral freedom and an intellect to which we find no parallel among the lower animals. He can show works of his mind and hand which almost justify his assumption of the proud title, Icing of Nature. But in all his creations in science or art he is confined within the limits of his finite nature. The devices in which he seeks to embody his thought, bear tokens of their limited and imperfect author, fail to attain their purpose at one effort, and often demand - as in the case of the steam-engine - a long course of modification and development before reaching even a moderate degree of effectiveness.
"By contrast the lower animals may be compared to slaves, set by the Creator to do a day's work, which is in all its details mapped out and prescribed. They possess only a sufficient endowment of intelligence to enable them to perform the tasks assigned them. But, as it were by way of compensation, their faculties go out directly to the ends prescribed them without any preliminary feeling and fumbling. Such an order of things, so simple and at the same time infallible, can proceed only from an infinite Intelligence. We have already observed that in many instances the human mind cannot reach so far even as to understand it, although perceiving its results so clearly."
In the dedication of a later volume Barrande observes that "from the point of view of our religious belief" Astronomy, the sublimest of the natural sciences, confesses sisterhood with Palæontology. "Both reveal to us, each in its manner and measure, the power and glory of the Creator."

The dedication in question bears the date Dec. 8th, 1881, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. A friend of Barrande's, observing this, concluded that it had been his wish to complete his great work under the protection of the Mother of God. He asked Barrande if this was the case, and was told that his inference was perfectly just. Almost all of Barrande's works bear the dates of great Catholic feasts. Thus the various sectional parts of Vol. II are dated: September 15th 1852 (Octave of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin); "Easter Day, April 1, 1877." Vol. III is dated May 30th 1867 (Ascension Day), Vol. V July 1 1879. This last is the Octave of John the Baptist and, at Paris, a Feast of the Blessed Virgin which had a special significance for the exiled savant: Notre Dame de Bonne Délivrance. Other sections exhibit September 28 1877: Feast of Venceslas, patron saint of Bohemia, March 25 1871 (Feast of the Annunciation); December 8th 1881 (Feast of the Immaculate Conception).

"We mourn in Joachim Barrande", says H. B. Geinitz, "a man, venerable for his noble struggle to attain truth and justice, for the self-sacrifice with which he laboured for the advancement of science; a master of all humanistic and realistic culture, a loyal colleague, and a generous friend" - and let us add, in the interest of historical fact, a fervent Catholic.

[Kneller Christianity and the Leaders of Modern Science]

Also see here.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Father Pierre André Latreille

A priest - saved by a bug? Yes...

The department of Zoology which deals with insects counts among its pioneers a Catholic priest, Pierre André Latreille. In his childhood he was abandoned by his parents and thus left dependent on the charity of strangers; in 1786 he chose the Church as his calling with the intention of devoting all his leisure to science. The outbreak of the Revolution compelled him to fly from Paris, and take refuge in his native town of Brive. Here he was arrested and sentenced at Bordeaux to deportation. A rare insect (Necrobia ruficollis) which crawled out the planks of his cell saved him: the prison doctor brought this "find" under the notice of Bory de Saint-Vincent, the naturalist, and the latter secured the liberation of Latreille a few hours before the convict ship was due to sail.

In 1797 Latreille was again in the clutches of the law, but once again his friends managed to save him. He was appointed later to a post in the Paris Museum of Natural History where he had charge of the entomological collection, and occupied important teaching chairs. "They give me bread", he said, "because I have no longer any teeth." Latreille's work relates to reptiles, crustacea, and insects, more especially ants. He was the author of the sections on crustacea, spiders and insects, in Cuvier's great work on Zoology, and also of the description of the collection of crustacea brought by Von Humboldt and Bonpland from South America. Latreille stands among "the leaders of natural science, and holds the first place in Systematic Entomology".
[Kneller, Christianity and the Leaders of Modern Science]
The Catholic Encyclopedia points out that "Left destitute by his parents in 1778, the boy found benefactors in Paris, and was adopted by the Abbé Haüy, the famous mineralogist." You may recall that we met Abbé Haüy last week!

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Antoine Laurent Lavoisier

Lavoisier, the father of modern chemistry, went to the guillotine, crucifix in hand.

That's quite an introduction, isn't it? Here's where it comes from:
Lavoisier, the father of modern chemistry, went to the guillotine, crucifix in hand, a fervent child of the Church, at the bidding of ... the friends of "Reason" who declared, "Nous n'avons plus besoin de chimistes."
[Windle, The Catholic Church and Its Reactions With Science]
That French means "We no longer need chemists."

Oh, you say. That was during the French Revolution, when everyone went crazy. But they were going around saying they were for "Reason" - indeed, for Science!

But who is Lavoisier? Why is he called the Father of Modern Chemistry? You need to know - yes, even if you prefer history to chemistry, and religion to physics, you need to know at least a little about these things. It would be as pointless to talk about Lavoisier and not mention phlogiston as it would be to talk about St. Athanasius and not mention "homoousion".

Though Father Kneller limited his study to the 19th century, he found it necessary to mention Lavoisier in several places:
The modern science of Chemistry is, comparatively speaking, of very recent growth. It begins with Lavoisier who was the first to lay proper stress on accurate measuring and weighing, and whose analysis of the process of combustion gave the first insight into the nature of chemical union. A theory of fundamental importance is that which conceives the elements as composed of atoms. ... Antoine Laurent Lavoisier does not fall within the scope of this book, inasmuch as he died under the guillotine of the Revolution before the beginning of the 19th century. We content ourselves with remarking that he died in the Christian faith. ... The science of Physiology properly speaking came into existence, according to Bernard, with the discovery "that life is conserved by physico-chemical processes, which, so far as their immediate cause and character are concerned, do not differ from those which take place in non-living matter". It was Lavoisier who first made this proposition the starting point of scientific Physiology. He treated respiration as a process of oxidisation pure and simple. The heat of the body he showed, in conjunction with Laplace, to be due to a process of combustion, identical in essence with that which takes place in our ovens.
[Kneller, Christianity and the Leaders of Modern Science]
So Lavoisier has connections to physiology and biochemistry, to physical biology and other subdivisions of science! But it is as a chemist he is remembered, and (as Jaki might point out) as a careful student of science writ large.

But let us deal with this odd word "phogiston".

Long ago there was an old belief - yes, belief - that there was a substance in certain things that made them flammable - they called it "phlogiston". It came out as the thing burned, and filled the air. (Oh yes. If you put a candle in a jar(they said) the air got so full of phlogiston the candle would go out!) Once the phlogiston was gone from the thing, as when a wooden stick is burnt to ashes, it could not be burned any more.

By careful study and experiment - by precise weighing of things before and after burning - Lavoisier showed that this was nonsense. There is no phlogiston.

But there is something called "oxygen" in the air. If that is used up, or absent, things cannot burn - which is what happens to candles in jars. (Incidentally, this fact is of great importance to firefighting - computer centers often have fire-suppressing systems which rely on this technique!)

Lavoisier did not "discover" the element oxygen; that is credited to Joseph Priestley and Carl Wilhelm Scheele. But he did give it its name, "the acid-former", mistakenly thinking it was a component of acids. (It isn't.) But chemist John Emsley points out that "What Lavoisier did was, perhaps, more important than claiming priority for the discovery [of oxygen]." (Nature's Building Blocks, 300)

Oh my, yes. Father Jaki's vast study casts out that "perhaps". Indeed, Lavoisier's work is of critical importance to both history and to science, so I shall quote at length:
It was Becher's terra pinguis that was renamed phlogiston by Stahl in 1703, or motion of heat and fire, which according to Stahl formed the metals when mixed with calx.

Farfetched as this generalization [about the nature of matter - the "elements"] was, it presented before very long a clear-cut challenge to quantitative verification, which in turn led to a revolution in chemistry, a revolution that also meant a parting with views claiming too much authority in the scientific investigation of matter. The lion's share of the credit for ushering in this revolution and a better understanding of the elements should no doubt go to Lavoisier. He towered above his fellow chemists not only in seeing more deeply in the jumble of accumulated data but also in having a keener appreciation of the extent of what still might remain unknown in man's understanding of matter. Lack of caution was indeed the shortcoming for which he took his predecessors to task. to task. Such criticism was valid not only of the predecessors and followers of Stahl but also of those who, like Peter Shaw, John Friend, Boerhaave, and others, were prompted to dogmatic statements by their hopes that the chemistry of their day could be made an exact science along the lines of Newtonian physics. To both groups applied the remark that Lavoisier made in the preface to his Elements of Chemistry (1789): "All these chemists were carried along by the influence of the genius of the age in which they lived, which contented itself with assertion without proofs; or, at least, often admitted as proofs the slightest degrees of probability, unsupported by that strictly rigorous analysis required by modern philosophy." The scope of these harsh words was, however, not so much a self-righteous indictment of the failure of his forbears in chemistry, as a warning of the debilitating influence that the state of mind of individuals or the "genius" of an age might have on scientific research. To advance science therefore was to break with inherited ways of thought, a break with blatantly careless reasonings, "scientific" prejudices, and self-flattery, or, in short, to initiate a revolution. To this he referred as early as 1773 in his laboratory notebook, where he described his program as one that "seemed destined to bring about a revolution in physics and chemistry."

Still, the prospect of revolutionizing a fundamental branch of science did not go to his head. He spoke of the safeguards with which he intended to repeat experiments to establish the real import of hundreds of experiments performed before him, and he never lost sight of the most important of his goals, which he stated in 1777 as follows: "It is time to bring chemistry to a more rigorous way of reasoning." This rigor he achieved in a measure far surpassing any of the chemists before him. But the price of rigor was a cautious, noncommittal attitude to be taken at junctures where almost anyone else would have been carried away into making "definitive" statements. The temptation of doing so must have been high in view of the exciting vista that opened before him once he recognized the role of the oxygenic principle and turned his back on phlogiston. As he put it in the same Mémoire: "Once this principle is admitted, the chief difficulties of chemistry seem to dissipate themselves and to vanish, and all the phenomena may be explained in astonishing simplicity."

Yet, when chemistry came to be laid on firm ground for the first time in his Elements of Chemistry, Lavoisier's tone could not have been more soberingly objective. It might have reminded the reader of Newton, correlating the most disparate phenomena through a single mathematical relation, without committing himself ever so slightly to the nature or cause of gravitation. Similar was the manner in which Lavoisier presented his views on the elements. About their nature and number he wrote that it "can be speculated upon in a thousand different ways, not one of which, in all probability, is consistent with nature." Consequently he contented himself with saying that his definition of an element was a provisional one and depended on the actually available chemical means of decomposing substances. Anything that could not be further reduced was therefore for the time being to be considered an element; or to quote him, an element "is the last point that analysis is capable of reaching." None of the thirty-three elements he listed did he want to endow with an aura of absolute finality, although twenty-three of them took their places in Mendeleev's table. Although he listed the caloric as an element, he added that one is "not obliged to suppose this to be a real substance." In the same vein he explicitly indicated that what he called the "earths" might soon cease to be considered simple bodies. This was a conjecture, however, and Lavoisier felt a duty to advise his reader: "I trust the reader will take care not to confound what I have related as truths, fixed on the firm basis of observation and experiment, with mere hypothetical conjectures."

To emphasize the wide difference between conjectures and experimental evidence was not to be construed as an intent to depreciate theory. Dangerous as the "spirit of systems" proved for science, no less to be feared, according to Lavoisier, was the inordinate accumulation of facts. Long and painstaking efforts deserved, in his view, more than being left in disorder and confusion. Theory, Lavoisier argued, had to have rather a liberating effect on scientific investigation: it had to show the road to clarification without curtailing the freedom of the investigator to follow a new lead, as fresh data came to light. This was a timely reflection, for the process of conquering unknown areas began to accelerate more rapidly than ever in the study of matter. "Chemistry advances towards perfection," wrote Lavoisier, "by dividing and subdividing," and of this process he found it impossible to say "where it is to end." But he too had his moments of weakness as a scientific prognosticator. Contrasting the chasms of the chemistry of yesterday with the vision of a great synthesis suddenly looming ahead, he could not resist the lure of sanguine expectations: "We have ground to hope, even in our own times, to see it [chemistry] approach near to the highest state of perfection of which it is susceptible." His days, however, were not the ones destined to see the completion of chemistry, even if the Revolution had not extinguished in a second the brilliance of a genius, which a hundred years won't suffice, as Lagrange remarked, to reproduce. The extent of the secrets of matter was not to be measured in the small units of complacent hopes.

It was the precision of Lavoisier's balance that led to the abandonment of the concept of phlogiston and made possible the reorganization of the study of matter on a basis that was designed to emulate the clarity of the Newtonian system. As the younger Herschel put it, the mistakes and confusion of Stahlian chemistry "dissipated like a morning mist as soon as precision came to be regarded as essential." Phlogiston theory was only one of the various non-mechanical theories that came to be abandoned during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, chiefly under the impact of increased precision in measurement.
[Jaki, The Relevance of Physics 150-3, 249

Perhaps you find this interesting - perhaps even stimulating. Good. I have some news for you, but first let me set the stage:
All copies of the few editions and translations of Lavoisier's Traité élémentaire de chimie (1789) are on the rare books list.
[Jaki, The Only Chaos (1990)]
I am happy to inform you that, like phlogiston, Jaki's statement has been superseded! The wonderful publishers known as Dover (which also reprint a number of GKC's books) have reprinted a translation, and you can now acquire your own copy of Lavoisier's Elements of Chemistry.

See here for more.

Friday, March 27, 2009

René Laënnec

A Catholic physician invented the stethoscope? Yes - and also how it is useful in understanding diseases...
The important part of the discovery was supposed to consist in the use of the wooden cylinder which Laënnec came to employ instead of the roll of paper originally used. This wooden cylinder, now familiar to us under the excellent name invented for it by Laënnec himself is the modern single stethoscope. This instrument is of great service. The really important part of Laënnec's work, however, was not the invention of the stethoscope, but the exact observation of the changes of the breath sounds that could be noted with it in various forms of chest diseases. Laënnec succeeded in pointing out how each one of the various diseases of the heart and lungs might be recognized from every other. Before his time, most of the diseases of the lungs, if accompanied with any tendency to fever particularly, were called lung fever. He showed the difference between bronchitis and pneumonia, pneumonia and pleurisy, and the various forms of tuberculosis and even the rarer pathological conditions of the lung, such as cancer, or the more familiar conditions usually not associated with fever, emphysema, and some of the forms of retraction.

With regard to heart disease, it was before Laënnec's discovery almost a sealed chapter in practical medicine. It was known that people died from heart disease often and, not infrequently, without much warning. The possibility that heart conditions could be separated one from another, and that some of them could be proved to be comparatively harmless, some of them liable to cause lingering illness, while others were surely associated with the probability of sudden fatal termination, was scarcely dreamed of. It is to Laënnec's introduction of auscultation that modern medicine owes all its exacter knowledge of heart lesions and their significance. He himself did not solve all the mysteries of sound here as he did in the lungs; indeed, he made some mistakes that render him more sympathetic because they bring him down to the level of our humanity. He did make important discoveries with regard to heart disease, and his method of diagnosis during his own life was, in the hands of the Irish school of medicine, to prove the key to the problems of disease he failed to unlock.
Almost at once Laënnec's method of auscultation attracted widespread attention.
Dr. Addison, who is best known by the disease which since his original description has been called by his name, was no less enthusiastic in praise of Laënnec's work. He said:
"Were I to affirm that Laënnec contributed more toward the advancement of the medical art than any other single individual, either of ancient or of modern times, I should probably be advancing a proposition which, in the estimation of many, is neither extravagant nor unjust. His work, De l'Auscultation Mediate, will ever remain a monument of genius, industry, modesty and truth. It is a work in perusing which every succeeding page only tends to increase our admiration of the man, to captivate our attention, and to command our confidence. We are led insensibly to the bedside of his patients; we are startled by the originality of his system; we can hardly persuade ourselves that any means so simple can accomplish so much, can overcome and reduce to order the chaotic confusion of thoracic pathology; and hesitate not in the end to acknowledge our unqualified wonder at the triumphant confirmation of all he professed to accomplish."


Laënnec was known for his simple Bretagne faith, for his humble piety, and for uniformly consistent devotion to the Catholic Church, of which he was so faithful a member. His charity was well known, and while his purse was very ready to assist the needy, he did not hesitate to give to the poor what was so much more precious to him, and it may be said to the world also, than money - his time. After his death, and only then, the extent of his charity became known.

Dr. Austin Flint said of him: "Laënnec's life affords an instance among many others disproving the vulgar error that the pursuits of science are unfavorable to religious faith. He lived and died a firm believer in the truths of Christianity. He was a truly moral and a sincerely religious man."

Of his death, his contemporary, Bayle, who is one of his biographers, and who had been his friend from early youth, said:
His death was that of a true Christian, supported by the hope of a better life, prepared by the constant practice of virtue; he saw his end approach with composure and resignation. His religious principles, imbibed with his earliest knowledge, were strengthened by the conviction of his maturer reason. He took no pains to conceal his religious sentiments when they were disadvantageous to his worldly interests, and he made no display of them when their avowal might have contributed to favor and advancement.

Surely in these few lines is sketched a picture of ideal Christian manhood. There are those who think it wonderful to find it in a man of genius as great as Laënnec. It should not be surprising, however, for surely genius can bow in acknowledgment to its Creator.
Shortly after the death of Pasteur it was well said that two of the greatest medical scientists of the nineteenth century have given to the physicians of France a magnificent, encouraging and comforting example. It is almost needless to say these two were Laënnec and Pasteur, and their example is not for France alone, but for the whole medical world They were living nineteenth century answers to the advocates of free thought, who would say that religious belief and especially Catholic faith make men sterile in the realm of scientific thought.
[Dr. Walsh, Makers of Modern Medicine]
As you no doubt expected, Dr. Walsh has an entire chapter on Dr. Laënnec. Fr. Kneller's is short but also moving:
René Théodore Hyacinthe Laënnec was the first to employ auscultation and percussion in the diagnosis of pulmonary disease. His profoundly religious attitude of mind, maintained in an atmosphere of indifference and scepticism, was well known to his contemporaries. A story is told of him which illustrates this in a striking and slightly humorous fashion. He was travelling with his wife from Paris to Brest, when their carriage came into collision with another, and the occupants were thrown out on the road. There was naturally, a scene of great confusion, but in due time things were put in order again. Then Laënnec opened his lips for the first time. He said to his wife: "We left off our Rosary at such and such a place"; and they calmly resumed it as if nothing had happened).

"Like so many other masters of medicine, like Rivière, Baillou, Winslow, Bonnet, Baglivi, Morgagni, Boerhaave, Haller, he was led by his study of the hunted frame, the marvellous adaptation of its organs to one another and to the external world, to admire and love the Creator of such marvels. His mind was at one with that of his friend Bayle."

Laënnec describes his discovery with characteristic simplicity. Hitherto, he says, two methods of investigation have been employed in the investigation of pulmonary disease, the application of the hand and of the ear. There are many cases in which neither is successful. For himself he has chanced upon a third and better one.
In 1816 I was consulted by a young person who was labouring from the general symptoms of a diseased heart. In her case, percussion and the application of the hand (what modern doctors call 'palpation'), were of little service because of a considerable degree of stoutness. The other method, that namely of listening to the sounds within the chest by the direct application of the ear to the chest wall, being rendered inadmissible by the age and sex of the patient, I happened to recollect a simple and well-known fact in acoustics and fancied it might be turned to some use on the present occasion. The fact I allude to is the great distinctness with which we hear the scratch of a pin at one end of a piece of wood on applying our ear to the other.
Immediately on the occurrence of this idea I rolled a quire of paper into a kind of cylinder and applied one end of it to the region of the heart and the other to my ear. I was not a little surprised and pleased to find that I could thereby perceive the action of the heart in a manner much more clear and distinct than I had ever been able to do by immediate application of the ear.
From this moment I imagined that the circumstance might furnish means for enabling us to ascertain the character not only of the beating of the heart, but of every species of sound produced by the motion of all the thoracic viscera, and consequently for the exploration of the respiration, the voice, the death rattle, and perhaps even the movements of fluid effused in the pleura or pericardium. With this conviction I forthwith commenced at the Necker Hospital a series of observations from which I have been able to deduce a set of new signs of diseases of the chest. These are for the most part certain, easily perceptible, and calculated, perhaps, to render the diagnosis of the diseases of the lungs, heart and pleura as decided and circumstantial as the indications furnished to the surgeon by the finger or the probe, in the complaints wherein these are of use.

[Fr. Kneller, Christianity and the Leaders of Modern Science]

Outstanding. Another scientist who used the Rosary.

Also see here.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Father René-Just Haüy

Father René-Just Haüy was the founder of scientific Crystallography - he was a simple professor in a school at Paris, conducted by priests. You may not have heard of him, so I will give you Father Kneller's report:
René Juste Haüy was born on Feb. 28, 1743 in a little village of the Departement of Oise. His father was a poor linenweaver, who found it very hard to earn his bread; and, despite the talent shown by his eldest son, there seemed to be no other prospect before the boy except to earn his bread by the work of his hands.

Happily there was in Haüy's native place a house of the Premonstratensians, and the lad early gave tokens of a vocation to the religious life. His devout demeanour brought him under the notice of the Prior, and the latter, discovering his remarkable talents, undertook to procure him a place at Paris. This proved somewhat difficult, and young Haüy was for some time employed as a choir boy, but he eventually secured a place at the College of Navarra. Here he showed such ability that on the completion of his course he was appointed on the teaching staff. He taught for many years at the College of Navarra, and afterwards at the College of Cardinal Lemoine, absolutely content with his humble position, careless of advancement, and so far very superficially versed in physical science.

It was solely to oblige a fellow-professor that he began to study Botany. In the College Lemoine there was a Father Lhomond, a very learned man and capable writer, who, however, devoted his brilliant powers solely to the education of the young, and wrote elementary books which enjoyed a wide circulation. Haüy chose Lhomond as his confessor, accompanied him on excursions, and cared for him when he was ill. Lhomond studied Botany in his walks, and Haüy during his vacation determined to master at home enough of the science to surprise and delight his friend on his return. He carried out his plan, and on his first walk with Lhomond was able to give the Linnaean names of nearly all the plants they met with.

This was his first step in a field which was soon to become more and more attractive. He began to frequent eagerly the botanical gardens which lay near his college; but one day, seeing the mineralogist Daubenton enter with his class, he joined them and discovered a subject which ousted even Botany from his affections.

He was already a mature man when he took up this study, but in a short time he showed himself as thoroughly at home with it as if he had been a mineralogist all his life. One property of minerals struck and surprised him particularly. While in plants every single part however complicated, always appears of identically the same character, in minerals this constancy seems to be absent. The same mineral appears now in one, now in another crystal-form. One day as Haüy was meditating on this peculiarity he had the misfortune to let fall a beautiful group of prismatic crystals of calcareous spar and a crystal was broken off.

The fracture exhibited surfaces as smooth as the outside of the prism, and a new crystal emerged as it were from the broken one, the conformation of which was not prismatic. Haüy examined it and found to his surprise that it was the same crystal-formation as Iceland spar,[the clear form of calcite] that is to say, it was rhomboidal. An idea flashed across his mind. Had he not here the solution of the problem which had so long perplexed him? Might it not be that the various crystal formations in which the same mineral appeared were simply different arrangements of the same ultimate crystal? Haüy was by this happy accident put on the right track; he followed up his idea resolutely, and laid the foundation of the modern science of Crystallography.

Although his discoveries gave him a European reputation Haüy remained always an humble and faithful priest. When he first began to attend the sittings of the Academy, he appeared in a clerical dress of somewhat antiquated cut. His friends fearing that invincible prejudices might be aroused aginst him, tried to persuade him to lay aside his clerical costume on these occasions, but Haüy refused to do so until the opinion of a Doctor of the Sorbonne had been taken on the matter. When in 1792 those religious who refused allegiance to the Revolution were thrown into prison, Haüy was among the number. His papers were seized, his crystals bundled away, and he himself, with his fellow-professors, was confined in the Seminary of Saint-Firmin which had been turned into a prison.

Influential friends interested themselves on his behalf, and secured an order for his release. Haüy at first refused to accept his liberty. His crystals and instruments had been brought to his cell, and he was working away at them as contentedly as if he were in his own laboratory. It was only with difficulty that he was persuaded to leave on the following day.

He suffered no more under the Revolution. "While Lavoisier was under arrest, and Borda and Delambre were dismissed, it is a remarkable fact that Haüy, a priest who had refused the oath and who continued to exercise the religious duties of his office, was actually presenting memorials for the release of his lay colleagues. This he did without hesitation, and without incurring any penalty for it." It was during the Revolution that he finished his great work:
"Possessed of a vast collection", says Cuvier, "which constantly received fresh accessions of all known minerals and aided by the co-operation of those ardent and capable students whom the École Polytechnique placed at his disposition, many of whom stand to-day in the front rank of mineralogists, he soon made up for the time which he had spent on less valuable work, and raised in a few years that striking monument which we may say has done for France what the peculiar circumstances of his life did for M. Haüy, and has lifted her, after centuries of neglect, to the head of this department of natural history. This book possesses in effect two qualities rarely found in union: on the one hand it is founded on a discovery completely original and due solely to the genius of its author; on the other this discovery is applied with inconceivable minuteness and perseverance to every known species of mineral. The plan of the book is spacious, the detail rigorously accurate; the whole is as perfect as the theory of which it is the formulation."
On the death of Dolomieu, Haüy was appointed Professor of Mineralogy at the Museum of Natural History. His appointment infused new life into the place. The collections increased fourfold, and "Europe, or at least that part of it which was interested in mineralogy, streamed thither, partly to study so exhaustive and wellordered a collection, partly to hear a lecturer so lucid, elegant and courteous" The most noticeable trait of Haüy's character was his courtesy and willingness to oblige. "The most ordinary students were received as amiably as the most distinguished savants; for he had pupils of all classes.... He brought his École-Normale classes to his own house, and initiated them in all his secrets He was on these occasions the old college-professor, he took part in all the fun of the young people, and never let them go without a merry meal."
Amid all the honours that were showered on him Haüy preserved the simplicity of life which had marked his earlier days. He made no alteration in his hours of dining or of rising; and he continued his walk, employing it as in old times as much for the pleasure of others as for his own. He showed strangers the way, procured them tickets of admission to his museum, explained the collections and rendered all sorts of services; and few indeed, of those whom he was so ready to oblige, recognised the great savant. He was hidden away under old fashioned clothes, and an almost exaggerated modesty of speech and manner. One day he encountered two ax-soldiers, who were preparing to fight a duel. He ascertained the cause of the quarrel, reconciled them, and brought them into a café to seal the peace with a bottle of wine. On external splendour he set no value. He had free access to the finest collections of precious stones in Europe, he wrote a memoir on jewels, but to him they were no more than interesting crystals. A variation of half a degree in the angle of a familiar crystal would have stirred his attention more acutely than all the treasures of India. In his declining years Haüy had reason to congratulate himself on the modest habits of life which he had cultivated. Circumstances led to a considerable reduction of his salary, and he had to live out his days on crippled resources. He lived to the ripe age of seventy-nine. A fracture of the knee, resulting from a fall in his room, marked the beginning of the end. Throughout the whole course of his illness he never altered in benevolence towards others, in cheerful submission to Providence, or in zeal for science. He divided his time between prayer, supervision of the new edition of his book, and labour to secure the future of the students who had worked in collaboration with him. He died on June 3 1822. He had been a living proof that a man may be the pioneer of a new era in science, without for that reason contemning God and His Church. "As loyal to his religion as to his science", says Cuvieri, "he never suffered the loftiest speculations to draw him away from the minutes" discharge of the observances prescribed by his Church."
[Kneller, Christianity and the Leaders of Modern Science]
Also see here. Father Haüy has a mineral named after him: Dana's Manual of Mineralogy reports that Haüynite is rare feldspathoid (a rock-forming mineral chemically similar to the feldspars): (Na,Ca)4-8 (AlSiO4)6 (SO4)1-2.

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]

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Guglielmo Marconi

Who would be more fitting to remember on the (old calendar) feast of St. Gabriel the Archangel, patron saint of communications?

Alas, my usual sources do not help me today. Fr. Jaki hardly mentions him, and he was too recent for Fr. Kneller to treat. Likewise Dr. Walsh - who would certainly have included a reference to him in his The Popes and Science. And though I have a full-length biography, I can't give you a summary of that today. However! A little booklet my father gave me for a birthday many years ago gives me enough to make known the message:

Marconi got his inspiration for radio while he was walking down the cloister of a cathedral. He dedicated his first broadcast to the Mother of God.

In 1909 Marconi received the Nobel prize in physics, and the whole world celebrated his triumph for his success in wireless telegraphy. It was Marconi himself who designed the Vatican Radio. One of the greatest moments in his life came on Feb. 12,1931 in Vatican City, when he helped Pope Pius XI make the first short wave broadcast to the world from Vatican Radio, Station HVJ.

Marconi, tall, elegant, and distinguished, stepped to the microphone and said: "For about 20 centuries the head of the Roman Catholic Church has made heard the word of his divine office in all parts of
the world, but this is the first time that his voice can be heard simultaneously and at the one time over the whole surface of the earth."

"With the help of God who places so many of the mysterious forces of nature at the disposition of man, I have been able to prepare this instrument which will procure for the faithful of the world the consolation of hearing the Holy Father's voice."

Pope Pius XI opened his 12-minute address in Latin, with the message first proclaimed by angel hosts over the starlit fields of Bethlehem, "Glory to God in the highest: and on earth peace to men of good will." Further on in his speech, Pope Pius XI quoted from the Psalms, "Incline your ear to the words of my mouth. Hear, all ye people, lend your ears, O all who inhabit the world. Hear the words of the Lord, and proclaim them to the distant islands." Millions listened, struck by the marvel which science had placed at the service of God, and deeply moved by the stirring challenge of the ancient words, so familiar, yet ever new.

Station HVJ was supervised with loving care by Marconi until his death in 1937. One of the largest radio stations in Europe, it is modern to the very last detail, and has powerful transmitters to carry the voice and commissions of the Holy Father to the ends of the earth. It broadcasts in 29 languages, including more than a dozen languages of nations behind the Iron Curtain.

Missionaries from remote regions of the world on their visit to Rome report with strong emotion how they and the faithful are stirred with the reception of a broadcast from HVJ. The broadcast begins with the sounding of St. Peter's great bell, followed by the words, "Praised be Jesus Christ."
[John M. Scott, S.J., Men of Faith and Science]

I think this is a wonderful line: "With the help of God who places so many of the mysterious forces of nature at the disposition of man, I have been able to prepare this instrument which will procure for the faithful of the world the consolation of hearing the Holy Father's voice."

P.S. I once had the link for a video clip of the actual event, but I was not able to locate it - it's out here somewhere, if you wish to go on a hunting expedition.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Urbain-Jean-Joseph Leverrier

Some days ago we heard how Ceres was found by Father Piazzi. Today we shall hear how a Catholic discovered the planet Neptune.

A name known even to those who are not specialists in science is that of the great master of the theory of the planets, Urbain Jean Joseph Leverrier (born 1811 at Saint-Lô, died 1877 at Paris, where he was Director of the Observatory). Who indeed could fail to have heard of the discovery of Neptune, the existence and the location of which Leverrier demonstrated mathematically, and which was thereupon actually discovered by Galle of Berlin in the place indicated? The achievement compelled the admiration of all Europe. "It was a discovery", said Piazzi Smith on the death of Leverrier, "which almost took men's breath away for the moment in astonishment and admiration: and showed that the age of intellectual giants cast in the mould of Newton and Laplace was not yet closed." The name of Leverrier was in every mouth, and honours and distinctions were showered on him from every quarter.

And yet the discovery of Neptune is not perhaps Leverrier's greatest service to Astronomy. Even without his famous computation, Neptune must have been before long discovered. But what science might not yet have attained, were it not for Leverrier's mathematical genius, his masterly grasp of every intricacy of celestial mechanics, and his iron industry and perseverance, is the exact determination of the theory of the planetary system as a whole. For it was this that Leverrier chose as the main business of his life.

The great Astronomer had begun his career in 1836 with some theses in chemistry. But three years later we find him busy with astronomical calculations, a field which he was not to abandon till death. In 1839 he published a mathematical calculation of the variations of the planets during the period 100,000 B. C. to 100,000 A. D., in which he perfected Laplace's imperfect proof that despite the disturbing influence of the planets on one another, the planetary system can never of its own intrinsic forces fall into disorder. In 1843 he worked out the path of Mercury: in 1845 Arago, then Director of the Observatory, recommended him to study the path of Uranus, the most distant of the planets at that time known. By November of this latter year he had worked out a full computation of the path of that planet on the assumption that no influence was operative save that of the planets already known. In June 1846 there followed an essay in which the path thus computed was compared with actual observations, and it was shown that in order to explain the divergences from the path it was necessary to posit the existence of another planet lying outside Uranus. On August 31 1846 Leverrier published a computation of the path of this new body, the existence of which he had thus deductively established. Subsequent observations proved that he was not deceived, and led to the most remarkable of all the discoveries of Astronomy.

In the years 1844-1847 there appeared exhaustive studies of certain of the comets which revolve about the sun, those, namely, which are called after Lexell, Faye, and De Vico. Leverrier traced up the history of these comets, showed by colossal calculations how their paths must have been, and must in the future be, determined by the influence of the planets, especially of Jupiter, and sought to ascertain when these comets became associated with the solar system, and when they will once again pass out of the sphere of influence of the sun.

The planet tables then employed were not in complete agreement with actual observations; the divergences were slight, but still large enough to indicate some mistake in the assumptions on which they were founded. On July 2 1849 Leverrier laid before the Academy the "gigantic plan" of a new computation of these tables. "This Herculean labour", as Tisserand calls it, "he continued down to his death, and he had the fortune and glory to bring it by his sole efforts to a consummation." Mercury, Venus, the Earth, and Mars occupied twenty years: the other planets which presented still greater difficulties were computed in a shorter space.

Amongst the honours bestowed on Leverrier for these brilliant achievements were the dignity of Senator of the Empire, and the Directorate of the Paris Observatory (1854). It may be doubted, however, whether Leverrier was precisely the man for this latter position. He worked, throughout the night "and grudged even a few hours rest to his body, exhausted by continuous labours of this kind. The result was a severe and tedious illness, which had an unfavourable influence on his character" Thus his subordinates found him a hard taskmaker, and the exacting demands he made on them were not mitigated by any courtesy or consideration of manner. Under his Directorate the Observatory exhibited great activity, the results of which are to be found in its publications, but the discontent with Leverrier became so acute that in the year 1870 the Government removed him from his position. Three years later he was, however, restored, for Leverrier was one of those men who cannot be dispensed with. Nor was it his staff alone that had experience of the great savant's ability to make himself unpleasant. When under the Third Republic orders were issued that the motto "Liberté, Fraternité, Egalité" should be inscribed on all public buildings, and even on churches, Leverrier refused to allow any other inscription over the door of the Observatory except the single word Observatoire, and the Government had to give him his ways.

Leverrier was known in France as a "Clerical". "Under the Empire", complained a Paris newspaper, on his reappointment, "he was a clericalising senator, pledged no less deeply to the interests of the altar than to those of the throne." In a discourse pronounced at his funeral, Tresca declared that the study of the heavens had only confirmed and deepened his lively faith in Christianity. It was given to him, said Dumas on the same occasion, to write the last word of the last page of his immortal work in the last hour of his life, murmuring as he concluded: Nunc dimittis servum tuum, Domine. ["Now O Lord you can dismiss your servant" Lk2:29] On June 5 1876 Leverrier laid before the Academy the last instalment of his great work, containing the tables of Jupiter and Saturn. Referring to the speech in which J. B. Dumas had a few days before declared against materialism, he said:
"Throughout this protracted undertaking, lasting over thirty years, we have had need to draw support from the spectacle of one of the glories of creation, and from the ~ thought that our study tended to confirm us in the imperishable truths of the spiritualistic philosophy. It was then with profound emotion that I heard at the last meeting of the Academy, our illustrious permanent Secretary re-affirm those great principles which are the very source of the purest science. That declaration will remain as an honour and an inspiration to French science: and I esteem it a great happiness to have this opportunity of rising in the midst of our Academy, and proclaiming my cordial adhesion to his principles."

[Kneller, Christianity and the Leaders of Modern Science]
I should point out that this Dumas mentioned was a great chemist and also a Catholic; he was a teacher of Pasteur. (We may see him in a future posting.)

There's more to tell, and it is a bit detailed, but connects Leverrier with another great physicist, and is perhaps even more thrilling than the discovery of Neptune:
Leverrier in 1845 found that the advance per century of the perihelion of Mercury was twice as great as the value accepted in Newton's time and that of the total value of 574 seconds of arc, 42 seconds could not be accounted for by any conceivable pattern of perturbation. Inspired no doubt by his discovery of Neptune, Leverrier in 1859 assigned the unaccountable 42 seconds of arc to the effect of a hypothetical planet having the same mass as Mercury but being at half the distance of Mercury from the Sun. In the same year an amateur astronomer, Lescarbault, claimed to have observed the transit of a small round object across the sun's disc. Some of Lescarbault's observations were promptly accepted by Leverrier, who named the new planet Vulcan and computed its revolution around the sun as twenty days. Despite the fanfare, the most competent astronomers, Leverrier included, were unable to observe Vulcan. Leverrier, however, had already cast his lot with Vulcan. When, on April 4, 1876, Weber announced at Peckeloh that he had seen Vulcan's transit, Leverrier's confidence was bolstered again, and he fixed the transits of Vulcan for March 22, 1877, and October 15, 1882. On the appointed days nothing was sighted with any certainty. Such was also the case during the total solar eclipse of July 15, 1878. Meanwhile, the true amount of the advance of the perihelion of Mercury was subjected to further observations, and Newcomb in 1884 put the amount unaccountable by any known or conceivable factor at 43 seconds of arc per century. To clear up this puny but stubborn discrepancy between theory and observation, an even more drastic step than finding a new planet was needed to do full justice to a mere 43 seconds of arc that takes a full hundred years to accumulate. ...

When the first consistent solution came, the most universal and most respected of all physical laws, Newton's account of the motion in a central field of force, was viewed in a much different light: it was only the particular case of a law of much wider sweep, the General Theory of Relativity. Nowhere else, perhaps, had the edge of precision influenced so forcefully the course science was to follow. The satisfactory account for 43 seconds of arc per century was actually the first experimental evidence Einstein could claim for his theory. To see his equations so complicated (if judged by the standards of ordinary calculus) yield the exact amount, was for Einstein, as he wrote in his letter of November 28, 1915, to Sommerfeld, one of the most exciting times of his life. "The marvelous thing which I experienced was the fact that not only did Newton's theory result as first approximation but also the perihelion motion of Mercury (43" per century) as second approximation."
[Jaki, The Relevance of Physics 244-5, quoting Schilpp (ed.), Albert Einstein: Philosopher-Scientist]

I hope you caught Jaki's clever pun: "viewed in a much different light".

Also see here for more about Leverrier.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Charles Hermite

Whenever I hear someone speak of "transcendental" - usually in modification of the word "meditation", which for me as a Catholic is always the extreme presence of thought, and not its absence, as in the "eastern" form...

Ahem. Let me start over.

Whenever I hear someone speak of "transcendental" I think of Hermite.

Charles Hermite (1822-1901) is the great French Catholic mathematician who established that the number e is transcendental. This number e, just like the much more famous number p, is represented by a letter - it's approximately 2.71828, but it never repeats. It is transcendental because it is not the root of any algebraic equation with integer coefficients. This was not Hermite's only work; other results are far harder to state, but play important roles in quantum physics, which comes up in - oh, semiconductors. (That means COMPUTERS, you know. And cell phones, and video games and all that. Oh!)

Let us hear Kneller's entire report, both informative and moving:
On Jan. 14th 1901 there died at Paris "the last of the great mathematicians of the second half of the nineteenth century", a gray-haired veteran of seventy-eight, whose eminence in the history of science was proclaimed in the highest terms of praise by the highest authorities. The first of these eulogists was Fouqué, President of the Academy of Sciences of Paris.

"Hermite", he writes, "doyen of our Geometrical section, and member of the Academy since 1856, was one of our special glories. All who sit here as geometricians think it their chief honour to have been pupils of his, all are penetrated with gratitude for the generous aid which he has constantly given them. Wherever science is cultivated, the name of Hermite is spoken with veneration."

To the praise of his scientific genius there was added recognition of his lovable character.

"With Hermite", wrote La Marc, "there disappears one of the unsullied glories of French science.
Hermite not only stood among the masters of mathematics of the last century; his private life, also, was a model. No one ever pushed unselfish devotion to science farther than he did.

"He leaves to history an imperishable name, and to all those who had the happiness to know him, the memory of a man as great of heart as of intellect. A convinced spiritualist he believed that the soul would one day be crowned with a complete revelation of those mathematical harmonies of which only the reflex is accessible to human nature."

Not very long before, on Dec. 24th, 1892, France had celebrated with the greatest splendour Hermite's seventieth birthday. The Minister of Education presided at the Jubilee Assembly, the most eminent French mathematicians were present, and nearly every learned society offered an address. The King of Sweden decorated Hermite with an order, hitherto conferred on no one in France except the President of the Republic and Pasteur. And all these honours were well deserved, for, as Poincaré said in his discourses, Hermite had for fifty years laboured incessantly in all the most difficult departments of mathematics and had enriched mathematical analysis, Algebra, and the Theory of Numbers with "inestimable conquests". When only twenty years of age he had addressed to Jacobi an essay of a very few pages which placed him at one bound on a level with the first mathematicians in Europe. After the death of Cauchy, Gauss, Jacobi and Dirichlet, he was universally regarded as the leader of his science. At the mathematical Congresses at Zurich in 1897, and at Paris in 1900, he was elected, with acclamation, Honorary President.

Of his discoveries we may mention one, which will be understood even by those who have no technical knowledge of mathematics. It was Hermite who in 1873 demonstrated for the first time that the quantity e is transcendent i. e. it cannot be the root of an algebraic equation with integral co-efficients. Hermite's line of proof was in 1881 extended by Lindemann to the quantity p, and by means of it an interesting fact was established. Inasmuch as p cannot be the root of a quadratic equation it follows that it cannot be determined with rule and compass, in other words, that the "squaring of the circle" is impossible.

That p does not admit of determination with other instruments does not of course follow; in point of fact it can be determined with the help of the integraph, invented in 1880 by the Russian Abakanowicz. An old problem was thus at last solved: it had taken two thousand years, and the expenditure of a vast deal of pains and penetration to discover that the attempt so often renewed was a priori impossible. Professor F. Klein may justly say that this discovery, suggested and made possible by Termite, marks an epoch in the history of mathematical science.

Painlevé's reference to Hermite's "spiritualism" will be more clearly understood if it is stated that the great mathematician was simply a member of the Catholic Church. In his younger days his religious views had undergone certain variations. But "thanks to the charity of the Sisters of Mercy who nursed him through a severe illness, thanks also without doubt to the influence of Cauchy" he returned to the Faith, and, "from the day in i856 on which he found his road to Damascus, the fervour of his religion never diminished". "From 1877 on", writes the Catholic Review from which we borrow these notes, "he took a lively interest in our review, and constantly congratulated our late-lamented general secretary and his collaborators on their articles, which he found so solid and so appropriate to the intellectual needs of the day".... Fifteen years later he expressed himself to the same effect, and added that he had the happiness to share the Faith professed by the writers of the Review. To the Congress of Catholic Scientists, held at Brussels in 1894, he contributed a paper.

"Hermite", says the celebrated mathematician Émile Borel, "was deeply attached to the Catholic religion; it was the stay and the centre of his life.... His opinions and his works were in perfect harmony with Catholic ideas, and this is certainly no ordinary merit."
[Kneller, Christianity and the Leaders of Modern Science]

It seems a bit odd that I've posted all these little reports with hardly any humour - and that is sad. So, in recognition of tomorrow being Laetare Sunday, I shall give you a curious little vignette from Fr. Jaki's "Intellectual Autobiography":
I still remember the embarrassment of an excellent teacher of quantum mechanics, whom I asked in class as to why certain very useful polynomials are called Hermite polynomials. He answered that probably because of their mysterious character they were found to resemble those elusive figures, called hermits. Perhaps he was joking. But that was the last time I raised such questions in class. As I came to see later on, only one out of ten textbooks of quantum mechanics would reveal that Hermite was a 19th-century French mathematician. None of those textbooks contained a single word on a historically far more intriguing, and epistemologically far more revealing, fact of modern physics. Both in relativity theory and in quantum mechanics crucial role was played by mathematical functions that had been worked out for decades, at times a century earlier before physicists found them useful, indeed, indispensable.
[Jaki, A Mind's Matter 25]

Also see here.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Galileo Galilei

Since today is the equinox, and our thoughts ought to turn to the turning of the earth in its ellipse around the sun, we might think of a Catholic astronomer who thought otherwise.

Yes, today we shall recall Galileo Galilei, who did more than some recall, and less than some credit him with.

He was born in 1564, and died in 1642, which was the year that Newton was born.

He was a good scientist - ins some things. He was also Catholic - he did not deny the truths of the faith - but he sure was stubborn, and fat-headed, and in at least some sense a very naughty man. He did not say "Eppur si muove" = "And yet it moves" - that was invented by a certain Abbé Irailh about a century later. He did not drop stuff from the Leaning Tower of Pisa. And no, he was not condemned, and burned at the stake.

About the earth's motion, I am sorry to say that he did not get the science right. Galileo would not listen to Kepler, who had the data, and formulated what we call Kepler's laws of planetary motion - but Galileo would not listen to anyone it seems. Galileo said he had "proof" - but his "proof" was wrong, and his fellow scientists told him to his face he was wrong, and he would not listen.

To put it in a brief sentence, "Galileo was a tiresome person" [Windle, The Catholic Church and Its Reactions With Science]

But enough of the negatives. Galileo did some very important and groundbreaking work in observation - the mountains of the Moon, the spots which revealed the rotation of the Sun, the phases of Venus, and the four large moons of Jupiter, still called the Galilean moons: Io, Europa, Ganymede, Callisto.

And as it turns out, though Galileo was wrong about his science of the earth-around-the-sun issue, he happened to be right about the theology - which is hilarious, considering at one point he was dealing with St. Robert Bellarmine, a Doctor of the Church! I am not going to write a whole book on this, but here's just a little from Jaki:
...it was Galileo and not Bellarmine who quoted Jerome and Augustine to the effect that biblical references to the sun's motion and to the earth's immobility may be a mere registering of appearances.
On a cursory look it may be said, and unfortunately this has been done all too often, that the Church of Urban VIII and Bellarmine understood Galileo's science much better than Galileo did. Both those churchmen, and many others after them, took exception to the realism with which Galileo asserted the heliocentric ordering of planets. According to them the heliocentric theory, or any physical theory for that matter, was nothing more than a convenient ordering of data with no intrinsic bearing on reality.
Heliocentrism, as proposed by Galileo, was a vision. Its chief empirical evidence, the observation of stellar parallax due to the orbital motion of the earth, was still two hundred years away. Galileo also held that no experiment performed on the earth can serve as a proof of its motion. Two centuries later Foucault proved him wrong. Worse still, Galileo was the kind of visionary who at times could not see his own self-contradictions. For more than twenty years prior to the publication in 1632 of his Dialogue concerning the Two Chief World Systems he kept hinting that he had worked out such a proof. The proof, based on the tides, was presented by Galileo in the fourth part of the Dialogue where in the first three parts he repeatedly stated the impossibility of a terrestrial experiment on behalf of the earth's motion. Within a year it was stated in print that Galileo's proof was based on a confusion between two coordinate systems, one pivoted on the earth's center, the other on a point of its surface.
[Jaki, Catholic Essays]

Even physics, which corresponds most closely to that definition of science, is not about motion, not about things, but only about the quantitative aspects of things in motion. At the same time science alone is competent about those aspects. And those aspects are everywhere. This is why science is all important, though not exclusively important.
From this there follows something most momentous for handling properly the subject of science and religion. This most momentous point was already noted by Saint Augustine when he tried to cope with the obvious differences between what one learns from the Bible and from science about the physical world. By Saint Augustine's time it had for seven hundred years been generally accepted in educated circles that the earth was spherical. But according to the Bible the earth is a shallow disk floating on waters. To reconcile this difference, Saint Augustine laid down an all important rule: whenever something in the Bible about the physical world conflicts with what reason established on the same point, the Bible should be reinterpreted accordingly. About things physical, or at least about their shape, reason or science is the final arbiter.

[Don't forget:] In Augustine's time every educated person knew that the earth was spherical, whereas according to the Bible the earth is more or less a flat disk.
[Jaki, A Late Awakening]
The work of St. Augustine referred to is De Genesi ad litteram:
There Augustine laid down the rule that whenever reason established with certainty this or that feature of the physical world, contrary statements of the Bible must be interpreted accordingly. One reason for obeying that rule was to prevent the Creed from being turned into a laughing stock for unbelievers, who, as Augustine stated, often happen to know “with absolute certainty and through experimental evidence about the earth, sky, and other elements of this world, about the motion, rotation, and even about the sizes and distances of stars, about certain defects [eclipses] of the sun and moon, about the cycles of years and epochs, about the nature of animals, fruits, stones, and the like.”
Augustine assigned indeed a very generous extent within which scientific knowledge could have absolute certainty. At the same time he allowed no range whatever within which there could be, about natural phenomena, a “Christian account” in opposition to what could be known by science. He viewed such accounts as “most deplorable and harmful, and to be avoided at any cost,” because on hearing them the non-believer “could hardly hold his laughter on seeing, as the saying goes, the error rise sky-high.”
[Jaki, Bible and Science]
But this is beginning to go off the topic and onto another one. Some other time we'll go further.

See here for more, and also the books by S. L. Jaki, for example, especially "The Case for Galileo's Rehabilitation" in Catholic Essays, "Myopia with Lynx Eyes about a Text of Aristotle" in A Late Awakening, and The Relevance of Physics, just to start with.

I must add one more thing: whenever someone tries to pester you with the name "Galileo", merely reply "Pasteur".

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Louis Pasteur

For today, the Feast of St. Joseph, I have chosen one of the greatest of scientists - a man whose name is so common, so well-known, one can find it countless times in any supermarket or grocery store - a deeply religious man, and a man who was also a devoted father. There are vast quantities of material available for me to select quotations, but I shall be very sparse.

The first is one of the most touching. I read it years ago in a little inspirational magazine. I've not yet located its source, or its authenticity, but it is certainly true to character...


A young man entered the coach of a train in a small university town in France. The ink was scarcely dry on his newly acquired diploma.

As the train sped off for Paris, he took his seat in the rear of the coach near an elderly gentleman who seemed to be dozing. As the train suddenly lurched, a string of rosary beads fell from his hand. The young man picked up the rosary and handed it to the elderly gentleman with the remark, "I presume you are praying, sir?"

"You are right. I was praying."

"I am surprised," said the young fellow, "that in this day and age there is someone who is still so benighted and superstitious. Our professors at the university do not believe in such things," and he proceeded to "enlighten" his elderly fellow-passenger.

The old man expressed surprise and amazement.

"Yes," continued the young man, "today enlightened people don't believe in such nonsense."

"You don't say!" replied the old man.

"Yes, sir, and if you wish, I can send you some illuminating books."

"Very well," said the old man, preparing to leave as the train came to a stop. "You may send them to this address." He handed the young man a card, which read:

Louis Pasteur
Director of the Institute of Scientific Research

[Key To Happiness, October 1986]
Yes, Louis Pasteur (1822-1895) an exceedingly great scientist, a devout Catholic, a Frenchman, a father...one of the great heroes of humanity.

Here is a tiny glimpse of him by Chesterton:
Suppose, for the sake of argument, that the Bolshevist Minister of Education were bitten by a mad dog. Some would say that there would not be much to choose between the combatants; or that, as the poet says, it is the dog that would die. But surely the Minister would agree, in that case at least, that it is "serving humanity" to save it from hydrophobia. He would probably go in for the Pasteur treatment; that is, he would put himself under the direction of a scientist and technician who not only believed in angels and devils, but who proudly declared that his beliefs were identical with those of a Breton peasant.
[GKC Aug 20 1921 CW32:224]
One source suggests that the allusion to the "Breton peasant" is legendary, and another gives a citation - I cannot settle the issue here and now - but, like the ancedote of the rosary on the train, it is true in character if not in detail.

But I... (you cannot sense the pause there was here, but I tell you of it.)

I find myself finger-tied (the typing version of being tongue-tied) in trying to speak of this great man. In Kneller's work you will find that all the praises which the Common Man attributes to Pasteur for his work in Medicine are doubled - indeed, yes - by the chorus from Chemistry for his work in revealing that some chemicals (like sugar) have "chirality" - they come in right-hand or left-hand forms... or from all his advances in Biology, with vast practical applications: from the Silk industry of France, rescued by his work - or from the Brewers and all who make Beer - or from the Vintners and all who make Wine - and then we must add the world of Dairy - milk and cheese and all related things. Is this not enough to be overwhelming?

And his faith? Let us hear Father Kneller...
Pasteur's place among the masters of science is certain beyond cavil, and equally certain is it that he was till the end a faithful and fervent Catholic. In his later years he was in the habit of approaching the sacraments very frequently: "He gave up his soul to God at the last, clasping in his hands his little copper cross, and repeating fervently a confession of faith and hope." It is related that a student once asked him how it was that, after so much reflection and research, he could remain a believer. "It is just because I have thought and sought so much" replied Pasteur, "that I believe with the faith of a Breton peasant. If I had thought more and studied more I would have come to believe with the faith of the Breton peasant's wife."
[Kneller Christianity and the Leaders of Modern Science 327; he gives a citation for that quote about the Breton peasant.]

Did he say really say that? It is of no matter. Hear, instead, just a portion of Dr. Walsh's chapter on Pasteur:
Above the entrance of this chapel-tomb, and immediately beneath the words "Here lies Pasteur," is very fittingly placed his famous confession of faith:

"Happy the man who bears within him a divinity, an ideal of beauty and obeys it; an ideal of art, an ideal of science, an ideal of country, an ideal of the virtues of the Gospel."

When we turn to the panegyric of Littré in which the words occur we find two further sentences worth noting here: "These are the living springs of great thoughts and great actions. Everything grows clear in the reflections from the infinite."

These words are all the more striking from the circumstances in which they were uttered. When a vacant chair (fauteuil) in the French academy is filled by the election of a new member of the Forty Immortals, the incoming academician must give the panegyric of his predecessor in the same chair. Pasteur was elected to the fauteuil that had been occupied by Littré. Littré, who by forty years of unceasing toil made a greater dictionary of the French language than the Academy has made in the nearly two hundred years devoted to the task, was the greatest living positivist of his day. He and Pasteur had been on terms of the greatest intimacy. Pasteur's appreciation of his dead friend is at once sincere and hearty, but also just and impartial. Littré had been a model of the human virtues. Suffering had touched him deeply and found him ever ready with compassionate response. His fellow-man had been the subject of his deepest thoughts, though his relationship to other men appealed to him only because of the bonds of human brotherhood. Pasteur called him a "laic" saint. For many of us it is a source of genuine consolation and seems a compensation for the human virtues exercised during a long life that the great positivist died the happy death of a Christian confident in the future life and its rewards.

But Pasteur himself rises above the merely positive. The spiritual side of things appeals to him and other-worldliness steps in to strengthen the merely human motives that meant so much for Littré. Higher motives dominate the life and actions of Pasteur himself. In the midst of his panegyric of the great positivist the greatest scientist of his age makes his confession of faith in the things that are above and beyond the domain of the senses - his ideals and his God.

There is said to exist a constant, unappeasable warfare between science and religion. Perhaps it does exist, but surely only in the narrow minds of the lesser lights. In no century has science developed as in the one that has just closed. Faraday the great scientific mind of the beginning of the century, said, at one of his lectures before the Royal Academy of Sciences of England, when the century was scarcely a decade old: "I do not name God here because I am lecturing on experimental science. But the notion of respect for God comes to my mind by ways as sure as those which lead us to physical truth." At the end of the century the monument of a great man of science is a chapel with an altar on which the sacrifice of Him that died for men is commemorated on Pasteur anniversaries.

The walls of the chapel are inscribed with the scientific triumphs of the master whose ashes repose here. It is a striking catalogue. Each heading represents a great step forward in science:

1848, Molecular Dissymmetry.
1857, Fermentations.
1862, So-called Spontaneous Generation.
1863, Studies in Wine.
1865, Diseases of Silk Worms.
1871, Studies in Beer.
1877, Virulent Microbic Diseases.
1880, Vaccinating Viruses.
1885, Prophylaxis of Rabies.
Apparently these various subjects are widely separated from one another. It might seem that Pasteur was an erratic genius. As a matter of fact, each successive subject follows its predecessor by a rigid logic. Pasteur's life-work can be best studied by a consideration of these various topics and an appreciation of the
advance made in each one.

It is not surprising, then, to find many other expressions of Pasteur's extreme interest in spiritual things, though they might have been little expected from a man so deeply immersed in scientific investigations as he was. After all, it must not be forgotten that his discoveries, by solving the mystery that surrounds the origin of disease, cleared some of the ways of Providence of that inscrutable character which is supposed in shallow minds to constitute the greatest part of their impressiveness. With epidemics explained, not as dispensations of Divine Providence, but as representing the sanction of nature for the violation of natural laws, one of the reasons for which mankind worshipped the Deity seemed to be gone. The man who had done most to make clear these mysterious processes of nature was, however, himself far from thinking that materialism offers any adequate explanation of the mysteries of life, or of the relations of man to man, and of man to his Creator. Impatient at the pretensions of such pseudoscientists, Pasteur once said: "Posterity will one day laugh at the sublime foolishness of the modern materialistic philosophy. The more I study nature, the more I stand amazed at the work of the Creator. I pray while I am engaged at my work in the laboratory."
[Walsh, Makers of Modern Medicine]
As you might expect, Dr. Walsh devotes an entire chapter to Pasteur. But Fr. Kneller reports part of this panegyric, which (as it is Pasteur's own words) I think is very important for us to hear. It also gives us some detail about the curious old thing called Positivism, which is still spreading its infection today:
[In that panegfyric Pasteur] censured Positivism for the open contradiction of its principles involved in its manner of dealing with the idea of God. Positivism professes to found itself on the actual undeniable facts of experience, but brushes aside this most positive and undeniable of all namely, that humanity as a whole has always believed in God and found its support in religion.
The great and obvious gap in the system is its refusal to give any recognition to that greatest of all positive ideas, the idea of the Infinite.
What exists on the other side of the starry heavens? New stars and new heavens. Be it so! And out beyond these, what is there? This is a question which the human mind finds itself drawn by an irresistible influence to formulate ¡ it will never cease to ask it. Do we imagine it possible to come to a final term in space or in time? But the stage at which we would come to a stop is merely a vast something, greater than anything that has gone before, but yet finite; the mind perceives this, and the perception raises at once the old riddle, which is neither to be solved nor ignored. It is of no use to say: Out beyond there, there is time, there is space, magnitude without limit. It is impossible to rest content with such phrases. The mind that confesses consciousness of the idea of the Infinite - and no mind can fail to be conscious of it - accepts more of the supernatural than is contained in all the miracles of all the religions. For the idea of the Infinite has two characteristics; it imposes itself on the mind, and it baffles the mind's effort to comprehend it. When this idea takes possession of the intellect, nothing remains but to go down humbly on one's knees In a mood of almost oppressive reverence and fear, one comes to beg forgiveness for reason: the whole mechanism of the mind threatens to leave its accustomed grooves; one comes near the sublime folly of Pascal. And this Positivist idea, this root-idea, Positivism brusquely dismisses without even assigning a reason...

[Kneller CATLOMS 328]
Listen, O Catholic Scientists! Hear this great man. Are you carrying - and using - your rosary? Are you ready to speak about this matter? Or have you been too devoted to your work to forget these words which Pasteur took to heart:
Seek ye therefore first the kingdom of God, and his justice, and all these things shall be added unto you. [Mt 6:33]
Perhaps if you do, your name too will be as ubiquitous as Pasteur.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Louis Nicolas Vauquelin and Louis Jacques Thénard

You will recall that our study of St. Albert began with my wondering whether we might expect to find a saint mentioned in that famous and most important reference work, the CRC Handbook of Chemistry and Physics. Today, I must extend my question, and ask whether there might be any other Catholics mentioned there. In my reading of Father Kneller's fascinating study of scientists of the 1800s who were Christians, I found that there are two others, responsible for three elements: chromium, beryllium, and boron.

I will give Fr. Kneller's full report, although it is a bit sparse for Vauquelin, and the Catholic Encyclopedia does not have much either, but it is well worth reading. (Someday perhaps I will find biographies of them, though I expect they will be in French.)
Louis Nicolas Vauquelin (1763-1829) is the chemist to whom chemistry owes its first knowledge of chromium and glucinium. [This is the element now known as beryllium; it was called originally called glucinium, from the Greek root for sweet - as its compounds have a sweet taste.] Vauquelin died a faithful Catholic, striken down during a visit to his native place.

There presented himself one day to Vauquelin a youth, some sixteen years of age, of countrified aspect and an accent far from Parisian. He came to beg the chemist to engage him as his servant asking no salary save to be present at his laboratory experiments. The old savant was far from rich, and, being lath to add a fresh burden to the so francs a month which he spent on his laboratory, refused the lad's request. Vauquelin's sister however interposed; he was a promising boy, she said, and would not, like the other assistants, "let the pots boil over". Vauquelin at last gave way, and the young peasant not only took excellent care of the "pots", but grounded himself profoundly in Chemistry, and came in time to be a famous teacher and discoverer. In 1804 he succeeded Vauquelin at the Collège de France, and in To he was elected to the Academy of Sciences. He celebrated his election by a visit to his mother, to whom he brought an edition of Thomas à Kempis in the large print which her old eyes had long desired. He rose higher, becoming in 1814 a Knight, in 1842 Grand Officer of the Legion of Honour, in 1825 Baron, in 1827 Deputy, and in 1832 a Peer of France; in 1861 a statue was erected to him at Sens, and in 1865 the people of his native place La Louptière asked and obtained permission to call their town La Louptière-Thénard in his honour. For the peasant lad was no other than Louis Jacques Thénard (1777-1857), discoverer of the superoxide of hydrogen, of the blue dye called after him, and now so widely used in the manufacture of porcelain, and of many other chemical facts. He contributed to the progress of Chemistry not only as a discoverer but also as a teacher, and his text-book, although of such an immense range, reached ten editions in six years. He could without any exaggeration boast that during his thirty years at the Sorbonne, the College of France, and the Polytechnic School, 40,000 students had passed through his hands. In matters of education he was among the first authorities of his day, a veritable "Marshal of Science".
Thénard was an unwavering Catholic, loyal and punctilious all through life in the discharge of his religious duties. Some extracts from the funeral sermon preached over him by the rector of St. Sulpice may aptly be quoted:
"Religion and gratitude alike constrain me to say that there was in Baron Thénard something greater still than that sublime intellect and boundless knowledge which shed such lustre on the Academy. There was a heart, profoundly Christian, armed alike against that disregard of God and eternity... against that vague religiosity which is in essence a mere chimera, and against the allurement of fame which as he said, had once held him captive but now showed itself to his disillusioned mind as a vain and baseless dream.... He submitted his intellect to the dogmas of the Church, as he submitted his will to her precepts; every Sunday he came here, a simple unit of the congregation, and on all our great feasts he reverently communicated.... Never did I make an appeal to him on behalf of the poor and miserable but he responded, graciously and generously; many a time, indeed, he did not wait for my appeal, his delicacy anticipated it.... Never did a Sister of St. Vincent de Paul, a Sister of Charity knock at his door in vain.... Many were the poor whom he secretly succoured.... In losing Baron Thénard, I say once again, I have lost one of the best friends of my poor."

[Kneller, Christianity and the Leaders of Modern Science]
Just before I posted this, I checked another reference, Nature's Building Blocks (by John Emsley) and I learned that Vauquelin was given a sample mineral for analysis by another Catholic, the French mineralogist (and priest!) Abbé René-Just Haüy, about whom we shall hear in a future posting.

Here are the links to the Catholic Encyclopedia for Vauquelin and for Thénard.