Is Christianity At War With Science? (16/20)

The following is a continuing list of Christians down through the centuries who, far from being constantly at war with science (commonly called ‘natural philosophy’ in previous times), took an active interest in seeking to understand how the universe worked. The first page in this list is here.

1822-1906:  Henry Baker Tristram:  An Anglican priest and ornithologist, who spent years in the Middle East.  A number of birds are named after him in recognition of his ornithological contributions.  An avid author, he produced works on a range of subjects, and many of his books had to do with his great interest in the history of the Middle East, especially as it related to the Bible:

  • The Great Sahara (1860)
  • The Land of Israel, a Journal of Travels with Reference to Its Physical History (1865)
  • The Natural History of the Bible (1867)
  • The Daughters of Syria (1872)
  • Land of Moab (1874)
  • Pathways of Palestine (1882)
  • The Fauna and Flora of Palestine (1884)
  • Eastern Customs in Bible Lands (1894)
  • Rambles in Japan (1895)

The last work listed here (somewhat incongruously), was the result of a trip to Japan to visit his daughter, working there as a missionary.

1824-1907:  Sir William Thomson, 1st Baron Lord Kelvin:  An Irish mathematician, physicist and engineer, whose name has become a household word as a result of being immortalized in the ‘Kelvinator’ refrigerator.  Fortunately for the dignity of Kelvin’s legacy, his name has also been given to a number of scientific principles and devices, as well as mathematical equations and values, including:

  • The Kelvin water dropper (an electrostatic generator invented by Kelvin)
  • Kelvin sensing (a technique for measuring electrical impedance)
  • The Kelvin equation (describing the change of vapour pressure over the curved surface of a liquid)
  • The Kelvin wave (a kind of wave in oceanography, and also in fluid dynamics)
  • The kelvin (a unit of temperature used on a thermodynamic scale – 0 Kelvin is -273.15 Celsius)
  • Kelvin’s circulation theorem (a theorem in fluid mechanics)
  • Kelvin bridge (a device invented by Kelvin for the measurement of unknown electrical resistance)

Kelvin’s contributions to science were immense.  His capacity for problem solving in a range of fields became famous, and he became involved in some of the most important engineering projects in the late 19th century.  He was directly involved in the trans-Atlantic cable project, which aimed at laying an electrical communication cable between England and North America, and the eventual success of the project must be credited to the 12 years he spent on it.

Interestingly, Kelvin’s involvement in the project was the result of his being sent a letter by George Stokes (described above), asking his opinion on some of the electrical problems involved.  Kelvin became interested, replied, and eventually became taken on by the project owners as a director and scientific advisor.

The project was not only immense in its scope, but also in its difficulty.  Repeatedly opposed by William Whitehouse (electrician of the Atlantic Telegraph Company), Kelvin correctly identified the various problems and deficiencies in Whitehouse’s calculations and engineering plans, whilst overcoming physical and construction challenges along the way.  He designed a new submarine telegraph system, explained the physical stresses which caused cables to break while being laid, and pioneered the use of a pure copper cable for electrical communication.

By 1858 the project was still incomplete, and had suffered so many disasters and engineering problems that the board of directors was prepared to abandon it.  Kelvin made an appeal for the work to continue, insisting that the difficulties could be overcome by using the correct approach and solutions.

Numerous engineering and theoretical errors were made by Whitehouse, which continued to add difficulties to the project, and when finally the cable was laid but Whitehouse’s signaling equipment was demonstrated to be inefficient, it was replaced with Kelvin’s.  An attempt by Whitehouse to improve the performance of his equipment only resulted in permanent damage to the cable, when he overpowered it with 2,000 volts of electricity.  He was promptly dismissed (though against Kelvin’s protests), and Kelvin was free to direct the project alone.

New cable was laid, and Kelvin overcame more technical problems, as well as inventing a telegraph key for communication over the cable.  The final result of the 12 year long project was an outstanding success, and Kelvin was rewarded with a knighthood for his contributions.

Kelvin arguably contributed more to the understanding and practical use of electricity than any other engineer in the 19th century, and invented a range of devices for the accurate measurement of electrical fields and current.  His 1867 work ‘The Treatise On Natural Philosophy’ was instrumental in the foundation of modern physics.  His contributions to maritime technology included an improved adjustable compass, a tide predicting machine, a new method of deep sea sounding, and pioneered the use of Morse code by lighthouses.

A man of Kelvin’s accomplishments could be forgiven the occasional mistake, and two of Kelvin’s have become particularly memorable.  In 1895 he declared that ‘Heavier than air flying machines are impossible’, only to be proved wrong by the Wright brothers 8 years later, and in 1897 he insisted that ‘radio has no future’, a prediction also proved wrong with the passage of time, in the 1920s.

Kelvin was a devout Christian who believed that the universe had been created at an instant in time, and though he believed in an old earth he did not believe that there was sufficient evidence that the earth was old enough for evolution to have taken place as suggested by Darwin.  Like many scientists of his era, he believed that there could be no contradiction between the Bible correctly interpreted, and physical evidence correctly understood, and was enthusiastic about the emerging sciences, believing that they could only continue to provide further evidence of the God of the Bible and His message.

His address to the Christian Evidence Society in 1889 is a powerful witness to the strength of his religious conviction:

‘I have long felt that there was a general impression in the non-scientific world, that the scientific world believes Science has discovered ways of explaining all the facts of Nature without adopting any definite belief in a Creator. I have never doubted that that impression was utterly groundless.’

‘Science can do little positively towards the objects of this society. But it can do something, and that something is vital and fundamental. It is to show that what we see in the world of dead matter and of life around us is not a result of the fortuitous concourse of atoms.’

‘Here, then, we are brought face to face with the most wonderful of all miracles, the commencement of life on this earth. This earth, certainly a moderate number of millions of years ago, was a red-hot globe; all scientific men of the present day agree that life came upon this earth somehow.

If some form or some part of the life at present existing came to this earth, carried on some moss-grown stone perhaps broken away from mountains in other worlds; even if some part of the life had come in that way—for there is nothing too far-fetched in the idea, and probably some such action as that did take place, since meteors do come every day to the earth from other parts of the universe;—still, that does not in the slightest degree diminish the wonder, the tremendous miracle, we have in the commencement of life in this world.’

Sir William Thomson, First Baron Lord Kelvin, address to the Christian Evidence Society, May 23, 1889


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