Today, an agnostic Victorian physicist looks for God.
The University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
When we think about
science/religion tensions in the 19th century, we
think about discourse gone bad. We think about
creationists and evolutionists overstating their
beliefs. We hear the either/or's of people who
didnít know how to temper their claims with
their own inner doubts.
But there was an undercurrent of balance as well.
The great intellects then, as in any age, were
driven by curiosity. They acknowledged that, while
some things in this world had yielded to human
description, a great deal was still open to
The Irish-born Victorian physicist, John Tyndall,
asked such questions all his life. In 1861, then
only 41, he wrote on prayer and natural law. In
1867 he wrote about miracles. He wasn't debunking
them. He was seriously analysing the premises in
praying for rain, or for healing. And, in the end,
he had the good grace to resolve nothing -- but
only to formulate his own questions.
Tyndall took on the thorny questions of cosmology
and creation in 1874 when he delivered a famous
lecture -- the Belfast Address. That unleashed a
firestorm of criticism. Afterward, Tyndall wrote
two more articles sifting all his critics had to
say. And he did so with remarkably little rancor or
Tyndall had previously appeared in an 1868
Scientific American article on spirit
writing. America was obsessed with death,
afterlife, spiritualism. The article described a
planchette -- a heart-shaped plate on rollers
carrying a pencil. Two people place their fingers
on opposite sides and clear their minds. The
planchette begins to move and write out spirit
The article tells how John Tyndall and his older
colleague, Michael Faraday, had offered to study
the planchette objectively -- and how the
spirit-writing people showed no interest in
The odd subtext of that offer was that Faraday was
intensely religious, and Tyndall was as fascinated
with Faraday's convictions as he was with prayer,
miracles, and cosmology. Faraday "drinks from a
fount on Sunday which refreshes his soul for a
week," said the agnostic Tyndall with obvious
fascination -- and, perhaps, a trace of envy.
Tyndall visited America to lecture in 1872 and
1873. He earned a lot of money. Then he gave it
back. He set up a fund to support science teaching
in America. He was as intent in his pilgrimage as
any of his critics were in theirs. He knew what
they often forgot -- that God must be found behind
the unanswered question.
In that, Tyndall was a missionary -- inviting us
all to join his search, to seek out our ignorance
-- and surely to keep from making claims that
outrun the scope of our own revelation.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Tyndall, J., Fragments of Science, Vol.
II. New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1899, Chapters I
to IV and IX to XI.
What is a Planchette? Scientific
American, Vol. XIX, No. 2, July 8, 1868, pp.
Tyndall, J., Heat and Cold. Scientific
American, Vol. XVIII, No. 1, January-April,
1868, pp. 83-85, 99-101, 116-117, 132, 148-149,
164-165, 179, 196-197, 211-212, 226-227.
For more on Tyndall see Episodes 192, 531,
624, 642, and 857.
I am grateful to Pat Bozeman, Special Collections,
UH Libraries, for flagging the old volumes of
Scientific American with their many
references to John Tyndall.
From a 19th-century
John Tyndall, from the frontispiece of his book,
Forms of Water in Clouds and Rivers, Ice and
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
Image courtesy of Special
Collections, UH Library
Picture of a planchette from the Scientific
American article cited above
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