Today, a scientist tries to sort things out. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
I'm back again to that
fascinating Victorian physicist, John Tyndall. Born
in Ireland in 1820, Tyndall became a great observer
of nature. His marvelous eye for physical reality
fed people like Rayleigh, Maxwell, Boltzmann, and
Tyndall created experimental settings for
acoustics, meteorology, geology, thermodynamics,
and more. Yet that wasn't enough. He wanted to
recreate nature by reshaping it in his mind. And he
struggled to find God in the process. Late in life
he published three volumes, titled Fragments
of Science. They let us in on his thoughts.
Science had just reached the most productive time
it's ever known. Newtonian determinism was at its
apogee. We thought we could know everything. The
science/religion debates mushroomed.
These essays and lectures show how a leading
scientist tried to cope with all this. At first,
Tyndall is reserved. He writes some biographies. He
talks about radiation, geology, and magnetism. He
describes death by lightning.
Then he debunks spiritualism. "Surely no baser
delusion ever obtained dominance over the weak mind
of man," he says. Yet he himself craves to
transcend the limits of his material world. Now we
read chapter headings like,
Tyndall speaks to these matters with
assurance and a friendly skepticism. In a major talk
in Catholic Belfast, he looks at modern science. At
one point he says, "The impregnable position of
science [will] wrest from theology, the entire domain
of cosmological theory." We may agree with that
today, but we'd say it more cautiously. In any case,
he follows his Belfast lecture with two chapters
defending it from all the anger it stirred.
Reflections on prayer and natural law,
Miracles and special providences,
On prayer as a form of physical energy,
Scientific materialism, and
So Tyndall wrestled with the demon of too much
scientific success. Like other Victorian
scientists, he'd begun to hope that science would
take him all the way to elemental truth.
In 1901, eight years after Tyndall died, Planck set
the stage for the mysterious new quantum mechanics.
When he did, the clean objective world Tyndall
almost had in his hand slipped away from us for
good. Now scientists had mystery enough to cope
with, right in science itself.
In 1880 we'd thought we could catch the brass ring
of ultimate truth. As we mired into confusion after
1901, we quit playing with miracles and
spiritualism. We'd been humbled, and now we could
begin moving forward -- once again.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Tyndall, J., Fragments of Science. Vol.
I, 6th ed., New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1899.
Tyndall, J., Fragments of Science.
Vol. II, (6th ed.??) New York: D. Appleton and Co.,
Tyndall, J., New Fragments. 3rd ed.,
New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1899.
(I don't find original publication dates in these
books. They appear to have been issued first around
1880. These late editions include some material
added during the 1880s. Tyndall died in 1893.)
For more on Tyndall's continuing and
highly-informative struggle to find the boundaries
between science and religion, see Episode 1067.
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John
H. Lienhard. All Rights Reserved.
University Libraries, University of
Houston, Houston, TX 77204-2091.
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