Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 624:

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 624.

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 Planck.

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,

Reflections on prayer and natural law,
Miracles and special providences,
On prayer as a form of physical energy,
Scientific materialism, and
The Sabbath.
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.

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 work.

(Theme music)

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., 1899.

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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