(Above Photo: Painting by Joseph-Nicolas Robert-Fleury of the Trial of Galileo in front of the Inquisition)
There is often a perception that the Catholic Church has no time for science and even discourages scientific thought and enquiry. However, while some scientists may have a disregard for the Catholic Church (and religion, in general), the Catholic Church has produced hundreds of scientists over the last two thousand years and below are probably the five most significant in our times:
It was in researching and reviewing Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity that Lemaitre produced calculations that the universe was indeed expanding and from there developed a theory that the universe began as a burst of fireworks with galaxies spreading out from a central burst. In time, this theory would be nicknamed “The Big Bang Theory”. When Lemaitre presented this theory at a seminar in California in 1933, Einstein was present and stood up to applaud while saying “This is the most beautiful and satisfactory explanation of creation to which I have ever listened”.
2. The Science of Genetics by Gregor Mendel
For centuries, farmers had known that breeding animals and plants in certain ways could allow certain traits to be passed on but it was Mendel, through a number of scientific experiments on pea plants between 1856 and 1863, who established the scientific laws of heredity. In breeding different kinds of peas, he managed to explain and demonstrate the principles of dominant and recessive “factors” which would later be called “genes”. Most biologists at the time believed that traits were passed on as a result of an averaging out of the parents’ traits but Mendel showed that traits were passed according to his theory of dominant and recessive factors.
3. The Electric Motor by Andrew Gordon
In the early 1700’s, Gordon invented a device which consisted of a pendulum suspended by a thread in between two oppositely charged bells. In making contact with one bell and acquiring a charge, the pendulum would be repelled by that bell and attracted to the other and, in making contact with the other bell, it would acquire a charge and be attracted to the other bell and so on. The principle of this device was then applied to making electric toys such as electric swings and see-saws and eventually applied to devices that later developed into modern day motors.
4. The Electric Musical Instrument by Prokop Divis
In managing the farmland of the parish he was based at, Divis became interested in what was then the new field of electricity. He conducted a number of experiments and published those results and even demonstrated them at the Imperial Court of Vienna. Divis was interested in music, too, and created an instrument, operated by keyboard and pedal, where strings were vibrated using electro-magnets. It was called the Denis d’or but it didn’t generate much public interest. Only one was ever made and vanished into thin air some time after his death in 1765. Interestingly, the instrument could also give electric shocks as a practical joke on whoever was playing the instrument.
5. The Scientific Method by Roger Bacon
It was Roger Bacon in the 1200’s who developed the idea of “observation, hypothesis, experimentation” and also the need for independent verification as a system of scientific inquiry. He emphasized the importance of studying the methods by which science comes to verify statements. His method was an important contribution to science because it gave an actual method to how arguments could be verified rather than resorting to simply magical conjurings or mythical beliefs or philosophical reasoning but rather based on experience through observation, reproduction of results and independent review. Through him, the field of science became distinguished through the use of experiments rather than relying solely on authority or pure reasoning.
There’s a whole lot more examples that could be cited but these are five notable examples along with that all five were also Catholic priests. There is a long and great tradition of Catholic priests who are scientists even in our time and an even more contemporary example is that the winner of the 2008 Templeton Prize was Fr Michal Heller, a Polish cosmologist in Krakow. There is an even longer and greater tradition when we include Catholic scientists who were lay men and women.
What all this shows is that one can be both a faithful believer in the Catholic Faith while also undertaking the rigours involved in scientific research and inquiry.
by Fr Brennan Sia