Science in Christian Perspective



Maurice T. Brackbill

From: JASA 15 (March 1963): 30-31

Maurice T. Brackbill, professor emeritus of mathematics at Eastern Mennonite College, died Sep. 18, 1962. Professor Brackbill was born May 11, 1891, near Lancaster, Pa., the son of Aldus and Lizzie Brackbill. He received a BA at Hesston College and a BS and MA in astronomy at the University of Virginia. He also took graduate work in astronomy at the Universities of Kansas and Michigan.

He was married to Ruth Mininger in 1932 and she preceded him in death on April 30, 1962. They had no children.

Professor Brackbill joined the faculty of Eastern Mennonite College in 1919. He taught a wide variety of courses ranging from agriculture to zoology in the fledgling institution. He was appointed head of the department which he designated Physastromath and was chairman of the Division of Natural Sciences until he suffered a stroke in Jan. 1956 which ended his teaching career. He joined the ASA in 1949 and later was elected to the grade of fellow. He served as host to the 9th convention which met on the EMC campus in 1954.

Although most of his education was in mathematics and astronomy, his special interest in literature and ability in speech was demonstrated in many ways. His reading of Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" became an annual treat to the student body. He cherished the idea that the Bible, being the word of God, possesses supreme literary quality; however his ultimate concern in the scriptures was spiritual and not merely literary. He saw beauty in mathematics, particularly geometry, and was deeply interested in the integration of scientific knowledge and the scriptures. A classroom discussion of a neat mathematical concept was often the cue for the interpretative reading of a corresponding scriptural gem.

His laboratory was a maze of intriguing wires and hand-made gadgets which aroused students' curiosity. He delighted in collecting simple toys with a lot of physics in them, such as dunking ducks, topsy-turvy tops, etc. He had little faith in ordinary toggle'switches, and being endowed with dry skin, he was unable to understand or appreciate the apprehension of many of his students at the use of open knife switches on 110 volts A. C. Because of a perennially small budget, he made much of the demonstration apparatus. The only recompense for these hundreds of hours in the shop was a sort of fierce satisfaction in having made something better and for less cost then from Cenco.

M, T. Brackbill's greatest interest in life began in 1910 when he saw Halley's comet. Of this experience he wrote in characteristic fashion, "Saw Halley's comet in the early morning beyond the barn in the southeast. Not having read the newspaper I missed the privilege of being badly frightened by the alarming news that the earth would collide with the comet. Years later I learned that the earth went through its tail but I never heard of anyone being bumped out of bed." His fascination by astronomy increased with the purchase of a 2-inch telescope in 1929. In 193o he founded the Astral Society, a student extracurricular club with six charter members. In 1934 he published the Astra-Guide, a 13 inch adjustable planisphere.

Through his persistence and charm he was able to develop astronomical facilities at the college second in the state only to those at the University of Virginia. The existence of Vesper Heights Observatory,, the Astral Hall, and associated instruments valued at over $25,000 in the frugal economy of the eastern Mennonite constituency is an amazing tribute to his ability to communicate his love of the stars to laymen.

M. T. Brackbill was an imaginative writer, particularly in the area of popular astronomy. Among his publications are the following:

Heaven and the Glory of the Sunset (Mennonite Pulishing House, Scottdale, Pa., 1924), 45 pp.

"To The Stars," Youth's Christian Companion (YCC), a series of articles in 1937-38. (Mennonite Publ. House). "Evenings with the Stars," YCC, 1943-44; reprinted as a booklet, 1945 (Mennonite Publ. House).

"Stars from Starrywood," YCC Series in 1948-50. "Modern Physical Science in the Bible," JASA, Vol. 3,no. 1, pp. 22-27, March 1951. 

"If the Stars Appeared Only One Night in a Thousand Years," The Sky, Vol. 1, no. 10, p. 15, Oct. 1937 "The Astral Society," Sky and Telescope, Vol. 2, no.

11, p. 15, Sep. 1943.

The Heavens Declare (Moody Press, Chicago, 1959), 128 pp,

Professor Brackbill was a poetic and imaginative soul. Scientific facts could not remain cold fish to him but were manifestations of the glory of God and fit subjects to be rhapsodized upon in verse. A sample of his whimsical verse is given below. He was truly a celestial citizen and his ability to transcend one's thoughts from the mundane materialistic to the glories of the heavenly will be missed by those who knew him.-Robert C. Lehman, Associate Professor of Physics, Eastern Mennonite College.

There was a little atom once,
It's name was Hydrogen.

Elusive little chap it was,
For none knew if nor when

Nor what it was till Cav'ndish came
And proved that it existed,

And in the theory Dalton wrote
Its pedigree was listed.

The atom was a tiny mite
In metal, milk or lumber;

But billions, billions of the them
When Avogadro got their number.

Some said it is a sort of brick
Or tiny little ball;
But Bohr said it was onion-like
And not a brick at all.

The onion shells were little tracks
Whereon electrons sped,
"Sometimes close to the nucleus,
And sometimes not," he said.

But Hydrogen was very poor:
Electrons it had one;
But it could jump from shell to shell
And have a lot of fun,-

Unless a quantum big came 'long,-
So Bohr theorized,-
And bunted little 'lectron off
And atom onionized.
Then Uhlenbeck and Goudsmit
The atom looked within,
And claimed they saw electrons
Indulging in a spin.

The nucleus all the while reposed
And long in safety trusted,

'Till Lawrence came with protons swift
And right into it busted.

And little 'Jectron soon was doomed
    For trouble, sad to tell,-

Why now Professor Barker takes
     And puts it in a "well,--
             Ding dong bell, 
            'Lectron in a well; 
            Who'll pull it out? 
            Och my! It's not about!

        But where it is seems no one knows
        Unless it's Mr. Shrady
        Since his equation says it's here
        Probably or maybe.

        But now at latest count we see
        We've come on quite a jog;
        For 'Jectron circles round no more
        But simply makes a fog!

            Maurice T. Brackbill.