Science in Christian Perspective



Millican, Spiritual Altruist
Raymond J. Seeger

NSF (Retired)
4507 Wetherill
Bethesda, MD 20816

From: JASA 37 (March 1985): 52-54.

The physicist Robert Andrews Millikan (1868-1952) was one of six children of a midwest clergyman of Scottish descent. His daily work on the farm and summer factory experience set a pattern for his industrious life.

At seventeen he graduated from high school, where he found the teaching of physics poor-as it was throughout the nation. After a year at Oberlin Prep he entered the college there, where physics turned out to be a complete disaster. His interest in this subject became aroused only in his third year when he was asked to teach it at the Prep; he found problem-solving a fascinating introduction. With an M.A. at twenty-five he received a fellowship in physics at Columbia University; here he studied optics with Michael Pupin. He spent the summer at the University of Chicago with Albert Michelson. Even though his appointment had not been renewed, he returned to Columbia where he completed his Ph.D. research on the optical properties of metals. On borrowed funds he spent the scientifically exciting year 1895-6 in Europe, particularly at Berlin and G6ttingen.

At twenty-eight he was offered an assistantship by Michelson, who gave him charge of the weekly seminar. Four years later he was made responsible for all student research under Michelson. He encouraged both colleagues and students to carry out their own fundamental investigations; frequently he himself engaged in cooperative research with them. Within two years he was made Assistant Professor, and then Associate Professor five years later. Meanwhile, he had married a former fellow student of Greek. By forty-two he had been made Professor.

In 1912 he isolated the electron and measured this elementary electric charge e (off slightly because. of the poor value used for the viscosity of air). Millikan regarded the electron theory of matter as "one of the grandest, because simplest, of all physical generalizations." He was made a member of the National Academy of Science at forty-six. The following year he made his most remarkable experiment, the verification of Einstein's photoelectric equation, with an accurate determination of Planck's constant h. In 1923 he received the Physics Nobel Prize for his work on e and h. Meanwhile, in 1917 he published some of this work (revised in 1924) and amplified later in The Cornell Messenger Lectures, which resulted in "Electrons (+ and -), Protons, Photons, Neutrons, Mesotrons, and Cosmic Rays" (rev. 1947).

Meanwhile, science was being mobilized for WWI. In 1916 Millikan took leave of absence from the University to devote full time to being Chairman and Research Director of the newly formed National Research Council's Physics Divison (which later included astronomy, geoscience, and mathematics); he had the rank of Lt. Col. in the Signal Corps. Later he was also made Vice-chairman and Executive Officer of the Council-until the end of 1918, when he returned to the University.

He spent a couple of winter quarters in Pasadena with A.A. Noyes and G.E. Hale at the Throop Polytechnic Institute, which became the California Institute of Technology in 1920. The following year Millikan became Director of the new Norman Bridge Laboratory for Physics. He was an active innovator at the new institution, which emphasized the relationship of science and engineering; viz, entrance exams for everyone, rotating chairmanships in lieu of departmental heads, and an Executive Council (some faculty and Trustees) in lieu of a president. He arranged for distinguished visiting professors from abroad. Within a few years the CIT Associates were formed to raise funds for outstanding projects and buildings; e.g., high voltage, aeronautics, seismology, the Mt. Palomar 200" telescope, et al. Despite his heavy administrative load Millikan continued to do research of his own particularly on cosmic rays. When this man of affairs died at 85, he left an imperishable monument-CIT!

His altruistic spirit was not confined to the encouragement and strengthening of research. He himself was wont to thrill audiences and to transmit enthusiasm. His very first concern had been teaching. My own college teacher had been one of Millikan's early collaborators on photoelectric research. Accordingly, our textbook was the first that Millikan had written, viz., "Mechanics, Molecular Physics, and Heat" ( 1903), as well as the sequel, "Electricity, Sound, and Light" (with J. Mills, 1908). Of course, in high school, like everyone else, I had had "A First Course in Physics" (with H. Gale, 1906). The aim of the last, as the authors claimed, was "a better acquaintance of the social significance of science." Millikan believed, "Physics is the most basic of all sciences and the one upon which they all depend." He did admit later, "We have learned not to take ourselves as seriously as the 19th-century physicists took themselves."

Millikan's altruism spread beyond academia and his country. He became increasingly concerned about the road to international peace. He favored the League of Nations, which President Taft had called a "League to enforce peace." The isolationism of the U.S., which wrecked the League, he regarded as "one of the great tragedies." As an individual, he remained a member of the Committee on Intellectual Cooperation. Recognizing always the need for collective security against individual madmen, he favored the highway indicated "by most of the great souls who have developed the world's greatest religions-men who like Buddha and Jesus have depended almost exclusively upon the development and use of the great spiritual forces . . . suggested by the words brotherhood, love, pity, kindness, altruism, duty, conscience, morality, words which ... unquestionably stand for just as fundamental realities in the experience of all human beings as words like matter, motion, space, energy, weight, table, rock, etc." (He admitted, "It is today as difficult to find a satisfactory definition of 'matter' as of 'spirit.' ")

"The combination of science [what] and religion [ought]," be believed, "provides the sole basis for rational and intelligent living." Science is credited with having revealed a God who works through law, thus indicating the orderliness of the universe and man's duty to live in harmony with it. "The God of science is the 'Spirit of rational order and of orderly development'-hence progress." He was convinced that "there is actually no conflict whatever between science and religion when each is correctly understood." "There has been no conflict between the two as interpreted by the best minds the world has produced."

The last chapter of his "Autobiography" dealt with "The Two Supreme Elements in Human Progress," i.e., the spirit of religion and the spirit of science. He regarded science and religion as the two great sister forces which have pulled and are still pulling the world onward and upward."

"The most important thing in the world is the belief in the reality of moral and spiritual values." "An attitude of altruistic idealism" is common in all religions, e.g., that "found simply in the life and teachings of Jesus"-"the essence of His message ... .. Never man spake like this man!" He was impressed with the Golden Rule, which, he insisted, says that "you are the sole judge of what you ought to do." (cf. A.N. Whitehead's definition of religion as "world loyalty"). Millikan believed that such action would have to be based on some kind of "faith in the ultimate good." He noted that "Einstein calls it the Intelligence manifest in Nature." "If there is a better definition of God than that 1, at least, do not know what it is."

Mindful of Job's personal dilemma, "Can man with searching find God"?, Millikan concluded his "Autobiography" with another quotation from the cosmotheist Einstein, "'It is enough for me to contemplate the mystery of conscious life perpetuating itself throughout all eternity, to reflect upon the marvelous structure of the universe which we dimly perceive and to try humbly to comprehend even an infinitesimal part of the intelligence manifested in nature.' I myself need no better definition of God than that, and some such idea is in all religion as a basis for the idea of deity."

Millikan noted that "the Christian Church is the greatest social institution in the country." There was never any mention of his own affiliation or activities, but he probably was a member of the Congregational Church. His expressed opinions, however, were more in the spirit of unitarianism than of basic Christianity. He was wont to stress the second great commandment with its altruistic object. The God of the first commandment remained aloof, impersonal, a nebulous being, unknown and unloving-quite different from Jesus' Father whom He came to share.