Science in Christian Perspective


Kelvin, Humble Christian
Raymond J. Seeger
NSF (Retired)
4507 Wetherill Road
Bethesda, Maryland 20816

Thu is the eleventh in a series on religious scientists.

From: JASA 37 (June 1985): 99-101

Although William Thomson (1824-1907) was born in Belfast, he became Scottish when his father James became Professor of Mathematics at the University of Glasgow. He himself matriculated there at ten. Top of his class in mathematics, he received many prizes. At sixteen he became fascinated with Fourier's "Th6orie analytique de ]a chaleur" (1822) after his introduction to natural philosophy (the Scottish term for physics). A year later he entered St. Peter's College, Cambridge, where he played the French horn and was a member of the rowing crew. He received his B.A. in four years and the first Smith prize (based on originality in mathematics), but achieved only second place as Senior Wrangler. He spent the summer in Paris, particularly in the laboratory of Henri Victor Regnault. If he had left Cambridge an accomplished mathematician, he returned an enthusiastic physicist. He was interested now in developing mathematical methods rather than new mathematics. He received his M.A. after being a fellow of his college for two years. (He was made a fellow for life in 1872). At twenty-two he was called to be Professor of Natural Philosophy at the University of Glasgow; at eighty he became its Chancellor.

Thomson was responsible for establishing (1850) the first college teaching laboratory in Great Britain-in a wine cellar. In 1896 a three-day Jubilee was celebrated in recognition of his teaching at the University. One of his notable achievements was the epoch-making "Treatise on Natural Philosophy," published in 1867 with Peter Guthrie Tait of the University of Edinburgh-a complementary pair; the latter, methodical and restrained, the former, discursive and vehement. Thomson did, however, insist upon clear-cut physical concepts, precise definitions. He had an uncanny "ability to translate real facts into mathematical equations and to reduce the latter to a precise and pure expression of the laws of phenomena." "Every equation should have a physical meaning and you should always try to realize it ... .. He had wonderfully lucid explanations of difficult subjects"expressed with great eagerness and charm. He was a true Newtonian (buried alongside Newton in Westminster Abbey). When he retired from the University in 1899, he registered there as a "research student."  

He excelled in scientific research following in the steps of Michael Faraday whom he regarded as "an inspiring influence throughout my life." He had a similar simple intuition. "Many of his discoveries were made by demonstrating to his students." His interests were quite broad as evident in the twenty-five books published, including the celebrated twenty 1884 "Baltimore Lectures on Molecular Dynamics and the Wave Theory of Light" (1904); 661 scientific communications and addresses were printed (at 80 he presented two papers at the annual meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science)-plus seventy patents. His research involved chemistry, engineering, and geology-as well as mathematics and physics. They ranged from the size of the atom to the age of the earth, from the laws of thermodynamics to crystal structure, from thermoelectric phenomena to the porous-plug experiment, and the measurement of electric and magnetic quantities. Practical results appeared in Atlantic telegraphy and in navigation (a mariner's compass, a tidal gauge, soundings.) At his last Friday evening (1900) lecture at the Royal Institution he called attention to two clouds on the scientific horizon phenomena that portended the relativity theory and the quantum theory. And yet, at his Jubilee he confessed, "One word characterizes the most strenuous of the efforts for the advancement of science that I have made perseveringly during fifty-five years; that word is failure. I know no more of electric and magnetic force, or of the ether, electricity, and ponderable matter than I tried to teach my students of natural philosophy fifty years ago in my first session as Professor." (He was often stubborn in his opinions; for example, there was a three year delay in accepting Joule's mechanical equivalent of heat and a thirty year hesitation to be in complete agreement with Maxwell's theory of light.)

Nevertheless, this man received twenty-one honorary degrees (eight different kinds), including Ll. D. from Columbia, Princeton, Yale, and nine prizes. He was a member of eighty-seven societies throughout the world, including the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (1883); he was President of the British Association, the Glasgow Philosophical Society, the Royal Society of Edinburgh, the Royal Society of London, the Mathematical Society of London, the Institution of Electrical Engineers, the Glasgow Geological Society, the Physical Society of London, the Faraday Society. He was knighted (1846), made Baron Kelvin of Largs (1882)-after the river in the grove at the foot of the new University buildings, and given the new Order of Merit (1902). Three times he expressed disinterest in the prestigious Cavendish professorship at Cambridge. He was a firm believer in the benefits to be gained in science through cooperative research. He was single-minded for promoting knowledge. From 1860 he served on forty-one committees.

His knighthood motto was: "Honesty is the best policy;" his baronial one, "Honesty without fear." Although famous, he shunned being lionized or courted by wealthy parvenus; he was quite modest. He had a kindliness for younger men and fellow workers. Though childless, (married twice), he liked children. He approved vivisection only in so far as it might extend knowledge. He himself was considerate and gentle, punctilious in acknowledging courtesies. He regarded war as a relic of barbarism. "One of the main uses of a University was to form character"-primarily through personal contact with the teacher. At the Glasgow University dinner in honor of his peerage, Kelvin insisted that universities "ought not to be merely a means of advancing toward a profession and earning a livelihood-they should do more, they should give a passion for life that rust could not corrode, nor moths eat, nor thieves break through and steal." He himself exemplified modesty and simplicity of character, a passionate earnestness and deep reverence. "His was a unique personality; a genius of the highest order, coupled with sound judgment and practical ability."

Scotland was never in favor of godless education; it insisted that it be based on the Bible. Kelvin liked neither secularism nor denominationalism in schools. To be sure, he had been brought up in the established Church of Scotland. As an undergraduate at Cambridge he subscribed to the 39 Anglican Articles, and upon becoming a Glasgow Professor did so to the Church of Scotland. He attended the University Chapel regularly. At Largs he attended the Free Church, where the minister was the brother of his deeply religious first wife. He was, however, not a rigid Sabbatarian; nor was he wont to parade his religious views. Nevertheless, in his customary first lecture in the "Introductory Course of Natural Philosophy" he said, "We feel that the power of investigating the laws established by the Creator for maintaining the harmony and permanence of His works is the noblest privilege which He has granted to our intellectual state." He concluded: "As the depth of our insight into the wonderful works of God increases, the stronger are our feelings of awe and veneration in contemplating them and in endeavoring to approach their Author ... So will he [the earnest student] by his studies and successive acquirements be led through nature up to nature's God." In 1871 he ended his British Association presidential address: "Overpoweringly strong proofs of intelligent and benevolent design lie all around us and if ever perplexities, whether metaphysical or scientific, turn us away from them for a time, they come back upon us with irresistible force, showing to us our nature, the influence of free will, and teaching us that all living beings depend on one ever-acting Creator and Ruler" (in line with William Paley's "Natural Theology"). "His close study of the phenomena of nature, his constant discovery of new marvels, seemed to bring him near and nearer to God, and he could never understand anyone treating science with any other feeling than reverence." "The deeper he delved into Science and the more he studied its mysteries, the greater his veneration for the Maker of it all." "We only know God in His works, but we are forced by science to admit and to believe with absolute confidence in a Directive Power-in an influence other than physical, or dynamical, or electrical forces," he claimed.

Although he was a biological evolutionist, he was not a universal evolutionist; he saw life as a thing apart from the physical forces it controlled (and requiring in itself a creative act.) He concluded his 1897 address to the Victoria Institute, "We must pause, face to face with the mystery and miracle of the creation of living creatures." He believed that evolution per se could not explain the great mystery of nature and creation.

Kelvin accepted the Scottish antipathy to a godless education and their insistence upon instruction in the Bible. He reverenced the Bible and studied it diligently. From 1903 till his death he was President of Largs and Fairlie Auxiliary of the National Bible Society of Scotland. He always began his college lecture with prayer, viz., the Church of England third Collect for Grace. His favorite prayer was: "Lighten our darkness, we beseech thee, 0 Lord!"

Kelvin was a Christian, a follower of Christ, rather than a mere churchman, a contributor to a church. He never expressed disapproval of the Unitarianism of some of his nephews and nieces. His tolerance is further shown in his remarks about the death of the self-styled agnostic Thomas Henry Huxley in his annual report (1895) as President of the Royal Society: "If religion means strenuousness in doing right and trying to do right, who has earned the title of a religious man better than Huxley?"

In her book on Kelvin the Man (1925) Agnes Gardner King, daughter of his sister Elizabeth, concluded, "Kelvin had walked through life a humble Christian."