The Courageous Man Who Saw How Faith Gave Birth to Science
BY DONALD DEMARCO
March 30-April 5, 2008 Issue | Posted 3/25/08 at 3:48 PM
St. Augustine, St. Albert the Great, St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Thomas More are living testaments to the compatibility of scholarship and sanctity.
In the modern era, however, we witness a disjunction between the two.
There are great honors and material rewards for outstanding scholarship these days, and they can easily go to one’s head.
For this reason, Msgr. George Rutler has opined that it may be more difficult for a Ph.D. holder to get into heaven than a rich man.
Sanctity requires a great deal of humility. On the other hand, it is most tempting for the scholar to allow his works and prizes to lead him in the opposite direction of humility, toward pride.
William F. Buckley Jr., who came to know a wide variety of interesting people in his time, named Gerhart Niemeyer as the best example he had ever witnessed of a man who combined the virtues of scholarship with the virtues of sanctity.
The fact that Niemeyer is not exactly a household word is a good indication of the relative scarcity of holy scholars that populate the modern landscape.
In the interest of reminding (or introducing) the present world of a holy scholar who should not be forgotten, let me highlight the life and works of that most extraordinary example of scholarship wed to sanctity, Pierre Duhem.
Pierre Maurice Marie Duhem was born June 10, 1861, in Paris. He distinguished himself as one of the most brilliant students ever to attend the highly prestigious Ecole Normal Supérieure. Of the 800 or so graduates in France in 1882, he was and remained throughout his years at Ecole, first in his class in the science department. His doctoral thesis on thermodynamics, unfortunately, contradicted the position of the chemist Marcelin Berthelot, who was a powerful figure in the French academic establishment at the time.
Though Duhem’s position was later vindicated, Bertholet ensured not only that the thesis would be rejected, but that Duhem would never teach in Paris. Duhem wrote another thesis, of a more mathematical nature, that three examiners accepted. But his career was permanently hampered as a result of his clash with Bertholet.
Duhem, ostracized by his own peers, never did teach in Paris. He spent the last 22 years of his life as a professor of theoretical physics at a provincial school, the University of Bordeaux. His magnum opus is his Le Système du monde: les doctrines cosmolologiques de Platon à Copernicus (The Structure of the World: Teachings on Cosmology from Plato to Copernicus).
The first five volumes — each more than 500 pages in length — were published in consecutive years, from 1913-1917. Although another five volumes were ready for publication when Duhem died in 1916, they were not published until four decades later (1954-59).
The reason for the long delay in publishing the last five volumes of this masterpiece, which is without parallel in its field, was due to the strong opposition by influential academics who did not want to consider the demonstrable fact that modern science cannot be divorced from its religious foundations.
In the intervening years between the publication of the first and second group of five volumes, many studies of medieval science were conducted — by Anneliese Maier, Marshall Clagett, E. Grant, Alistair Crombie and others. These studies served to extend and confirm Duhem’s work and add credibility to his central thesis concerning the continuity between Medieval and modern science.
As a result of Duhem’s pioneering research and the contribution by other historians of science, the value of studying medieval science is now well established and can no longer be dismissed by honest scholars.
Templeton Prize winner, Stanley Jaki, who holds doctorates in both physics as well as theology, has this to say about Duhem’s work: “What Duhem unearthed among other things from long-buried manuscripts was that supernatural revelation played a crucial liberating role in putting scientific speculation on the right track. … It is in this terrifying prospect for secular humanism, for which science is the redeemer of mankind, that lies the explanation of that grim and secretive censorship which has worked against Duhem.”
Peter Hodgson, who is university lecturer in nuclear physics at Oxford University, has this to say about Duhem’s scholarly accomplishment: “The work of Duhem is of great relevance today, for it shows clearly the Christian roots of modern science, thus decisively refuting the alleged incompatibility of science and Christianity still propagated by the secularist establishment. Science is an integral part of Christian culture, a lesson to be learned even within the Christian Church.”
Duhem’s study and documentation of the Christian origin of modern science has been deliberately neglected because it is unwelcome both to the disciples of the French Enlightenment and those of the Reformation. For different reasons, they would like to paint the Middle Ages as dark as possible.
Duhem’s work is all the more prodigious when one realizes that he had no research assistant at his disposal or dictaphones or even ball-point pens. Furthermore, he often had to use his left hand to hold firm his trembling right hand.
When he passed away at age 54, he had left to posterity 40 books, 400 articles, and 120 large-size notebooks, each 200 pages long, containing excerpts from medieval manuscripts.
“On a more personal level,” writes Hodgson, “Duhem is an example of Christian fortitude in the face of many setbacks and sorrows.”
He lost his wife and second daughter after less than two years of happy married life. Although his health was never strong and his workload was demanding, he nevertheless found time to visit and help the poor and the sick. He was popular with his students and the children of his friends. A throng of simple folk attended his funeral in his ancestral village of Cabrespine.
In a most unusual tribute to Pierre Duhem, Francis Kelly has produced a biography in verse form of this faithful Catholic, physicist, mathematician, philosopher and historian that ends with the following words:
“Though he has gone, we feel his wraith
Inspiring us to trust our faith
And, with his courage, life to face
Now in our time and in our place.
And now it’s time to say amen
And end this story of Duhem.”
Donald DeMarco is adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College and seminary in Cromwell, Connecticut, where he will be teaching a course, open to laypeople, on John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body” May 5-22.
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