Column: Jeff Long: Marie Curie, her scientists and God (7/10/21)
Last weekend, to the sound of fireworks nearby, I spoke to a friend at a cafe in Cape Girardeau who started chatting about Marie Curie, the famous Franco-Polish scientist, who died on the day of the independence of America, July 4, 1934.
I guess the date of Curie’s death is why the discoverer of two elements on the periodic table came to mind in our conversation.
My friend told me that Curie was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize and the only person in history to win the Nobel Prize twice and managed it in two scientific fields: physics in 1903 and chemistry in 1911.
Even the most knowledgeable people cannot know everything – and Madame Curie did not know everything.
She used to carry bottles of radium, atomic number 88, and polonium, atomic number 84, in the pocket of her lab coat, my friend told me – a fact her life biographies verify – and continued exposure to these radioactive elements shortens its life.
Curie died aged 66 from aplastic anemia after rejecting the danger these materials represented.
Even today, most of Curie’s papers and books remain radioactive and are stored in lead-lined boxes, which the curious can only see after donning a protective suit and signing a disclaimer.
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Even the brightest among us have limits and don’t have all the knowledge.
Religion and scientists
In an illuminating 2018 Forbes magazine article – “Did History’s Most Famous Scientists Believe in God?” – we have read that Curie’s own theological perspective was related to one of his scientific contemporaries, Albert Einstein of German origin.
Curie, the daughter of an atheist father and a Catholic mother, did not reject belief in God but admitted agnosticism – a position reflected somewhat by Einstein, who himself rejected the notion of divinity personal and thought intercessory prayer was stupid. Yet the man best known for the equation, e = mc squared, did not claim the mantle of atheism. Einstein wrote that he had embraced “the God of Spinoza”.
Baruch Spinoza, a 17th century Dutch philosopher, wrote that God is “a substance made up of infinite attributes, each of which expresses an eternal and infinite essence”, adding: “all that is, is in God, and nothing can exist or be conceived without God “, a notion generally interpreted to mean that God is identical with the universe.
If you invited most Church members to consider Spinoza’s statements, you might not be alarmed, but Orthodox theologians in the Judeo-Christian tradition would undoubtedly disagree. God, theologians would probably say, stands apart from the created universe – as the book of Genesis attests.
The Englishman Charles Darwin, author of “The Origin of the Species” in 1859, had more conventional religious views.
Believing in what he called the “Abrahamic God,” Darwin, whose grave my wife and I once visited at Westminster Abbey in London, wrote the following in 1879: “I have never been atheist in the sense of denying the existence of a God. “
Sir Isaac Newton, the Englishman who gave the world the three laws of motion, the fundamental tenet of modern physics, strongly believed in the idea of God identifying himself as theist but not accepting the concept of the Trinity Christian – – Father, Son, Holy Spirit – as divine. Newton, who died in 1727, is buried near Darwin inside the abbey.
Galileo, the 16th-century Italian astronomer and physicist whose life predates all identified men so far, was tried by the Inquisition, convicted of heresy and forced to retract.
Despite a house arrest imposed by the Church, which lasted the rest of his life, Galileo’s writings demonstrated his theistic tendencies.
Namely: “I don’t feel obligated to believe that the same God who endowed us with senses, reason and intellect wanted us to renounce their use.
Forbes’ insightful article, after examining the views of Curie, Einstein, Darwin, Newton, and Galileo, includes a summary that makes sense to this writer and is the conclusion of this essay.
“The most known [scientific] the characters all have nuanced religious views that tend towards a belief in a higher power. Some of these views have weakened over time [e.g., Curie] and the rest are unconventional but are theistic beliefs nonetheless. So, yes, it is possible to be a religious individual and to be a scientist. The two are not mutually exclusive. “