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Nine Christians Who Led Scientific Breakthroughs

Nine Christians Who Led Scientific Breakthroughs

Christians and scientists. If you didn’t know better, you’d say they were the bitterest of foes and, it’s true, the relationship hasn’t always been friendly. Ever since the Church sent Galileo packing for daring to suggest that the earth was not actually the center of the universe, many scientists have felt a need to tiptoe around faith communities and vice-versa.

And that’s unfortunate because history is full of examples of just what’s possible when the two join forces. The fact is, scientists and Christians aren’t two diametrically opposed forces doomed to forever either fight or, at best, come to an uneasy truce. Many Christians have excelled in scientific fields, adding to humanity’s knowledge of the known world not despite their faith but because of it. As the late Arthur Leonard Schawlow, a scientist who helped pioneer lasers (yes, lasers!) once said, “I find a need for God in the universe and in my own life.”

It’s be pretty much impossible to list every single scientist of faith in one article, but here are a few of the most notable.

Robert Boyle (1627 – 1691)

Boyle, the son of Irish nobility, is widely regarded as the first modern chemist. Boyle’s Law, which holds that the pressure of a gas decreases as the volume of the container increases, is named for him — a theory he tested tested using the scientific method, which he also helped pioneer. He was also interested in theology and argued — controversially, at the time — that study of the natural world could teach one about the divine as well.

Blaise Pascal (1623 – 1662)

It’s hard to overstate the impact Pascal made with his brief life. He was a prodigious talent who contributed to our understanding of probability theory (think Jeff Goldblum’s analogy with the drops of water in Jurassic Park), hydraulic fluids, vacuums and, maybe most famously, the triangle. He helped invent a mechanical calculator. He was a little older than 20 when he had a dramatic conversion experience, and started to include theology among the huge number of topics that fascinated him. He came up with what we now call Pascal’s Wager, arguing that it costs a rational person nothing to live as though God exists.

Gregor Mendel (1822 – 1884)

Mendel was an Augustinian abbott born to a family of farmers in the Austrian Empire. Though he was not widely recognized for his scientific mind in life, he has been posthumously called the father of modern genetics. Farmers have been crossbreeding animals and plants for millennia, but Mendel’s experiments helped him identify things like recessive and dominant traits. He believed certain “factors” could accurately predict an organism’s traits. Today, we call those factors genes. Mendel eventually abandoned science to spend more time focusing on the Church. Somewhat ironically, Mendel’s discoveries would later help fill in the blanks of some theories of another upcoming scientist: Charles Darwin.

Mary Anning (1799 – 1847)

Mary Anning found her first dinosaur fossil on the banks of the English channel when she was 12 years old, a discovery that would set the course for the rest of her life. She found the first every nearly complete plesiosaur skeleton …and then the second one too. She also found the first pterosaur skeleton (those freaky flying dinosaurs) outside of Germany. As a woman, she spent much of her life fighting for credit for her work and was barred from joining the Geological Society of London. She was raised in the Congregational Church but converted to Anglicanism after her old pastor and fellow fossil enthusiast left for America to fight for the abolition of slavery. After her death, a magazine ran by Charles Dickens published an article on her life, and her contributions to the field of paleontology finally attracted the respect she’d rarely been afforded in life.

Arthur Compton (1892 – 1962)

Does light behave more like a particle or a wave? If you paid attention in science class, you know the answer is yes, and you know that because of Arthur Compton. Compton won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1927 for his discovery of what we call the Compton Effect — the fact that light is both particle and wave. He even coined the word “photon” to describe the effect. He did all this in between his duties as an elder at the Second Presbyterian Church in St. Louis. He wrote that Jesus was the center of his faith.

George Washington Carver (1864 – 1943)

Born into slavery, Carver educated himself with remarkable tenacity, eventually becoming the most prominent Black scientist of his day and an icon in American history. While teaching at the Tuskegee Institute, Carver pioneered new methods in agriculture that prevented soil depletion. He was an early champion of environmentalism and, of course, things like sweet potatoes and peanuts, which he promoted as alternatives to the nation’s cotton crops. He saw Jesus as the ultimate answer to all his scientific questions. “I love to think of Nature as wireless telegraph stations through which God speaks to us every day, every hour and every moment of our lives,” he once wrote.

Florence Nightingale (1820 – 1910)

You may know her as the “Lady With the Lamp” or the mother of modern nursing, but Nightingale’s contributions to society are vast and extend into math and science. In particular, Nightingale helped pioneer new avenues in statistic visualization. A gifted mathematician who struggled to explain the numbers to people who weren’t as bright as her, she saw that bar graphs and pie charts helped communicate complex mathematical concepts with ease. It was a relatively new method that she popularized — one taken for granted today. She was also deeply Christian, and always said her role as a nurse was an explicit and prophetic call from God.

Francis Collins (1950 – )

After being awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George W. Bush, Collins was nominated as NIH director by President Barack Obama — a position he has retained under the two subsequent Commanders in Chief. Though his work proved politically contentious during the COVID-19 outbreak, he has often written about how his faith sustained him during dark times. Collins was an avowed atheist for much of his life, but began investigating religious belief after speaking with a patient. Moved by C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity, Collins finally became a Christian and has since argued for the rationality of faith in the scientific sphere — when he’s not busy mapping the human genome, that is.

Kizzmekia Corbett (1986 – )

In 2014, this North Carolina native was appointed to the Vaccine Research Center, and few could have guessed then just how vital that group would become in a few short years. She became the scientific lead of the VRC’s COVID-19 Team, and developed new technology that led to the Moderna, becoming the first Black woman in history to create a vaccine. We’ll probably never be able to calculate how many lives she saved, but the number is enormous. In February of 2021, she told UMBC President Freeman Hrabowski that “before I’m a scientist, I’m a Christian.”

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