JH: Having cast Compton as a theological liberal, are you aware of any American conservative physicists of the time who contributed to the big questions?
TD: I can’t think of any at the moment, although this might mean only that I haven’t done enough work yet on that period to know who the others were. The combination of terms you used—American, [religiously] conservative, and physicist—together with the requirement that they contributed to the big questions, pretty much narrows it down to none, though again I stress that we don’t have much detailed knowledge of the religious beliefs of American scientists from the first half of the last century. Here, “we” doesn’t mean simply “me,” it means the fairly small community of scholars who study American science—or American religion—in that period. It’s an area that’s just wide open for scholarly work, and that’s one of the main reasons I was so excited to discover the pamphlets.
Now, Jack, if you’re willing to relax your conditions a little, then I might be able to come up with some names. For example, if you don’t insist that a physicist “contributed to the big questions,” then Columbia physicist Michael Idvorsky Pupin might be a possible answer. He was a very famous scientist in the 1920s, but his scientific reputation came from inventions in electrical engineering (which made him wealthy) and not from discoveries in fundamental physics. Some of his fame derived from his activities on behalf of the Serbian nation during World War One, when he was effectively the spokesperson for Serbia in the United States. He was also famous as a writer; his autobiography, relating the story of a penniless immigrant who became a professor at Columbia who advised President Wilson about the creation of Yugoslavia, won a Pulitzer Prize. Theologically, he was a devout Serbian Orthodox believer with orthodox views on the divinity of Jesus and the divine creation of the universe.
Perhaps you were thinking only of Protestant scientists, Jack, when you said “conservative,” in which case the most famous conservative Protestant “scientist” of the period was probably Howard Kelly, a surgeon who taught gynecology and obstetrics at Johns Hopkins. Perhaps he counts as a scientist, or perhaps not; but obviously he wasn’t a physicist. I cannot think of a conservative Protestant physicist from that time who was as eminent as Kelly or Compton. Even if you were simply thinking of traditional Christian believers, not necessarily Protestants, then it’s still hard to think of an example. Would Victor Hess count? He received the Nobel Prize for physics in 1936, he worked briefly in the United States in the early 1920s, and as far as I can tell (I have not studied him carefully) he was a devout Roman Catholic. However, he was born in Austria and moved permanently to the United States only in 1938, in order that his Jewish wife could escape the Nazis. I don’t think he counts as an American, for our purposes here. American Catholics of that generation, generally speaking, just didn’t become top scientists at all, for a variety of reasons that I won’t go into here.
To the best of my knowledge, all of the leading Protestant scientists from the 1920s and 1930s, including physicists, were theologically liberal, by which I mean (for example) that they did not believe in the divinity of Jesus or the bodily resurrection. Compton is just one of many I could name; Robert Millikan, a very liberal Congregationalist, held a concept of God that was similar to that of Einstein and even more “liberal” than Compton’s notion of God. Both Compton and Millikan contributed to the big questions, and both were conservative politically, especially Millikan, but neither came close to being a conservative in religion; they were modernists, not fundamentalists. Interestingly, one of the most liberal politicians of his day, William Jennings Bryan, was a fundamentalist Presbyterian. The contrast with our own day that is suggested by these comparisons is not often noticed.
A much more important contrast with our own time, in my opinion, is illustrated by the ASA itself. We do have among our members some world-class scientists, including a few physicists. (I don’t want to start naming names here, because I am genuinely concerned that I might forget to name someone I ought to name and current ASA president I don’t want to slight anyone.) I can think right away of two Nobel Laureates who are not ASA members, though both have been keynote speakers at our annual meetings and both are orthodox believers as far as I know: Charles Townes and William Phillips. Let me make my point by taking the spirit, if not the letter, of your question, Jack. In 2010, there are in the English-speaking world (not just the United States) a significant number of world-class scientists (not just physicists) who are traditional Christians, by which I mean people who can say the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds without crossing their fingers. Some are Americans, such as Francis Collins or Donald Knuth; others are English, such as John Polkinghorne or Brian Heap; at least one (George Ellis) is South African. Here now is my point, which answers your question as well as I can: there was no one like them in the United States between the two world wars, when the rancorous fundamentalist-modernist controversy was raging. That is when Compton did most of his writing about science and religion. At that time, the leading scientists were all or nearly all either unbelievers, pantheists who considered themselves Christians (such as Millikan), or more traditional theists who did not believe in the divinity of Jesus but also considered themselves Christians (Compton). I state that somewhat tentatively, for reasons already given; the more my research continues, however, the more confidence I have in it. The contrast between the Scopes era and our own is stark—and (in my opinion) in favor of our own era. It’s a much better time to be a traditional Christian in the sciences. Despite the claims of Richard Dawkins on the one hand or Philip Johnson on the other hand, orthodox Christians can fully embrace—and and greatly succeed at doing–modern science. It didn’t look that way in the 1920s and 1930s, as far as I can tell.
Sorry for another overly long answer. Your next question, Jack—