By: Jim Virkler
My maternal grandfather was born in Switzerland in 1860. I enjoy informing friends that my direct ancestor, only two generations removed from me, was born before the American Civil War. He passed away just a few weeks after I was born, the father of 16 children and the grandparent of dozens of grandchildren. During his 16 years before emigrating to the United States from Switzerland, many scientists were making discoveries on the European continent and in England. Our family records do not indicate he possessed a special interest in science. After coming to the US he became a farmer and church leader in Illinois, Kansas, and Oklahoma.
Two famous scientists, Michael Faraday (1791-1867) and James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879), were alive during the lifetime of my maternal grandfather. Faraday was a brilliant scientist in England performing many experiments with electromagnetism—generating electric current with magnets, and producing magnetism, in turn, from electric currents. He was a discovery pioneer in many other fields. In one of his most famous experiments, a magnet moved back and forth through a coil of wire generated an electric current. Likewise, in a coil of wire moved over a stationary magnet, an electric current was generated. A changing magnetic field produces an electric field. This was one of the most convincing demonstrations in my classroom, affirming the linkage of two forces—electricity and magnetism.
The work of Faraday and Maxwell was highly innovative and pioneering in the field of science. One or two centuries before, Newtonian physics was in place. The law of gravitation was brilliant for its time. But Newtonian physics promoted the concept of “action at a distance,” a mechanistic view seeking to reduce physical interactions to the idea of collision. Newton’s ideas were astute, but fields of force such as the 19th century concepts of Faraday and Maxwell were not yet imagined. In the Newtonian concept of “action at a distance,” the iron filings sprinkled near a magnet experiment would have been errantly explained. This demonstration was another favorite experiment in my classroom. The iron filings arranged themselves in a pleasing, visually organized manner along the lines of force.
Some commentators claim Faraday was not strong in mathematical skills. James Clerk Maxwell, highly admired by the genius Albert Einstein, summarized the brilliant accomplishments of Faraday in his famous “Maxwell Equations,” built on the foundation Faraday had laid. He pronounced Faraday “to have been in reality a mathematician of a very high order, one from whom the mathematicians of the future may derive valuable and fertile methods.” Maxwell’s equations, which unified space and time, later supported Einstein’s Special and General Relativity theories. Faraday first referred to a “field” when he observed magnetic lines of force. He was ahead of his time. There are several types of force fields which Faraday and Maxwell described. Electricity and magnetism were unified in the description of electromagnetism. Maxwell’s equations went beyond, unifying space and time. When the 20th century arrived, Albert Einstein was ready to build on the foundation of Faraday and Maxwell. Scientists are still building on those foundations.
Michael Faraday and James Clerk Maxwell were devout Christians. Much has been written concerning the deep faith of these men, but as most of today’s scientists endorse the separation of the realms of theology and science, we do not hear much discussion on the issue of their strong, motivating faith. Both scientists believed in the unity of the forces of nature. This unity could be defended as a theological concept. The truths of science go hand in hand with the truths of theology. One Creator is the author of truth in both spheres. Many theologian/scientists have elaborated extensively on this concept.
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Jim Virkler, a retired New Jersey public school science educator, now devotes his time investigating the harmony of scientific discoveries and Christian faith. He and his wife, Eleanor, now reside in the mid-west near their children and grandchildren.