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From Y1K to Y2K

by David F. Coppedge
c. 2000 David F. Coppedge, Master Plan Productions

Shining Through Materialistic Darkness
MendelPasteurListerLeavittCarverVon BraunIrwin
The end of the 19th Century and the first half of the 20th saw the virtual takeover of the scientific establishment by the Darwinians.  Ironically, it was not primarily the scientists who welcomed the new world view, but theologians!  We will see that while liberal theologians had “no problem” with compromising Darwinism with their beliefs, many of the scientists of the late 19th century opposed it strenuously.  For many reasons, however - economic, political, philosophical among them - Darwinism became increasingly accepted by the universities and scientific associations.  This was certainly assisted by Darwin’s cadre of propagandists: Thomas Huxley, Ernst Haeckel, Asa Gray, Herbert Spencer and others.  Bible-believing Christians were increasingly seen as behind the times and branded “fundamentalists” (a bland word that was metamorphosed into a synonym for obscurantism and bigotry, even though its leaders were learned men like J. Gresham Machen).  By the time of the Scopes Trial, it appeared to be all over for the fundamentalists and creationists.  Darwin had won, and the church had better get used to it.

But what had Darwin won?  Not the scientific evidence war, but the propaganda war.  Science continued to be done by Bible-believing Christians, and evidence contrary to evolution continued to build so that by the end of the 19th century, Darwinism appeared to be in serious trouble (even though it still was firmly in control of the universities, the scientific associations, the media, and official government policy).  During the 20th century, the number of practicing scientists exploded.  No longer was it possible for one man to be a master of all trades.  Scientists became so specialized, they often assumed that the other fields supported Darwinism while they recognized the problems within their own specialty.  But because Darwinism was so entrenched, even many of the Christians in science acquiesced, being told the evidence was overwhelming in favor of the new popular theory of the world.  We find, therefore, that many Christians accepted a compromise position, either theistic evolution or long ages.  In the following chapter, The Resurrection of Creation Science, we will see that more and more of them began to “doubt their doubt” in the Biblical record of a recent creation and a worldwide flood.

The great scientists in this chapter practiced according to their Christian faith in spite of the materialistic philosophy of their peers.  One non-scientist astronaut is included as a sidelight.  Many of their names will be familiar to the educated, but not many today ever learn about the theological motivations behind their discoveries.  These are great stories that should be shared!  They are wonderful role models for the young.  They are stories of adventure, adversity, perseverance, and triumph.  Read on – be encouraged – enjoy!

The Anti-Darwinists: coming soon.

  Gregor Mendel     1822 - 1884 

The story of Gregor Mendel is aggravating.  It makes you wonder what might have been, had this Austrian monk encountered Charles Darwin, and had his discoveries become known to the disciples (and opponents) of Darwinism early on (see 10/14/2003 headline).  Though the two men may have come within 20 miles of each other one day, historians are fairly certain that Darwin was unaware of Mendel, though Mendel knew of Darwin.  Mendel believed that the laws of genetics he deduced just seven years after Darwin’s Origin of Species was published posed a serious challenge to the theory of “transformism” (that one species can be transformed into another).  It is also aggravating, in retrospect, to see how Mendel’s discoveries were treated once they did become known.  “Ignored” is the word most often used in history books to describe the early reception of his paper.  As we shall see, nearly 72 years went by before it was no longer possible to ignore Mendel’s findings.  By then (the 1930s), Darwinism had triumphed in the Scopes Trial, had a full head of steam and was unstoppable.  It just became a matter of fudging Darwinism enough to massage Mendelian genetics into it.  These days, the neo-Darwinists tend to claim Mendel as their own, but the evidence shows that the creationist monk would have been offended by any such association.  Nigel Williams, writing in the October 14, 2003 issue of Current Biology, stated that “Once Gregor Mendel is placed back into the intellectual landscape that he would himself recognize,” it was clear that he would have “seen The Origin of Species as a challenge to his own worldview.”

Gregor Mendel, a Catholic creationist, believed he had demonstrated that species are resistant to change, because characters are inherited without alteration throughout generations.  This was a novel idea to breeders of the day.  No one knew just how characteristics were inherited.  Common experience showed that children resembled their parents, but how did the various traits get sorted out in the union of sperm and egg?  Why were some crosses of plants or livestock sterile, and others fertile?  Darwin toyed with an hypothesis he called pangenesis, which assumed that traits from all over the body somehow flow into the gametes. A common misconception of the time was that traits were blended in the offspring, rather than remaining discrete units (by analogy, compare mixing two fluids versus mixing two jars of colored marbles). Darwin’s theory demanded that variations be heritable, and that traits be fluid enough to evolve so that they could be acted on by natural selection.  If the traits remain unchanged, like the colored marbles, how could new variation arise?  Each generation would just get a different ratio of static, unchanging characteristics.

Working in the gardens of the Monastery of St. Thomas in Brunn, Austria, Gregor Mendel demonstrated exemplary scientific technique.  His work is often cited as a textbook example of the experimental method.  It required patience, attention to detail, careful record keeping, and interpretive insight.  In a project spanning ten years, Mendel crossed 28,000 plants of the common garden pea, Pisum, and charted the inheritance of seven selected traits:
  1. seed texture (wrinkled or smooth)
  2. albumen color (yellow, orange or green)
  3. seed coat color (green or yellow)
  4. pod form (inflated or deflated)
  5. pod color (yellow to green)
  6. flower position (axial or terminal)
  7. stem length (6 ft or taller vs. 1 foot or shorter)
He chose peas as his subjects because they have a short season, are easily pollinated, have clearly recognizable traits and can be protected from cross pollination.  He spent the first two years carefully breeding pure stock that were true to type, then spent eight more years cross-pollinating the types and counting the traits found in the offspring.  His procedural diligence and accurate record-keeping were unexcelled, but even more important, he had a goal, executed a plan, and understood the results.  Mendel found principles of inheritance that made testable predictions, and formulated them in mathematical terms.  Without knowing about chromosomes or the details of cell division, he had found the laws of genetics.

The three laws Mendel deduced seem common-sense now, but were radically new in his day:

  1. Law of Paired Factors (Genes): Traits come in pairs (alleles), and each parent contributes just one of the alleles.  A trait, such as seed coat color, is contributed by both parents: i.e., it is not one sex that determines seed color; the egg and the sperm both contribute half of any given trait.  (Some traits, of course, are sex-linked traits, such as those on the Y chromosome in mammals.)
  2. Law of Dominance: In a pair of genes (genotype), one allele will dominate the other and control the outward appearance (phenotype).  Mendel invented the terms dominant and recessive to explain this law.  For instance, smooth is dominant over wrinkled; if an offspring has one allele for smooth and one for wrinkled, the resulting offspring’s seeds will appear smooth, even though an allele for the wrinkled trait is present in the genotype.
  3. Law of Segregation: Traits are inherited independently.  A seed can be wrinkled and yellow, wrinkled and green, smooth and yellow, or smooth and green.  The traits are sorted independently, by chance, into the offspring, but enough trials will show they obey mathematical ratios.  (Later geneticists found that some traits are linked and inherited together.)
Beyond the mere statement of these principles, Mendel invented terminology that made future work productive.  He used capital letters for dominant traits, and lower-case letters for recessive traits.  Let A represent the dominant trait for smooth seed coat, for instance, and “a” represent the recessive trait for wrinkled coat.  If an AA plant is cross-bred with an aa plant, according to Law 1, each plant will contribute one allele via either pollen (male) or ovum (female).  The offspring could, therefore, be AA, Aa, aA, or aa.  According to Law 2, what the botanist will observe is three plants with smooth seeds (AA, Aa, aA), and one with wrinkled, in a 3:1 ratio, but the actual genetic ratio is 1:2:1.  One will be homozygous dominant (AA), two will be heterozygous dominant (Aa, aA), and one will be homozygous recessive (aa).  It’s in the third generation where things get interesting.  Let the two heterozygous plants (Aa and aA) be crossed, and if enough experiments are done, they will again sort into AA, Aa, aA, and aa (1:2:1).  But what the botanist will have observed, counter to intuition, is two smooth-seed plants breeding, and one-fourth of them coming out with wrinkled seeds!  Mendel had the insight to see what this meant: the recessive traits were always present, and their alleles were being faithfully transmitted through three generations without alteration.

Mendel’s laws can be extended to calculate expected ratios for combinations of traits.  Let Bb, for instance, indicate dominant and recessive alleles for seed color.  If AABB is crossed with aabb, then according to Law 3 (independent assortment), the offspring might be AABB, AABb, AAbB, AAbb, AaBB, aABB, aaBB, and so forth.  This can get confusing, but makes sense when put into a diagram called a Punnet Square, with one trait on the vertical axis and one on the horizontal, and all the assorted mixtures shown in the boxes.  The main point is that each trait (seed texture and seed color) is inherited independently of the other, and the ratios follow mathematical laws.  Most important, the traits pass unchanged throughout generations.  These findings spelled the end of speculations, shared by Darwin and most others, about blending inheritance.

Mendel’s epochal paper, “Experiments in Plant Hybridization,” completed in 1865 and published in 1866, is a long and detailed analysis that stands as a monument to quality scientific investigation.  It is now available in English on the internet.  With good scientific caution, Mendel avoided overinterpretation.  He said, “It must, nevertheless, not be forgotten that the explanation here attempted is based on a mere hypothesis, only supported by the very imperfect result of the experiment just described.” He encouraged others to perform additional experiments, but in the years since, it has been difficult for anyone to match his high standards.

So why was this important paper ignored?  An excuse is often given that it was published in an obscure Austrian journal, but this is insufficient.  Mendel attempted to make it known by sending copies to prominent scientists.  To Carl Nageli, for instance, called “a celebrated botanist and authority on evolution” in the anthology Great Experiments in Biology (Prentice-Hall, 1955), Mendel wrote in 1867, “I have never observed gradual transitions between parental characters or a progressive approach toward one of them.” He defended his laws as being based on experiment, avoiding any philosophical speculations.  But he knew the import of his laws.  At the end of his great paper, he commented on the work of a predecessor, which his work corroborated:

Gartner, by the results of these transformation experiments [i.e., attempting to change one species into another], was led to oppose the opinion of those naturalists who dispute the stability of plant species and believe in a continuous evolution of vegetation.  He perceives in the complete transformation of one species into another an indubitable proof that species are fixed with limits beyond which they cannot change.  Although this opinion cannot be unconditionally accepted we find on the other hand in Gartner’s experiments a noteworthy confirmation of that supposition regarding variability of cultivated plants which has already been expressed.
Mendel listed some of the species Gartner experimented on.  The final sentence of his paper states, “hybrids between these species lost none of their stability after 4 or 5 generations.” In a day where Darwinism was sweeping the intellectual world in Britain and spreading to the continent, Mendel’s words quoted above seem intended as a clarion call to observation over speculation.  He seems to be shouting, in his own gentle way, Species do not transform one into the other.  They show stability from generation to generation, and my experiments demonstrate that fact.  Isn’t anyone listening?

It can only be assumed that they were not listening. Inebriated on the elixir of a naturalistic mechanism for transformism, what use did they have for a few uncomfortable facts printed by a monk in Austria?  Mendel’s work was available for study by anyone who cared to look, but it was virtually forgotten till 1901.  Back in 1865, a new day was dawning, a day that liberated science from its hard slavery to experiment.  Mendel belonged to the old school of scientists that believed in the experimental method.  But now, storytellers were free to speculate wildly about the unobservable past and future and call it science.

Gregor Mendel’s life shows that a devoutly religious person, who has devoted his life to his beliefs, can also be interested in science and contribute to scientific discovery in a profound way.  He probably gained his interest in science, and appreciation for the rigor of experimentation, while a student under Christian Doppler (for whom the Doppler Effect is named).  Although Mendel is best known for his work on heredity, he also was interested in meteorology and astronomy.  Dan Graves in Scientists of Faith provides a good synopsis of the life of Mendel, including many interesting facets before and after his work on garden peas.  While it can be safely assumed Mendel was a learned man, had a penchant for detail, and was patient and persistent by nature, he also had a heart for people.  He could be easily overwhelmed in his empathy for others.  He never lived to see, however, his scientific work taken seriously.  Thirty-five years would pass before its “rediscovery.”

In 1901, Hugo De Vries, among others, found Mendel’s paper and was immediately impressed.  He shared it with a number of important biologists.  He seemed to realize, also, that it posed a challenge to Darwin’s theory of natural selection, by ostensibly not providing the variation needed on which selection could act.  His oft-quoted remark, “natural selection can explain the survival of the fittest, but not the arrival of the fittest,” encapsulates the problem.  During the first few decades of the 20th century, evolutionary theory was in a malaise.  Mendel’s Laws were now acknowledged, but evolutionists were not quite sure what to make of them.  Another 37 years would pass before the evolutionists seriously made an attempt to bring Mendel and Darwin together.  Meanwhile, the Scopes Trial of 1925 convinced most in the news media and popular culture that Darwinism had triumphed over religious “fundamentalism.”

In the 1930s, geneticists attempted to scale the hurdle Mendel had erected.  According to De Vries, genetic mutations provided the variation needed for evolution, and the new theory basically assumed mutations provided variation, and natural selection acted on those variations, producing great transformations gradually over millions of years.  The “synthetic” theory of evolution, or ”neo-Darwinism,” was born.  It breathed new life into evolutionary theory, and seemed to satisfy most evolutionary biologists; so much so, that by the Darwin Centennial in 1959 (the 100th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species), Julian Huxley stated that Darwin’s theory of evolution had reached the status of undisputed fact, and that all of the universe was describable as a single, continuous process of evolution.  The euphoria was not to last.  Mathematical challenges by Sir Peter Medawar and others cast serious doubt on the ability of neo-Darwinism to produce substantive changes.

By the 1980s, evidence for a discontinuous record in the fossils and in the genes divided the Darwinians into the “gradualist” and the “punctuationist” camps.  Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldredge, in particular, angered their gradualist foes by arguing that evolution occurred in fits and starts.  The debate continues to this day.  The late 20th century saw an explosion of knowledge about genetics.  It became possible to trace the actual genes, letter by letter, in the genetic code, and watch the sorting of alleles into the gametes.  One thing became clear: cells are fastidious about ensuring genes are accurately copied and distributed without error.

Comparative genomics has shown that mutations do occur, and that the same gene in different animals may show numerous differences, while others are “highly conserved” or virtually identical.  In some cases it is possible for individual DNA letters to mutate without damage; there is a certain amount of resiliency in the genetic code, such that a single mutation might not produce any functional change.  These are called neutral mutations.  Also, elaborate proofreading mechanisms were discovered, showing that cells have many ways to correct mutations.  Numerous mutations have been shown to cause disease or death, but to this day, biologists have been unable to show a clear case of a mutation leading to a new species, or even an undisputed benefit that would provide fodder for natural selection.

Most examples put forward of favorable mutations would be beneficial only in isolated environments, with a net fitness cost to the individual (such as the mutation that leads to sickle-cell anemia; it provides some resistance to malaria, but would otherwise certainly be characterized as a deleterious mutation).  Numerous attempts to induce mutations, especially on the fruit fly Drosophila, have been neutral at best, and generally detrimental or deadly.  Furthermore, figuring out how a theoretical beneficial mutation might become established in a population, given Mendel’s laws, has proved elusive.  As of this writing, a growing number of scientists are wondering whether natural selection – the principle that made Darwin famous – is even effective in biological evolution at all.  Nothing offered to replace it, however, has survived any rigorous experimental test.  The upshot of this overview of subsequent history is that Mendel’s Laws stand, while Darwin’s speculations teeter on the brink of collapse.

A museum has been erected in Mendel’s honor at the monastery at Brunn, Austria, where he did his famous experiments.  Despite the explicit wishes of the abbott of the monastery, however, the display ignores the religious side of Mendel’s life and focuses exclusively on the experimental work (see 05/15/2002 headline).  The abbott succumbed to a year of pressure and misinformation against him, only submitting to the secularized display by gaining a promise to hold an annual workshop on bioethics at the site.  This shameful rewriting of history will succeed only if we allow it.  People interested in the history of science should be told, emphatically, that the laws of genetics were discovered by a creationist who understood the Genesis statement, Let them bring forth... after their kind.

Learn More About
Gregor Mendel

Why was Mendel ignored?  See what Wolf-Ekkehard Loennig has researched about the matter at his page about Johann Gregor Mendel.

Check back soon for other internet links to resources about Mendel.

  Louis Pasteur     1822 - 1895 

Who contributed more to the saving of human lives than any other scientist?  Who has been called the greatest biologist of all time?  Who revolutionized medicine and public health with his discoveries?  A creationist and a Christian – Louis Pasteur.  Let no one claim that faith in God is detrimental to science; you need look no farther than to this great man who said, “The more I study nature, the more I stand amazed at the work of the Creator.”

Pasteur was a humble, godly Catholic who served God and his fellow man through science.  If you enjoy milk that doesn’t spoil in a day, if you enjoy a wide variety of healthy foods, if you can take a quick shot and then live without fear of deadly diseases, if you enjoy a longer life than your ancestors did, you should thank the good doctor from France, because you owe much of your physical health and safety to him.  But your ultimate thanks should go to the Great Physician, who taught the Israelites many principles of good health and sanitation in the Bible.  Pasteur merely rediscovered and elaborated on two basic ideas from the Old Testament: (1) uncleanness causes disease, (2) life was created, and propagates after its kind.  Pasteur’s discoveries sounded the death knell for centuries of evolutionary speculation.

Young Louis knew the smell of leather from his father’s tanning business.  Though his father, who had fought in Napoleon’s army, sacrificed to give his son a better education than he had, Louis was considered a dull student, and vacillated between ideas for what to do with his life.  According to John Hudson Tiner, who has written an excellent narrative biography of Pasteur for the Sowers Series, one of his teachers saw buried in him a spirit of determination and imagination that had the potential for greatness, and helped fan it into flame.  He was sent to Paris at age 15, but his time had not yet come; his homesickness made him fumble, and he had some maturing to do.  While dabbling in art and trying various subjects, he improved in determination and learned to trust God.  He made it his goal to do better at the university, and the next time in Paris, honed on a dogged determination that would characterize his life, he rose to the head of his class.  But when he heard a lecture on chemistry by J. B. Dumas, he found his calling.  What followed was one of the most phenomenal series of major discoveries in the history of science.

Though best known for discoveries in medicine, Pasteur was a chemist.  One of his early discoveries still baffles evolutionists today.  While studying crystals under polarized light, he found that certain molecules come in left- and right-handed forms that are mirror-images of each other, a phenomenon now known as chirality.  Even more remarkable, he found that living things use entirely one hand.  Most natural substances are composed of fifty-fifty “racemic” mixtures of both hands, the “stereoisomers” of a given chiral molecule, but for some reason living things were 100% pure of one hand.  Pasteur recognized this as a defining characteristic of life, and it remains a mystery to this day.

We now know that proteins, which are made up of 100% pure left-handed amino acids, could not function if they were racemic (mixtures of both hands), but how did life get started with just one hand, when both are equally probable?  This appears to be a clear evidence of intelligent design, because the probability of getting just one hand in a chain of amino acids is vanishingly small, like flipping a coin and getting heads a hundred times in a row.  Pasteur certainly considered this an evidence of a Creator, but today evolutionists are continuing to struggle with this observational fact, looking for some natural process that would yield even a hopeful majority to one hand or the other.  To this day, none has succeeded.  They know that close enough is not good enough; only a 100% pure chain would work.  The problem is compounded by the discovery that RNA and DNA contain sugar molecules that are 100% right-handed.

Pasteur’s discovery of chirality is one of two major obstacles he erected in the path of evolutionary theory, obstacles that have only gotten higher over time.  The early hopes of the Darwinians should have died in their tracks with discoveries of Pasteur and Mendel.  Unfortunately, evolutionists persist in thinking that unguided natural forces can surmount these obstacles.  Pasteur would feel at home today with the controversy over intelligent design vs naturalism, because he fought the skeptics of his day, and knew the difficulty of getting his critics to face the facts.  His persistence, and the irrefutable nature of his findings, gave him eventual success.  The other obstacle Pasteur raised to evolution was his law of biogenesis, the principle that only life begets life.  Since the Greeks, and probably long before, philosophers and commoners believed that life could arise out of nonliving material.  Is it not a common childhood observation that maggots and flies and all sorts of vermin seem to magically appear out of nowhere?  The myth of spontaneous generation seems silly today, but was a common opinion throughout most of history.  Leeuwenhoek opposed it with rigorous observations through his microscope, and the “macro” version of spontaneous generation eventually succumbed to the experiments of Redi and Spallanzani.  (These are often used as textbook examples of the experimental method.)

In Pasteur’s day, however, a majority still believed that micro-organisms came from nonliving matter; for one thing, they seemed to proliferate rapidly even in distilled liquid; for another, there were so many varieties, they seemed almost chaotic and impossible to classify.  Lastly, micro-organisms seemed very simple.  It was easy to imagine them appearing without help; maybe some “vital force” gave rise to them.  Experiments on both sides of the debate yielded equivocal results.  Pasteur decided to enter the fray, against the advice of his peers that it would be a waste of time; but his persistence succeeding in delivering the knockout blow.  He would say triumphantly, “Never again shall the doctrine of spontaneous generation recover from the mortal blow that this one simple experiment has dealt it.”  What was the experiment that gave him such confidence?  It was a model of rigorous scientific method.

His opponents already knew that a sealed jar of nutrient broth would not generate life.  They surmised that air contained a vital ingredient.  Pasteur believed that microbes in dust, not the air itself, produced the swarms of living things.  How could he create an environment open to the air, but prevent microbes in dust from getting to the broth?  This problem led to his famous swan-necked flask experiment.  He put a nutrient broth into a flask, then heated and shaped the neck into a horizontal S-curve open to the air.  Dust containing the microbes became trapped in the curve and could not enter the broth, but the air could pass freely in and out.  Pasteur demonstrated to his critics and skeptics that under these circumstances, the broth remained sterile, while flasks without the swan neck swarmed with microorganisms.

Some diehards still objected, however.  They said that if the air were infested with microbes, it would form a dense fog.  Pasteur responded with a series of experiments taking his flasks to a variety of environments, in the city and in the country, and even up high on Mont Blanc (where he had to endure a cold night in a miserable inn).  The flasks in the city became clouded with microbes, but all but one on the high mountain were sterile.  He concluded that microbe-carrying dust particles vary with elevation and pollution, but clearly it was microbes in airborne dust, not the air itself, was the source of the life that appeared to spontaneously generate in the broth.  He publicly challenged his opponents to prove him wrong with rigorous experiments that excluded airborne dust, and they could not.  The Academy of Sciences judged Pasteur’s observations to be “of the most perfect exactitude,”and in the end, even his bitterest critics and the most ardent advocates of spontaneous generation acquiesced.  Pasteur said, “No– there is today no circumstance known in which it can be confirmed that microscopic beings have come into the world without germs, without parents similar to them.  Those who maintain this view are the victims of illusions, of ill-conducted experiments, blighted with errors that they have either been unable to perceive or unable to avoid.”  Yet they are with us today.

Today, believers in spontaneous generation are back with a vengeance.  They are called astrobiologists and chemical evolutionists.  Their slant is that spontaneous generation does not happen quickly, but can over millions of years, not from nutrient broth, but from primordial soup– organic molecules known to be formed naturally, like some amino acids.  They believe that, given enough time and the right circumstances, life arose from simple molecules and evolved into every living thing, seahorses, giraffes, dinosaurs, roses, and humans.  Do they have any evidence for this?  Absolutely not.  Pasteur’s Law of Biogenesis, that only life begets life, stands as firm as it did in 1862.  Pasteur’s judgment on those who violate that law should be sternly proclaimed from the lecterns of today’s Astrobiology conferences as he proclaimed it in person: “Those who maintain this view are the victims of illusions, of ill-conducted experiments, blighted with errors that they have either been unable to perceive or unable to avoid.”

Pasteur Vallery-Radot wrote a brief biography of his famous grandfather in 1958, and claimed that Pasteur did not consider spontaneous generation altogether impossible.  He even claimed Pasteur “had dreams about creating or modifying life.”  But he provides no support for that claim, referring back only to an earlier time when, working with crystals, Pasteur appeared optimistic that if he could identify the forces that produced asymmetry, he would be at the threshold of life.  But on the very next page, he quotes Pasteur as admitting defeat and saying, “After all, one has to be something of a fool to undertake what I did.”  This was prior to his experiments on spontaneous generation, so Pasteur appears to have convinced himself even back then that Life was too extraordinary to explain with chemicals acting under natural forces.

After this unsupported assertion, Vallery-Radot went on to praise the Miller spark-discharge experiment: “In fact, only recently the ancient argument for the spontaneous generation of life has revived, on the basis of laboratory experiments.  These revealed that the basic elements making up living matter can be synthesized out of simple chemicals, under conditions existing on this planet a billion years ago.”  Thus Pasteur’s grandson became seduced by the neo-spontaneous generationists, unaware that the alleged conditions could not have existed on the early earth, and the products were useless, mixed-handed dead ends.  Descendent regardless, it was a distortion for Vallery-Radot to assert that Pasteur was favorable to ideas of evolution.  John Hudson Tiner said, “Pasteur rejected the theory of evolution for scientific reasons.  He was the first European scientist to do so.  He also rejected it on religious grounds” (History of Medicine, p. 81).  He said, “My philosophy comes from the heart and not from the intellect, and I adhere to that which is inspired by the natural eternal sentiments one feels at the sickbed of a beloved child breathing his last.  Something deep in our soul tells us that the universe is more than an arrangement of certain compounds in a mechanical equilibrium, arisen from the chaos of elements by a gradual action of Nature’s forces” (Vallery-Radot, p. 157).  This is a clear rejection of Darwinian naturalism.

We may not know exactly how Pasteur would respond to today’s evolutionists and astrobiologists, but most likely he would not be impressed by “illusions, of ill-conducted experiments, blighted with errors that they have either been unable to perceive or unable to avoid.”  Pasteur was a stickler for scientific proof and intellectual honesty.  He summarized his lifelong attitude, “If I have at times disturbed the tranquillity of your academies by somewhat stormy discussions, it was only because I am a passionate defender of the truth.”  He would not, therefore, have tolerated the unsupported speculations of the chemical evolutionists.  He was also a creationist and a devout man of faith.  He said, “The more I study nature, the more I stand amazed at the works of the Creator.”  Despite the evolution that permeates today’s Pasteur Institute, evolutionists cannot claim Louis Pasteur as their own.  We think he would be pleased at the progress in medicine but appalled at the evolutionary mindset.

But we digress; we have only begun to share the honorable achievements of this great scientist.  Pasteurization: just the word suggests a benefit every one of us takes for granted but, without which, we would be cast backward into harsher and riskier times people coped with for most of history: times in which spoilage of food and drink were daily concerns.  Through experiments with yeast in wine, Pasteur found that by heating the wine to a certain temperature after fermentation but before spoiling bacteria invaded, the wine could be preserved much longer without loss of taste.  This discovery applied soon to milk, orange juice, and many other goods, and revolutionized food processing.  Now, drinks could be carried on board ships without spoilage.  Farmers and merchants did not have to rush goods to market so quickly, and risk great economic loss from spoilage due to delays in shipment.  When combined with the refrigeration that came out of the work of Lord Kelvin and James Joule, pasteurization gave households the ability to enjoy good-tasting drinks for days and weeks without having to restock.  The economic benefits of this simple lab discovery were enormous, and could have made Pasteur rich.  But humble and unselfish man he was, believing science was for the good of the people, Pasteur promptly released his patent to the public domain and never benefited financially from it, though he was not a rich man by any means.  (The term pasteurization was applied to the process later in his honor.)  Today, Surebeam Corporation has extended the concept to “electronic pasteurization,” the use of electron beams for killing the bacteria that spoil food, and it is also being applied to protecting our mail from terrorist attempts that attempt to spread anthrax.

Which brings us to another of Pasteur’s monumental achievements, the germ theory of disease.  It’s hard for us these days to fathom the mindset of doctors who, through most of history, attributed infectious disease to bad air, bad bodily fluids, comets and mystical forces.  Pasteur was convinced that the microbes he studied were the agents of infection, and proved it with a series of remarkable, life-saving and industry-saving discoveries.  His work is legendary and covered in detail in some of the books we recommend, such as John Hudson Tiner’s History of Medicine and Founder of Modern Medicine: Louis Pasteur, but we will touch on some of them briefly.  One of the most famous experiments involved anthrax in livestock.  Anthrax was economically crippling to farmers and ranchers who could only look on in despair as their sheep weakened and died.  Pasteur isolated the microbe that caused the disease.  In a remarkable stroke of luck and insight, Pasteur learned that a weakened form of the bacteria provided the same immunity without killing the animal.  When he was convinced of his theory, he set out to prove it in a risky public demonstration that put his reputation on the line.

He took 50 sheep and inoculated 25 of them with weakened anthrax bacilli.  Then, in a good controlled experiment, he exposed all 50 to the full virulent form.  Critics were poised and ready to call him a crazy fool; would it work?  With the whole countryside watching, Pasteur announced in advance that only 100% success would prove his theory right.  Even he became a little uneasy in private.  He spent a sleepless night waiting for word of the results.  In the morning, a telegram: “Stupendous success!”  All the inoculated sheep were doing fine; every one not inoculated died.  Pasteur’s critics flocked to him like repentant sinners, and his celebrity skyrocketed.  Ranchers were saved; anthrax now had a cure.  His method of identifying the infectious agent, weakening it, and then using it to inoculate a host soon was applied to many other debilitating diseases, by Pasteur himself (on cholera) and others, saving millions of lives.  Probably no other discovery in the history of science has saved more lives than Pasteur’s germ theory of disease, applied to immunization.  Edward Jenner had applied a similar method to smallpox in 1796 without knowledge of the infectious agent; with Pasteur, vaccination had a theory and a methodology that could be applied to many diseases.  Though a chemist and not a doctor, Pasteur is rightly considered a founder, perhaps the founder, of modern medicine.  In his later years, one particular deadly disease was to give Pasteur the challenge of his life: rabies.

Rabies is a viral infection.  The virus was too small to be seen by microscopes in Pasteur’s time.  This lack of evidence threatened his germ theory, but Pasteur was convinced an unseen microbial agent caused the disease, and proceeded to follow his procedure of finding ways to weaken it.  It was hard work, with many false starts and dead ends, but he eventually was successful inoculating dogs with a series of increasingly potent rabies shots that appeared to provide immunity.  That’s when he had a knock at the door.  A desperate mother with her son, Joseph Meister, who had been bitten by a mad dog, pleaded with Pasteur for help.  He replied that he was not ready for human testing, but she and other doctors agreed that if nothing was done, Joseph would die.  Rabies was always fatal.  With nothing to lose, Joseph agreed to be a test patient, and the compassionate Pasteur, realizing there was only one chance, once again put his reputation on the line and began the sequence of inoculations.  Pasteur was in anguish over his patient’s predicament and the fear of failure.  After a month passed, Joseph Meister was healthy, with no symptoms—the first man in history to be cured of rabies.  Patients, bitten by rapid animals, flocked to his lab, for the first time having hope to be spared an agonizing, painful, certain death.  Pasteur was again a hero.

Pasteur’s germ theory also saved the silk industry and led to many other discoveries, both economically and medically beneficial.  Today we know much more about infectious agents and the body’s amazing immune system, and many new techniques are available.  Now scientists can target the very genes that code for genetic diseases, and are working on molecular “magic bullets” that can stop a particular toxin produced by a germ, but they owe much to the pathway Pasteur blazed for applying empirical science to the public good.  He demonstrated the power of controlled experimentation, rigorous testing, and formulating hypotheses that can be tested.  He had no use for empty speculations and grandiose stories that could not be observed and tested to be true or false.  A maxim he liked to quote was, “It is the worst aberration of the mind to believe things because one wishes them to be so.”  Prove it, he demanded.  Much of modern science in the 21st century, unfortunately, rests on unproveable assumptions, unobservable causes, and wishful thinking.  Classical empirical science, hard science that depended on controlled experimentation, a scientific method that harked back to Roger Bacon and Francis Bacon, practiced by great Christians through the centuries in many fields, reached one of its highest pinnacles in Louis Pasteur.

Some great scientists of the 20th century have been moral midgets and character cripples, but not Pasteur.  He embodied the utmost in integrity and altruism.  Despite a crippling stroke at age 46 that nearly ended his career, he rallied with even more zeal to apply science for human good, and that is when he many of his greatest discoveries.  Though zealous for his causes, he attacked falsehoods but not men.  His grandson described him: “This man, so intolerant against adversaries who refused to listen to the truth, was in his private life the gentlest, most affectionate and sensitive individual.  As Emile Roux stated, ‘Pasteur’s work is admirable and proves his genius, but one had to live in his house to fully recognize the goodness of his heart.’”  That goodness extended to the children inflicted with rabies who came to be healed, to his own family, and to his dear wife Marie Laurent, to whom he gave lifelong devotion.  A more endearing team could hardly be found in the history of science.  His wife recognized his genius and gave him every possible leeway and assistance to aid him and encourage him in his work; in turn, he loved her passionately and faithfully all his life and gave her all the quality time his busy schedule could allow.  Though driven with an uncommon zeal for his mission in life, Louis Pasteur was a family man, a good father, a devoted husband.

Pasteur was showered with honors late in life.  For decades, he endured harsh critics who considered him a crackpot, a charlatan, a villain, or just lucky.  One opponent even challenged him to a duel.  Others accused him falsely of giving people rabies, not curing it.  Pasteur responded with honor and integrity and zeal.  He could be blistering in his attacks, but never vituperative; he attacked falsehoods, not personalities, and defended truth, not his own prestige.  In his heart, he knew he was right, and that confidence helped him endure hardship, his stroke, deprivation, anxiety, and character assassination.  But wisdom knows its own; at age 70 he stood before a standing ovation of hundreds of academics, doctors and members of scientific societies from around the world who had come to pay him tribute.  Joseph Lister, who had applied Pasteur’s germ theory of disease to antiseptics in the hospital and thus drastically reduced mortality rates, paid him tribute by saying, “Pasteur had lifted the veil that for centuries had hidden the infectious diseases.”  These two men, who combined had done more to save human lives than any other, embraced on stage, resulting in thundering applause from the audience.  Too moved to speak, Pasteur gave his son his address, which contained these self-effacing words,

You delegates of foreign countries who have come a long way to show your sympathy for France, have given me the greatest joy a man can feel who believes that Science and Peace will prevail over Ignorance and War, that the nations will learn to understand each other, not for destruction but for advancement, and that the future belongs to those who have done most for suffering mankind.  Young men ... Ask yourselves first: What have I done for my education?  And as you gradually advance: What have I done for my country? – until the moment comes when you experience the tremendous gratification of knowing that in some measure you have contributed to the progress and welfare of mankind.  More or less favored by the current of life as your efforts may be, you must have the right to say, on approaching the great goal: I have done all I could do.
His grandson wrote, “Pasteur’s health was undermined by a life overcharged with ideas, emotions, work, and struggles” (Vallery-Radot, p. 195).  He suffered two more debilitating strokes and finally died holding his wife’s hand and a crucifix in the other.  At his crypt are inscribed his words, “Blessed is the Man who Carries in his Soul a God, a Beautiful Ideal that he Obeys–Ideal of Art, Ideal of Science, Ideal of the Fatherland, Ideal of the Virtues of the Gospel.”  Stephen Paget, a long time friend, who studied his life carefully, eulogized him after his death with these words: “Here was a life, within the limits of humanity, well-nigh perfect.  He worked incessantly.  He went through poverty, bereavement, ill health and opposition.  He lived to see his doctrines current over all the world.  Yet here was a man whose spiritual life was no less admirable than his scientific life” (Founder of Modern Medicine, p. 176).

Was Pasteur a born-again Christian?  His son-in-law said that “he believed in the divine impulse which has created the Universe; with the yearnings of his heart he proclaimed the immortality of the soul.”  His grandson said, ”Pasteur respected the religion of his forefathers; he had profound Christian ideals, but he was not, as has been asserted, an observant Catholic” (Vallery-Radot, p. 159).  John Hudson Tiner claims Pasteur “had devotions each morning, read the Bible and prayed before going about each day’s activity” (History of Medicine, p. 84).  Henry Morris quotes him as saying, “Could I but know all, I would have the faith of a Breton peasant woman” (Men of Science, Men of God, p. 62).  In some quotes Pasteur sounds mystical or indefinite in his concept of God, portraying Him as an Infinity that might be embodied in various religions.  We know, however, that people grow in faith and understanding at different times in their lives, so one quote might not fairly characterize the lifetime.  Tiner quotes his son-in-law as stating that at the end, “The virtues of the gospel were very present to him.  He came to his Christian faith simply and naturally for spiritual help in the last stages of his life” (Founder of Modern Medicine, p. 175).  Clearly he was not a materialist, but it’s hard to say for sure if Pasteur fully understood and accepted the gospel of Jesus Christ in its New Testament sense.  Jesus did say that you will know men by their fruits, and Christian values and character traits were evident throughout his life.  If nothing else, Pasteur stood squarely in the tradition of Boyle, Newton and Maxwell in seeing science as a godly calling for the worship of the Creator and the betterment of mankind.  The fruits of the Christian world view in science were ripe and sweet in the life of Louis Pasteur, and we are all the better for it.  Remember this great scientist whenever you open your refrigerator and pour from a container that says, pasteurized.

The rest of the story: At the Pasteur Institute today, some of Pasteur’s original swan-necked flasks remain open to the air, the broth still sterile after 140 years.

Learn More About
Louis Pasteur

Visit the Pasteur Institute which he founded, and see where they have listed his achievements.  (Sad to say, the Institute these days is a bastion of evolutionary thinking).

Recommended books: History of Medicine by John Hudson Tiner (Master Books, 1999).  Also, by the same author, Founder of Modern Medicine: Louis Pasteur (The Sowers Series, Mott Media, 1990).

  Joseph Lister     1827 - 1912 

Imagine making a discovery so important that a whole branch of science dates its calendar by it.  That is what happened because of a Christian doctor.  Joseph Lister’s discovery of antisepsis has led some to divide the history of medicine into the eras “before Lister” and “after Lister.”  His work did more to save lives in the hospital than any other in history.  Surprisingly, it took nearly a generation for his discovery to become accepted.  He faced strong opposition from doctors and surgeons who didn’t believe him and weren’t about to change their ways.  In the end, however, because of Lister’s perseverance in teaching what he knew was right, and from the dramatic success of those who followed his procedures, his ideas finally took hold, and at his death, he was a world-wide hero.

Born in a devout Quaker household, young Joseph learned about science at an early age.  His father, Joseph Jackson Lister, a renowned amateur scientist himself, found a solution to the problem of chromatic aberration in microscope lenses.  This discovery brought a major improvement to microscopy which had been around since Leeuwenhoek first made crude hand-held devices in the late 17th century.  Leeuwenhoek had been the first to discover bacteria under the microscope.  Astonishingly, it took two centuries for doctors and scientists to make a connection between the tiny creatures and disease.

Joseph Jr. quickly became an expert at the microscope.  He studied at University College, London because Quakers and non-conformists were not allowed in Cambridge or Oxford.  By 1850, at age 23, he was a doctor, with degrees in medicine and surgery.  Three years later, he became the assistant of the great medical teacher Professor James Syme at Edinburgh, Scotland.  Syme was very impressed and desired to groom Joseph to become his successor.  The relationship was strengthened when Joseph became attracted to his daughter Agnes; the two married in 1856.  Lister joined his wife in the Anglican church.  Agnes took great interest in all of Lister’s work.  On their three-month honeymoon touring the continent, what did they do but visit all the major hospitals of France and Germany!  Though she bore no children, Agnes remained his most loyal and dedicated companion.  She helped with Joseph’s home laboratory.  She ran experiments, kept records and provided ample love and encouragement.

Needing surgery in a hospital operating room in the mid-19th century was almost a death sentence.  Disease and infection were so rampant, chances of survival were slim.  Hospitals were dark, stinking places filled with the screams of patients.  The great killer was infection.  No one knew what caused it.  Bacteria were known, but were dismissed as passive microbes with no effect.  Most surgeons suspected oxidation to be the culprit.  They would hurry through their surgeries in hopes of keeping exposure to the air to a minimum.  In hindsight, it is shocking to consider how unsanitary the conditions were.  Surgeons would use the same blood-stained apron in surgery after surgery, and only washed their hands afterwards.  If a surgeon dropped a scalpel on the floor, or on his dirty boot, he would just pick it up and continue operating.  It’s no wonder that death rates for amputations ranged from 24% in America to 80% in Germany.  A compound fracture or amputation of one finger could often result in 50-50 odds of dying.

Progress in sanitation was slow.  Florence Nightingale found that cleanliness, fresh air and large, ventilated rooms aided survival, but the reasons were unclear.  Ignaz Semmelweis promoted hand-washing in 1847 – another piece of advice that was soundly rejected by surgeons for a long time.  As with most surgeons, Joseph Lister grieved over the high death rate of patients.  What could be done?  Lister’s familiarity with the microscope, and his respect for the scientific method learned in his youth, combined with his Christian compassion and humility, set him up for a great turning point.  Louis Pasteur believed that “fortune favors the prepared mind.”  Lister was about to illustrate this proverb.

One day around 1865 a colleague, a chemist, related to Lister how he had started catching up on his reading.  He had found a ten-year-old paper by a relatively unknown French chemist (Louis Pasteur) that sounded interesting.  Pasteur had found that rod-shaped bacteria caused fermentation in wine.  He found that by heating the wine enough to kill the bacteria but not the yeast (a process that became known as pasteurization), wine could be kept from spoiling for long periods.  Lister soon suspected that bacteria might be the cause of infection.  He studied wounds with his microscopes, and sure enough, found rod-shaped bacteria (bacilli) present.  What to do?  He couldn’t heat his patients!  But then he heard another report how sewers in France had been making the cows sick, but when the townspeople sprayed the sewage pits with carbolic acid, the smell was reduced and the cows remained healthy.  That was it!  He would try carbolic acid as a way to fight infection.

Soon he had a patient, a young man with a minor compound fracture.  Lister used a sprayer he had invented to spray dilute solutions of carbolic acid on the wound and dressings.  The results were dramatic.  No infection set in, and the young man recovered completely.  Encouraged by his results, Lister devised a set of procedures for spraying the wound, the surgical instruments and the operating room with carbolic acid.  He would apply dressings with carbolic acid and replace them regularly.  As he kept records, the death rate plummeted.  Lister knew he had made a life-saving discovery and was motivated to spread the word.  He published two major papers, in 1867 and 1870, that demonstrated the life-saving properties of what he named antisepsis.

One would think the world would be waiting for such news.  The exact opposite happened.  The medical community scoffed at Lister’s wild ideas.  They did not believe him that bacteria caused infection.  His elaborate rituals with carbolic acid were way out of the norm – too radical, too inconvenient, too crazy.  For one thing, the stuff smelled awful, it made the surgeon’s hands look like red meat, and took too much time to go through all the procedures for something that, to them, made no sense.

Lister persisted.  For years, no amount of teaching and demonstrating his techniques could overcome the professional inertia of the proud surgical community.  Medical students from the continent, and younger students, were more accepting, but those in London and around the British Isles treated Lister’s doctrine with contempt.  In America it was even worse.  Debates raged about the new procedure; few believed it.  Lister kept on with the fervor of an evangelist.

Only after the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871), with its thousands of deaths from amputations, did French and German doctors flock to Lister’s lecture hall.  So few of his own fellow Englishman attended, the college translated the “no smoking” signs into French and German.  His new converts took the practice of antisepsis to the continent.  As could be expected, survival rates skyrocketed.  The success of Lister’s techniques could no longer be avoided once Robert Koch experimentally proved a connection between bacteria and disease in 1882.  Even so, most of the older doctors had to die off before a new generation rose to accept and use the new practices.

Some converts to Lister’s antisepsis theory, particularly in Germany, advanced the methods of fighting infection.  Inventive scientists found other disease-fighting chemicals.  In 1879, an enterprizing inventor named his germ-fighting solution Listerine in Lister’s honor.  And if anti-sepsis (fighting disease germs) was good, why not a-sepsis (preventing germs) in the first place?  New aseptic techniques were tried: sterilizing everything, wearing clean garments, washing hands.  By the late 1980s and into the 1990s it became routine to enter the operating room with sterilized clothing and instruments.  Rigorous hand-washing was performed before contact with the patient.  Surgical gloves and steam sterilization were invented.  Cleanliness in medicine was very practically next to godliness.  As for Lister, he cared not who got the credit, or whether doctors preferred antisepsis or asepsis – he was just glad that thousands of lives were now being saved.  Thanks to the germ theory of disease and the practices advanced by Joseph Lister, the dirty operating rooms of centuries past were replaced with the bastions of cleanliness we know today.

Lister became one of the most beloved scientists and doctors in history.  He was knighted by the queen.  He was elected President of the Royal Society.  A food-borne pathogen Listeria was named after him.  His 80th birthday in 1907 was celebrated around the world.  Some wanted him to be buried in Westminster Abbey, but Lister refused the honor.  Upon his death at age 84, he was interred next to his beloved wife Agnes who had preceded him in death by 19 years.

Joseph Lister was a tall, handsome, unpretentious man loved by all his patients and colleagues.  He cared for people and treated all his fellows with respect and congeniality.  He loved the truth and contended for it with perseverance despite opposition.  These virtues were the products of his beliefs.  A fervent Christian all his life, he confessed, “I am a believer in the fundamental doctrines of Christianity.”

Let no modernist say, therefore, that Christian fundamentalism is a hindrance to good science.  Millions are living and science is thriving due to the faith in action of a great scientist and compassionate doctor who, it can rightly be said, ushered in the age of modern surgery “after Lister.”

Learn More About
Joseph Lister

Short biographies of Lister can be found at: Encarta and Scotland Medicine.

A Christian biography of Lister by Ann Lamont is available at Answers in Genesis and Creation Ministries International.

Read Lister’s own words: read his first paper on antisepsis from 1867, available at the Modern History Sourcebook.

Visit the Lister Institute, a charitable research institute dedicated to laboratory work in preventive medicine.

  Henrietta Swan Leavitt     1868 - 1921 
Behold the distant stars, how high they are.  (Job 22:12)
Let’s take a look at a remarkable woman astronomer, whose scientific work has been, and continues to be, of the utmost significance for our understanding of the universe.  She not only overcame the gender barrier to achieve greatness in science, but physical disability as well.

All of the other scientists in our hall of fame have been men.  Today, there are many women scientists, but until the twentieth century, whether from prejudice, tradition, or the needs of homemaking, women had rarely entered the almost exclusively male domains of science and technology.  Henrietta Swan Leavitt is a glorious exception, and with her, a whole group of lady astronomers who, under Dr. Edward C. Pickering of Harvard, made it their mission to survey the stars.  Pickering hired local women, who were willing to work for less money, to do the tedious work of measuring stars from thousands of photographic plates.  Annie Jump Cannon, one of “Pickering’s harem” as it was later crudely dubbed, would become famous for her star classification scheme OBAFGKM (memorialized by the guys for its mnemonic “O Be A Fine Girl, Kiss Me”).  Henrietta Swan Leavitt, however, would always be most famous of the group: she helped us measure the universe.

Deaf, and reserved in manner but charmingly sweet, Henrietta Leavitt had a brilliant mind and a capacity for detail that helped her discover an astronomical law destined to put her in the history books.  This law become the essential tool Edwin Hubble would later use to determine the distance to the “nebulae” (clouds) – unknown fuzzy objects found in all directions of the sky.  Leavitt was the daughter of a congregational minister.  She graduated from what was later named Radcliffe College, and in 1892, joined the Harvard College Observatory as a volunteer research assistant.  Soon after the twentieth century began, she rose to the head of a department measuring stellar magnitudes (brightnesses).  For the next several years, she performed very tedious work, searching thousands of plates taken from an observatory in Peru, for a special class of pulsating stars called Cepheid variables.  For reasons unknown at the time, Cepheids were known to vary regularly in brightness.  Some pulsated rapidly, in a few hours or days, and some took months, but they could be depended on like clockwork.  By 1908 she had compiled a list of well over a thousand Cepheids in a nebular patch of the southern sky called the Small Magellanic Cloud.  Her careful observations uncovered an important relationship: the longer the period, the brighter the star.

Great advances in science are often made by individuals who not only observe something interesting, but get that flash of insight that allows them to interpret the meaning of the observation.  To understand the significance of her find, we need to recall the concept of the universe in Leavitt’s day.  The Herschels and other notable astronomers had catalogued thousands of stars, but were frustrated by a common fact, that you cannot tell the distance of a star by its brightness alone.  It might be a very bright star very far away, or a very dim star close up.  If you had a “standard candle” or light source of known brightness, you could use it as a distance measuring tool.  Think of a row of uniform street lights vanishing in the distance along a city street.  If every lamp is the same, you can use the apparent brightness of a lamp, i.e., how bright it looks to your eye or film, and compare it to the lamp’s absolute brightness, or how bright it would look from a known, standard distance, to measure how far away it is.

The relationship Leavitt observed is a little more complicated, but similar.  If you know that fast-blinking lamps are intrinsically dimmer than slow-blinking lamps, they will have a relationship that allows you to infer how far away one is by measuring its apparent brightness or magnitude, and comparing that to its blinking rate, or period, which is linked to its absolute magnitude.  A simple mathematical equation then gives you the distance.  Before Leavitt, no standard candle was known.  Other than the few nearby stars that could be measured using triangulation, no stars hinted at a reliable method that could tell for sure how far they were, and by extrapolation, how far the universe extended.  Astronomers took part in the “Great Debate” – was everything inside the Milky Way, or were some objects beyond it?  Just how big was the Milky Way?

Leavitt used a fair assumption that the stars in the Small Magellanic Cloud were all, within reason, the same distance from us.  This meant she could compare each star’s absolute magnitude, or luminosity, as if she were to see a variety of lamps of different brightnesses from the same distance d (where d was still to be determined).  She found 16 Cepheids on the plates that appeared often enough to measure their periods.  Plotting the periods of these stars on a graph against their apparent luminosities, she saw that they all fell on a line: she had found a Period-Luminosity Relation.  If astronomers could determine the distance to one Cepheid, they could calibrate the relationship and use it as a measuring stick.  They would have their long-sought standard candle.

Henrietta Leavitt published her results, enthusiastic about the possibilities of the relationship for measuring objects in space.  But Pickering assigned her to other duties that he felt were more appropriate as women’s work than making fundamental discoveries.  Other astronomers like Hertzprung and Shapley became intrigued by Leavitt’s paper, however, and found ways to calibrate her standard candle.  It took several iterations and error corrections, but by the 1920s, using Cepheids with the Period-Luminosity Relation had become an increasingly accepted method of measurement, and astronomers were finally getting a grasp on the distances to the stars.

Leavitt did not live to see the epochal day in October, 1923, when Edwin Hubble, working at the new 100" telescope on Mt. Wilson near Los Angeles, the largest in the world at the time, excitedly wrote "VAR!" on a plate taken of the Andromeda Nebula.  He had found a Cepheid variable star within it.  This Cepheid was to bring powerful new evidence into the long-standing debate about the nature of these spiral nebulae: were they clouds of dust or gas within the Milky Way, or star systems far beyond it?  Hubble noted that this Cepheid was much dimmer than most.   Applying Henrietta Leavitt’s Period-Luminosity Relation, he calculated that the Andromeda Nebula must be extremely distant; it was in fact another galaxy like our own, far beyond the Milky Way – an “island universe” in the vastness of empty space.  As the implications of this discovery began to sink in, and objections to it withered and disappeared, the age of galactic astronomy was born.  By 1935, the cosmos had multiplied in size a hundred billionfold – an unprecedented revolution in our understanding of the heavens, unlikely to ever be surpassed.  Armed with Leavitt’s standard candle, Hubble and other astronomers revealed to our telescopes a universe of unfathomably immense proportions.

The glory of this discovery was due largely to this wonderful lady scientist, Henrietta Swan Leavitt, who was nominated for a Nobel Prize posthumously in 1925.  What kind of person was she?  Solon I. Bailey eulogized her in these words:

Miss Leavitt inherited, in a somewhat chastened form, the stern virtues of her puritan ancestors.  She took life seriously.  Her sense of duty, justice and loyalty was strong.  For light amusements she appeared to care little.  She was a devoted member of her intimate family circle, unselfishly considerate in her friendships, steadfastly loyal to her principles, and deeply conscientious and sincere in her attachment to her religion and church.  She had the happy faculty of appreciating all that was worthy and lovable in others, and was possessed of a nature so full of sunshine that, to her, all of life became beautiful and full of meaning.
This moving description makes it clear that Miss Leavitt exemplified the fruit of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22): love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.  Christians, creationists, women, and the disabled – all can justly look to Dr. Henrietta Swan Leavitt as a role model of an overcomer, an achiever, and an exemplary Christian.
There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; for star differs from star in glory.  I Corinthians 15:41
Learn More About
Henrietta Leavitt

Read Leavitt’s Original 1912 Paper announcing the Period-Luminosity Relation.

Learn more about her in the UCLA History of Astronomy and the Encyclopedia Britannica’s Women in American History.

This short biography contains the quotation by Solon I. Bailey.

Find the lunar crater named after Miss Leavitt.

Does the Bible teach a universe as vast as that revealed by modern astronomy?  See:

  • Psalm 8
  • Psalm 19
  • Psalm 96:3-6
  • Psalm 103:11-12
  • Isaiah 40-41
  • Isaiah 55:9
  • Jeremiah 10:11-12
  • Jeremiah 31:37
  • Jeremiah 32:17
  • Jeremiah 33:22
  • Daniel 4:35
  • Luke 1:37
  • Romans 1:19-20
  • Romans 11:33
  • Revelation 4:11
For more detail, see Scripture References to Astronomy.
  George Washington Carver     1864 - 1943 

You have to be someone to get a National Monument named after you, and George Washington Carver was someone – not in his own estimation, but by universal acclaim.  His own estimation of himself was summed up in his words, “Without my Savior, I am nothing.”  He sought his Creator for guidance in all things, and gave God the credit for all his discoveries.  Rightly does a National Monument deserve to be named for him, because his story is an inspiration to all Americans.  It is one of overcoming odds and serving one’s fellow man, achieving greatness by good works, and devoting oneself to serving others.  It is a great American success story for which black Americans, and all Americans, can justly find inspiration.

For an example of doing science the Genesis way, it would be hard to find a better example than George Washington Carver.  God told Adam and Eve to “be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and the fowl of the air and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (Genesis 1:28).  Liberal environmentalists hate this verse because they misunderstand it.  It does not mean to run roughshod over the land, exploiting it for selfish purposes.  It means to manage it as stewards of the Creator, for He alone is the one who owns “the cattle on a thousand hills ... for the earth and its fullness are mine” (Psalm 50:10-12), and “the earth is the Lord’s, and those who dwell therein” (Psalm 24:1).  Carver knew that “It is He who has made us, and not we ourselves; we are His people, and the sheep of His pasture” (Psalm 100:3).

Since He is the Creator and Owner, we are mere stewards, accountable to Him.  Now it goes without saying that a good steward has to know the state of affairs of what he is managing.  So what does the Genesis Mandate mean?  It means, in effect, “do science.”  Science was the very first occupational career the Creator gave to the only beings He had made in His image, endowed with personality, intellect, will, and emotions.  Science (the understanding of the world) and environmental stewardship (the responsible management of it) are what dominion is all about.  Implicit in this view is that the world is a vast puzzle to solve, an endless store of natural wonders to explore.  It was in this spirit that Carver humbly asked, “Mr. Creator, why did you make the peanut?” then went to discover over 300 uses for it.  But we get ahead of our story.

Carver’s story is all the more remarkable because of the obstacles he had to overcome.  He was born practically a non-person in Civil War times, the nameless son of poor slave parents on a Missouri farm around 1864.  His father had been trampled to death by a team of oxen before young George had any memories of him.  His mother and sister had been taken by slave raiders in the night, never to be seen again.  Barely six months old, the boy and his older brother Jim were adopted by German immigrants, Moses and Susan Carver.  Jim was the stronger one; little George was short, weak, sickly, shy, stuttering and nearly mute.  Who would have expected great things from this unfortunate child?  Yet the Carvers noticed special aptitudes in him – curiosity, keen observational skills, and love of nature.  To this, they added discipline, hard work, and respect for God’s holy book, the Bible.  And they gave him a name to live up to: George Washington.

The Carvers were too poor to give him much more than that, but it proved sufficient; little George was ready to face a world of prejudice and start from the bottom up without complaining.  At age ten, with a silver dollar and eight pennies in his pocket, Carver walked alone the ten miles to the nearest colored boys school in Neosho.  He would find a barn to sleep in at night, and do any odd jobs a neighbor might need, from washing dishes and cooking to planting, to pay for food and tuition.  Abuse from other kids or white folks did not break his spirit.  Carver knew how to pray.  He always sensed the Lord was with him, and he knew that his loving heavenly Father would take care of him and direct his paths.  Besides, the trees and plants were too interesting to make him self-conscious over his own hardships.

Passing each test and scaling each hurdle, George won the hearts of classmates in a Kansas high school.  He developed many interests in which he excelled.  Those who know him primarily for his achievements in agricultural science might be surprised to learn that George Washington Carver was a singer, artist, piano player and debater.  His spiritual aptitude took root in his fellowship with the YMCA.  Throughout his life, he felt the sting of racial prejudice, even witnessing a lynching of another black man by the KKK.  The white folk who knew George stood up for him when racial slurs came at him.  He remained friendly, open, and diligent in everything he did, rising to the top of his class with high grades.  He was accepted to Highland University on a scholarship.

Upon arriving at Highland in Kansas, he was in for another major disappointment.  He entered the President’s office and announced that he was George Washington Carver, the one who had received the President’s own letter of acceptance.  “Young man, I’m afraid there has been a mistake.  You failed to inform us you were colored.  We do not take colored students here at Highland.”  The President would not be moved by the fact that George had spent everything he had to come.  His skin was just not the right color.  The feeling of dejection can only be imagined, as he walked around the strange town wondering what to do next.  He never felt more lonely in his life.  Again, he prayed.  He decided he would find a college that would take him.  He would work, save his money, and he would study hard, and God helping him, he would succeed.

It would not be easy.  He took a homestead in west Kansas and endured a blizzard alone in his cabin, and more loneliness..  Then word of a new college that would take coloreds came to his attention, and at age 26, he spent the ten dollars he made from selling his cabin and land, traveled to Indianola, and entered Simpson College.  The rest is history.  Though now older than most of the students, and seemingly the only black student, George rapidly excelled and made high grades.  He transferred to Iowa State and became the first black man to earn a bachelor’s degree.  Even prejudiced white folk made way for this rising star.  He was invited to teach, and earned a master’s degree in agriculture in 1896.  His work on plants and plant diseases was getting recognized.  It came to the attention of Booker T. Washington.

Booker T. Washington, a friend of Abraham Lincoln, had founded Tuskegee Institute fifteen years earlier as a place to provide blacks an opportunity for higher education.  He gave Carver a strange proposition that a mercenary man would have snubbed with utter disdain:

I cannot offer you money, position, or fame.  The first two you have.  The last, from the place you now occupy, you will no doubt achieve.  These things I now ask you to give up.  I offer you in their place – work – hard, hard work – the challenge of bringing people from degradation, poverty and waste to full manhood.

With a good deal of prayer and soul searching, Carver accepted.

Upon arriving in Alabama, George Carver was stunned to find he had no lab, no books, no equipment, no helpers, and no curriculum.  He would have to build the entire department from scratch.  He was even expected to share a room with another faculty member.  On top of that, he was expected to raise chickens and do other tasks he did not particularly care for, and the students were not that interested in learning what he had to teach.  But Carver had learned to take life as it came and make the most of it.  It was never easy; his relationship with Booker T. was often strained, the latter trying to keep the institution from going broke, and the former more visionary than resources permitted.  But they needed each other, and complemented each other, as iron sharpens iron (a fact George never fully realized till after Booker’s death).

So from the ground up at Tuskegee, George set to work with the equivalent of two loaves and a few fishes, handing them over to the Lord to multiply them.  Improvising a lab with old bottles and spare parts, and a microscope donated by his Iowa friends, he slowly got his balky students on track and began spinning a list of achievements that overflowed by the bushels.  His classes did experiments with sweet potatoes, trying to increase crop yields.  From five bushels an acre to ten, then twenty and thirty ... they reached eighty bushels per acre, a feat thought impossible by seasoned farmers.  His all-time record was 266 bushels per acre, with the proper cultivation and fertilization.  Carver’s abilities in agriculture must have seemed like magic.  He experimented with crop rotation and found ways to replenish the soil.  His list of useful products from common crops began to grow, including delicious meals from cowpeas and industrial products from sweet potatoes.  As a ministry of help to poor farmers, he and his students put a classroom on a wagon.  They traveled from farm to farm, showing farmers how they could improve their yields.  George Washington Carver was poised to save the South from the devastation of the Civil War to new dangers on the horizon.

Southern farmers, by tradition, were stuck in a cotton rut.  Carver realized that not only did this deplete the soil, but the devastating boll weevil was slowly working its way east from Mexico and Texas at about 100 miles per year.  He realized its arrival in the South would wipe out the cotton economy.  Peanuts and other legumes, he demonstrated, replenished the soil.  Not only that, they were extremely versatile and healthy.  Grudgingly at first, the farmers took his advice to try growing the silly goobers, doubtful that anyone would buy them.  Carver tried to convince them that peanuts were an ideal food source.  Taking his cue from Genesis, where God had said to Adam and the animals, “I have given every green plant for food” (Genesis 1:29-30, 2:9), he figured there must be more there than meets the eye.  The threat of the boll weevil forced some farmers to take his advice and grow peanuts, but some became angry when they could not find a market for them.  This drove Carver to launch a series of amazing discoveries.

As he would tell the story later, he went out to pray (as was his daily practice), and asked God why He made the universe.  The Lord replied that was a mighty big question for a puny man.  Carver tried a smaller question, why did you make man?  As God kept narrowing the scope of his inquiry, he finally tried, “Mr. Creator, why did you make the peanut?” With that, the Lord was satisfied, and told him to go into his lab and find out.  In a Spirit-filled rush of discovery, Carver separated peanuts into their shells, skins, oils and meats and found all kinds of amazing properties and possibilities.

Most of us have heard this one of Carver’s many claims to fame, that he discovered over 300 uses for the peanut, but have you ever seen the list?  You can find it on websites, but here are a few samples for the pure amazement of what came out of that humble Tuskegee lab: soap, cooking oil, milk, rubber, glue, insecticide, malaria medicine, flour, salve, paint, cosmetics, paper, fertilizer, paving material and (of course) peanut butter, peanut brittle, peanut clusters, and dozens of other food products.  He amazed the faculty and students one day by serving an entire meal – appetizer, main course, side dishes, beverage and dessert – out of peanuts: soup, salad, milk, coffee, bread, mock chicken, peanut ice cream, and a variety of candies and cookies.  His peanut milk was indistinguishable from the dairy kind.  Farmers no longer had to worry about having a market for peanuts!

In 1921, the United Peanut Association of America, now a thriving group of farmers thanks to Carver’s help, sent him to Congress to testify about a tariff bill.  The weary Congressmen, bored from days of other tariff arguments, allotted him ten minutes.  Two hours later, their eyes were still bulging from his displays of products he had made.  His lively and sometimes humorous presentation had them spellbound.  The law passed easily.

Peanuts were just one of many plants Carver’s magic with chemistry transformed into useful products.  He invented 35 products from the velvet bean and 118 from the sweet potato.  How many of these things do you have around the house: adhesive, axle grease, bleach, briquettes, buttermilk, chili sauce, ink, instant coffee, linoleum, mayonnaise, meat tenderizer, metal polish, paper, plastic, paint, pavement, peanut butter, shaving cream, shoe polish, synthetic rubber, talcum powder, and wood stain.  These and many other products Carver produced from plant materials.  George Washington Carver became the father of a new branch of applied science called agricultural chemistry or “chemurgy.”  The extent of his discoveries in this field are breathtaking, and unlikely to be surpassed by any one person again.

Just a few of these products could have made a man rich, but Carver made them available freely.  As a servant of God, he felt the Creator should have the credit for putting all this richness into the plants He had made.  Carver did not seek fame, but his work brought him world-wide renown; Teddy Roosevelt visited him at Tuskegee and said, “There’s no more important work than what you are doing right here.”  He never made much money in his 40+ years at Tuskegee.  Driven by the needs of those he served there, he turned down a lucrative offer to work for Thomas Edison.  He gave generously from his meager assets.  Despite a high-pitched voice he inherited from a bout with whooping cough in childhood, he was a popular speaker.  Projecting a visage of integrity, with rhetorical intensity characteristic of a black preacher, Carver inspired the young to rise above their hardships, as he had, and make their life count.

All who knew George Washington Carver were impressed by his spirituality.  Carver would often rise at 4:00 in the morning and go into his favorite woods to pray.  Each day he would ask, “Lord, what do you want me to do today?“ and then do it.  The goodness of God and the richness of creation was often on his lips.  He said, “I love to think of nature as an unlimited broadcasting station, through which God speaks to us every hour, if we will only tune in.”  Some misunderstood his remarks about seeking the guidance of God, and caricatured him as seeking Divine inspiration in the science lab.  But Carver’s science was sound.  He explained to those who misrepresented his views (claiming he thought books were unnecessary) that of course he studied books; what he meant was that “once the books are mastered by the scientist the next step beyond the books requires inspiration” (Wellman, p. 188).

Without dispute, the Genesis account of creation was a foundation for Carver’s scientific approach.  Did he take it literally?  Responding to news of the Scopes trial in 1925, Carver affirmed his belief that God had created man directly, but allowed for some transitional forms God might have made between other species.  Another source quotes him as describing a plant having existed for millions of years.  We must remember, however, that voices for a Biblical doctrine of creation were few and weak during the early twentieth century.  Both churches and colleges often accommodated what the scientists were telling them about the age of the earth without questioning the assumptions.  Piltdown Man and other false claims were still unexposed, and they didn’t have evidences that have only recently come to light that overturn the commonly-accepted ideas of his day.  But “Carver never hesitated to confess his faith in the God of the Bible, and attributed all his success and ability to God,” says Henry Morris (Men of Science, Men of God, p. 81).  The fact that God had created plants and called them good provided the impetus for Carver to do his outstanding science.

There are two ways to respond to discrimination: speak out against evil, or overcome evil with good.  Both are necessary, but Carver exemplified the latter.  He did not have a prejudicial bone in his body, they he was a target of racial bigotry on many occasions.  Rather than join the ranks of the protestors, he quietly demonstrated that a man’s worth is not to be judged by the color of his skin, but the content of his character.  And what character George Washington Carver had.  He won the Roosevelt Medal in 1939, with the inscription, “To a scientist humbly seeking the guidance of God and a liberator to men of the white race as well as the black.”  Entering glory after a long and productive life, he was given the epitaph, “He could have added fortune to fame, but caring for neither, he found happiness and honor in being helpful to the world.”

Drop by George Washington Carver National Monument sometime when passing through Missouri.  And don’t forget to pack some peanut butter sandwiches.

Learn More About
George Washington Carver

A short biography can be found at Georgia Southern University.  Charles Stanley’s In Touch site also has a bio from a Christian perspective.

Young people and adults will enjoy Mott Media’s Sowers Series biography written in first person by David Collins.

Here’s information for your visit to George Washington Carver National Monument.  The site has a list of peanut products he invented, sorted by type.  Some, like mock goose or diesel fuel, are amazing.

Try some of George Carver’s original peanut recipes, from his own writing.  Here are more, including directions, at Iowa State.

Iowa State, Carver’s alma mater, held an All-University Celebration of its famous first African-American student and faculty member.  The site has a biography, pictures and resources, including this list of links.

Radio Bible Class produced a good two-part video on Carver.  It’s apparently not on their online catalog, so you may have to call them.  But try a Google Search on +"George Washington Carver" +video and you will find lots of hits!

Application: Carver’s example could inspire a whole generation of creation scientists.  Considering all he did with the peanut, what about all those plant uses yet to be discovered, in tropical rain forests or your own backyard?  Instead of viewing plants as accidents of evolution, why not see them with all the built-in design God put there for our enjoyment and benefit?

This is the reason to cherish and protect the rain forests.  A Carver-style environmental ethic will respect plants as God’s masterpieces.  It will nourish and protect the rare and endangered species, and find thousands of uses in the plentiful species for the benefit of all living things in the ecosystem.

There are millions who are starving simply for want of knowledge.  Like the poor Southern farmers who were set in their ways, some of them just need training about how to make their agriculture productive.  Disney’s Epcot Center in Florida, for example, has a fascinating experimental lab that demonstrates amazing new techniques that can grow bumper crops in sand with very little water or space.  Picture that in sub-Saharan Africa, where poor families starve during the frequent droughts.  Carver’s pioneering example of increasing crop yields could be extended to third-world countries and improve the quality of life for millions.  We have tools and techniques Carver never would have imagined.  What are we waiting for?

Here’s a win-win scenario to think about.  Poor farmers in South America are burning large areas of rain forest to plant crops the old-fashioned way, because they don’t know any better.  They have to feed their families.  If creation scientists could find rain-forest plants that grow naturally but have valuable uses, they could be grown in a small fraction of the land area, using improved crop-yield techniques, and provide even better income for the farmers.  The rain forests are saved, and prosperity is increased for thousands of people.  A similar market economy might preserve endangered animals from poachers in Africa who are driven to poaching because it seems the only way to make a living.

Some evolutionary botanists are wasting valuable time trying to dig up imaginary evolutionary trees in plant genomes.  Instead, why not send an enthusiastic corps of George Washington Carvers into the world on a treasure hunt.  There might be a cure for cancer out there, a healthy new food crop, or a cheap energy source just waiting to be discovered.  Let’s renew our vows to be good stewards of God’s creation, and use science to find “happiness and honor in being helpful to the world.”

  Wernher von Braun     1912 - 1977 

“It’s not exactly rocket science, you know.”  The cliche implies that rocket science is the epitome of something that is difficult, obscure, and abstruse; something comprehensible only by the brainiest of the smart.  Names that qualify for the title “father of rocket science” include Tsiolkovsky, Goddard, and von Braun.  But Konstantin Tsiolkovsky was mostly a visionary and chalkboard theorist, and Robert Goddard only targeted the upper atmosphere for his projects; he was also secretive and suspicious of others to a fault.  Of the three, and any others that could be listed, Wernher von Braun has the prestige of actually taking mankind from the simple beginnings of rocketry all the way to the moon and the planets.  His name is almost synonymous with rocket science.  He is an icon of the space age.  As we will see, he should be remembered for much more than that.

Von Braun (pronounced fon BROWN – and roll the R) is important in this series because he was recent enough to be in the living memory of many, and we have a great deal of documentation, photographs and motion pictures of him.  Even young people (that is, anyone under 40) who did not live through the glory days of Apollo are all familiar with three of von Braun’s last great projects he took from vision to reality: the Space Shuttle, orbiting space stations and interplanetary travel.  Unquestionably, he had a great deal of help.  One does not do rocket science alone!  At the height of the Apollo program, some 600,000 employees were involved in tasks from machining parts to managing large flight operations centers.  Yet by wide consensus and by results achieved, Wernher von Braun was a giant among giants: highly regarded by his peers, respected by all who worked with him, a celebrity to the public, showered with honors, and unquestionably responsible for much of the success of the space program.  Few have ever personally taken a dream of epic proportions to reality.  The peaceful exploration of space!  It was the stuff of dreams — dreams by Kepler, Jules Verne, science fiction novels and countless childhood imaginations, yet today it is almost too commonplace.  Von Braun dreamed, but made it happen.  He was the right man with the right stuff at the right time.

What kind of person was he?  Many great scientists are quirkish or aloof in their personal lives, but we’re going to reveal a lesser-known side of von Braun, a spiritual side that kept him humble, grateful, unselfish, and strong.  We’ll see a remarkably well-rounded individual, a family man who loved swimming and travel and popularizing science for children; a man who loved life, had charisma and energy and dignity and integrity, handled huge projects yet kept a winning smile and a sense of humor even in the most stressful of project deadlines.  We’ll see a model of leadership that success-bound corporate heads would do well to emulate.  Maybe you didn’t know (incidentally) that he was also a Christian and creationist.  But first, a review of his record.

Von Braun was the “can do” mover and shaker that rescued America’s prestige from the embarrassment of Sputnik (1957) and drove the moon mission against a host of naysayers, leading to that unforgettable moment when the whole world held its breath: “Houston: Tranquillity Base here — the Eagle has landed!”  In hindsight, many feel that Russia beat the U.S. to orbit and put the first man in space largely because the top brass had snubbed von Braun, whose team was eager and ready, and gave the job to the Navy.  Those first awful images of exploding and stray rockets, broadcast to America’s horror on international TV, are now folklore for captions to illustrate Murphy’s Law.  But once President Eisenhower put von Braun in the driver’s seat, his string of spectacular successes left the Russians in the dust.  On January 31, 1958, von Braun’s Jupiter-C rocket successfully lifted America’s first satellite, Explorer 1, into orbit.  The historic photo of Pickering, Van Allen and von Braun holding a model of Explorer 1 overhead in a victory salute at a Washington D.C. press conference symbolized the turning of the tide.  When Kennedy became President, Von Braun was already of thinking bigger goals.  He told Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, “We have an excellent chance of beating the Soviets to the first landing of a crew on the moon.”  Largely because of von Braun’s confidence, President Kennedy in 1961 challenged the country to make it to the moon before the decade was out.  And it did, on time!  A year later, with the launch of Mariner 2 to Venus in 1962 and Mariner 4 to Mars in 1964, his childhood dream of interplanetary exploration became reality.  Von Braun saw the progress of flight from crossing the Atlantic to crossing the ocean of space.  In the year he died, Voyagers 1 and 2, launched on rockets built by his technology, began their epic voyages to the outer solar system.

The prestige America gained through the space program, and its political advantage in a dangerous world dominated by communism, to say nothing of all the spinoff benefits to science and technology, are benefits we all gained largely to von Braun’s vision of space flight.  His impact on science, the economy and politics are symbolized by the two final missions launched on his Saturn rockets: Skylab (1973), the first orbiting space station, that took science and technology to new heights and unfamiliar environments, and Apollo-Soyuz (1975), in which American astronauts and Soviet cosmonauts joined hands in earth orbit.  His work even transformed mankind’s own view of itself.  Who could ever forget the first image of our planet from the moon, when Apollo 8, a risky mission launched on a brand new rocket called Saturn V (the most complex machine ever built, yet launched flawlessly every time) enabled a world at war to see home as just a pale blue gem in the blackness of space, devoid of political boundaries, fragile and beautiful and alone?  Yes, there were many giants in the space program, but Frederick C. Durant summarized von Braun’s special place in history by saying, “Future historians may well note this century (or millennium) as significant in that mankind took its first tentative steps into space.  In accomplishing these steps to the moon and beyond, Wernher von Braun was an eminent leader.  He not only had a dream, but he made his dream come true for all of us.” 

That dream began in childhood, when Wernher was given an astronomical telescope by his mother at the festive occasion of his confirmation into the Lutheran church at age thirteen.  This lit a spark that exploded into his lifelong fascination with the moon, Mars and space travel.  Wernher was full of boundless energy as a child, so much so that his father considered him unstoppable.  He had “a mind like a dry sponge, soaking up every bit of knowledge as eagerly as he could,” his father said.  His mother stimulated the children’s interest in science and the arts; Wernher even took piano lessons with the great German composer Paul Hindemith, and carried this skill through life.  (Many years later in Salt Lake City on a visit, he was invited to try out the great organ in the Mormon Tabernacle; he promptly sat down and played A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.)  Astronomy was the most unstoppable interest of the young teenager.  By age sixteen he was writing on the history of astronomy, speculating about life on Mars, and building telescopes.  By this time also, “his almost magical ability to form and lead a team,” became evident, as Ordway describes it (p. 13); “the end product of most of his projects would be complete success.”  At 14, he had organized an astronomy club that made telescopes and built rockets.  They even put together old car parts and tried to create a rocket-propelled automobile.  He became so engrossed in these experiments, that he flunked mathematics and physics!  His parents sent him to boarding school – without the rockets.

Not disheartened, young Werner read Hermann Oberth’s visionary book The Rocket into Interplanetary Space and studied Kepler’s laws of planetary motion, which for him were like racetracks to the planets.  He resolved to master mathematics and become a space pioneer.  His life goal was “to turn the wheel of progress” – a pretty visionary goal for a 14-year old.  Those who enjoyed the movie October Sky can appreciate the adult von Braun’s interest in the young student rocket-makers, having played that role himself.  By age 15 he had written, in an essay about a journey to the moon, “An age-old dream of mankind—to travel to the stars—appears to approach fulfillment.”  The young student wrote to Oberth showing him a paper on rockets he had written, and received an encouraging letter, “Keep going, young man!”  His teachers were impressed, and told his mother he was a genius.  Few young man had the energy of dreams so strong, and knew so confidently what they wanted to accomplish in life, as Wernher von Braun.  Unfortunately for him, political currents in Germany would lead to a crisis between the dream and the ugliness of war and dictatorship.

Von Braun studied mechanical engineering at the University of Berlin.  Throughout his college career, he required no prodding; once, he showed his professor a letter he had received from Albert Einstein in answer to his questions, and while a student, he received a grant to experiment on liquid fueled rockets.  In 1932, he graduated with a PhD in physics.  Always fascinated with flight of any kind, he learned to fly gliders, and in 1933, received his pilot's license for motorized aircraft.  While the rise of Hitler was occurring during the 1930s, it must be stressed that von Braun was focused on rockets, not politics.  One must remember that rocketry was “weird science” in those days, with no commercial or strategic appeal.  Von Braun knew that his small amateur team, severely short on money and materials, could never advance his dream of space travel without the help of a large organization.  He made a sober, consequential decision to approach the army.

In the winter of 1931-32, Von Braun gained the interest of the German army, which had a small rocket development program under Walter Dornberger.  Their collaboration at the army’s Peenemünde Rocket Center is legendary; it launched Wernher von Braun into the forefront of the world’s foremost rocketry program. (Although Robert Goddard was testing liquid-fueled rockets in America, he was so secretive that von Braun had not even heard of him till after the war).  From the first, the Peenemünde engineers were developing rockets for peaceful purposes.  Though Hitler was in the news, von Braun at the time considered him a “pompous fool” and none of the engineers imagined their work being used as instruments of horror in the hands of a Nazi regime.  Stuhlinger explains the army connection: “The situation of the young rocketeers was similar to that of the aviation pioneers when the airplane could only be developed because of military support” (Ordway, p. 24).  Rocketry demanded facilities that the former amateur team lacked.  Until rather late in the war, von Braun’s rocket team was largely ignored by the growing Nazi regime, which did not see rockets has having weapons potential and considered rocket research heretical.

For most of the 1930s, therefore, rocket R&D was removed from the thought of war; it was von Braun fulfilling his childhood dream.  The team moved to Peenemünde in 1935, and as late as 3 October 1942, after a successful launch of their baby the A-4 (53 miles elevation, 118 miles downrange), von Braun was still idealistic: “Do you realize what we accomplished today?  Today the spaceship has been born!” and Dornberger chimed in innocently, “This 3 October 1943 [sic] is the first day of a new era of travel, the era of space travel!”  Up till now, growing Nazi intrusions had been a nuisance and irritant to the decidedly non-political team, but the successful launch suddenly switched Hitler’s attention to it.  He organized a committee of overseers; von Braun and Dornberger eluded some of the intrusions with claims that the work demanded absolute secrecy, but by the end of 1943, after the British had inflicted severe damage at the test center, Hitler ordered the production underground.  This became the notorious Mittelwerk production center, in which A-4 rockets (renamed V-2s by the Nazis for “vengeance weapon #2”) were built by slave labor in a last-ditch effort to safe Germany from defeat.  In February 1944, Himmler, who had visited the Peenemünde center the previous summer, tried to lure von Braun’s support; when it was rebuffed, the Gestapo arrested him in the middle of the night.

Von Braun was kept in jail two weeks without any explanation as to why he had been arrested.  Finally, he was hauled before a mock trial, where the accusation was, “he did not intend the A-4 to be a weapon of war, that he had only space travel in mind ... and that he regretted its military use” (Ordway, 32).  He was also accused of spying and trying to escape.  In the nick of time, Dornberger entered the courtroom with a document.  When the official read it, von Braun was released.  What happened?  Dornberger had been working since the arrest to effect his release, and after many unsuccessful attempts, persuaded the head of the Gestapo that von Braun was “absolutely essential” to the success of the A-4 program.  Also, Albert Speer had persuaded Hitler, who grudgingly agreed, that the “secret weapon” Germany had been boasting about publicly could not proceed without its premiere rocket scientist.  For six months, until the assassination attempt on Hitler (when the von Braun affair was forgotten), von Braun was in a very precarious position.

He had two choices: refuse to cooperate and be shot, or steer the circumstances he was placed in for good, with what influence he had.  Who could fault his decision?  He had no authority, and no power other than advice, which he used to mitigate the evils around him.  For instance, when he was made aware of the “hellish” circumstances under which prisoners were forced to build rockets in underground tunnels at Mittelwerk, he realized quickly that humane arguments with the morally-bankrupt SS leaders were futile.  He persuaded them with shrewd pragmatic arguments that the project could not be completed on time unless the workers were fed and given rest.  Similar shrewdness is found with Hushai’s counsel to Absalom in the Bible (II Samuel 16).  Because of this, some of the suffering was alleviated.  Yet von Braun had no authority over the project that the Nazis had wrested from his team’s hands; he was only asked his opinion on very specific problems, and was escorted under guard at all times.  On September 8, 1944, V-2s were launched against Paris and London.  Von Braun later described hearing the news as the darkest day of his life.  To his chagrin, the rockets worked perfectly; they just hit the wrong planet.

From time to time, revisionists criticize von Braun for not defying the Nazi regime, which would surely have meant his death.  Rumors surface that he was a secret Nazi collaborator, or a member of the Nazi party, etc.  Those tempted to believe this should read the detailed account of the period in the book by Frederick Ordway (American long-time co-worker) and Ernst Stuhlinger (part of the Peenemünde team), Wernher von Braun, Crusader for Space (Krieger Publishing, Florida, 1996).  These men both knew von Braun personally over many years and participated in the events.  Von Braun was no Nazi.  Since 1940, Himmler had tried to woo him with gifts and a rank in the SS, which von Braun confided with friends made him deeply upset.  But with their advice, he avoided making an issue to prevent Himmler from flying into a rage.  When sweet talk did not work, force was applied, and von Braun’s options were none: do as you are told, or die.  For the crusader for the peaceful exploration of space from his youth to his death, the years 1943-1944 turned his dream into a nightmare.  His plowshares were stolen and turned into swords.  Desperate times call for desperate measures.  Finding himself powerless to stop Hitler and the war, what little influence he had, he used, and as soon as the war was over, he quickly and willingly surrendered to the American liberators.

Consider these points in response to critics:

  1. Von Braun was arrested and jailed by the Gestapo.
  2. He was charged with resisting the military use of his rockets, and trying to escape.
  3. Himmler’s awarding von Braun an honorary rank in the SS no more made him a Nazi than awarding Martin Luther King an honorary membership in the KKK would make him a white supremacist.
  4. The evil uses of his rockets occupied only a few months at the end of the war.
  5. During his release from jail, when the military used von Braun for his advice, he was escorted under military guard at all times and under strict orders what he could say or do.
  6. He used his influence to argue for more time (delaying tactics) and better conditions for the prisoners.
  7. When he tried to argue for better treatment of the prisoners, he was threatened that it was none of his business, and that he had better shut up or he would be wearing the same prison stripes.
  8. His lifelong dream was the peaceful exploration of space.  He was devastated when he heard the news that his rockets had been used against Allied cities.
  9. After the war, he sought out the Americans, and willingly surrendered not only himself but his whole team.  He knew this meant abandoning his fatherland (and who, in spite of evil leaders, does not have some heart for his own country?).  He became a patriotic, energetic American citizen.
  10. As soon as he reached America, he was eager to help the American space program.
  11. He repeatedly gave a full accounting of all his activities during the war, when interrogated by the government and by suspicious critics.
  12. His record since the war speaks for itself.  A leopard does not change its spots.  If von Braun were anything less than a man of integrity, bad signs would have surfaced in the subsequent 32 years in America. 
  13. The British Interplanetary Society awarded him an honorary membership right after the war.  Surely if anyone had doubts about his motives and allegiances, it would be those who were victimized by V-2 rockets raining down on their city.
It is only fair for war victims, especially the Jews, to investigate the motives and actions of anyone connected to the atrocities committed by Nazi Germany.  We hope this brief review helps to dispense with rumors that von Braun was ever personally at fault.  He was a victim as well.  Read the book by Ordway and Stuhlinger, probably the most authoritative biography by those close to von Braun, for further information.  It contains many details and quotations by contemporaries, and gives a spellbinding account of events that are still within the memory of some alive today.

The story of the surrender is one of those remarkable turning points in history, that is haunting to think about in retrospect.  100 members of the Peenemünde Rocket Center waited in hiding after the German surrender as Allies and Russians combed the land.  They had recently escaped the fear that the SS would destroy them and everything they had done in one last desperate blow.  Marshall Space Flight Center’s biography says, “After stealing a train with forged papers, von Braun led 500 people through war-torn Germany to surrender to the Americans.  The SS were issued orders to kill the German engineers, who hid their notes in a mine shaft and evaded their own army while searching for the Americans.”  Von Braun had convinced some SS officers they needed to retreat to a place safe from attack.  Secured in an alpine village, news reached them April 30, 1945, that Hitler had committed suicide.  The guards left.  On May 2, Wernher’s youngest brother, Magnus von Braun, rode his bicycle with a white handkerchief down the hill to look for the Americans; upon finding them, he told them that the German rocket scientists were waiting to surrender.  A Wisconsin-born private first class who spoke German, Frederick Schneikert, came to the compound and ordered, “Come forward with your hands up!” – as if they needed any convincing.  Von Braun was given free choice along with all the others whether they wanted to immigrate to America.  The historic photo shows von Braun accepting the terms, his arm in a cast due to a fracture he had suffered during the traumatic events.  Along with the German rocket scientists, their priceless research documents were recovered from the mine where they had been hidden.  This required hurriedly digging a new tunnel, because they had blasted the entrance closed to secure it.  Also, parts for about 100 V-2 rockets were spirited to Allied safety in Austria by May 22, with monumental effort, just days before the Russians gained control of the territory according to the Yalta agreement.  Had the Russians captured the German rocket scientists and their work, history would likely had been very different.  Knowing the aftermath of the cold war and the threat of intercontinental ballistic missiles bearing nuclear weapons, one wonders whether there would be an America today.

The German scientists were brought to America under top-secret Operation Paperclip.  When Americans became aware of their presence, there was understandable alarm, and it took some convincing by the military and the government that they were now willing allies in strategic work.  Von Braun was raring to go forward with his research.  This attitude was shared by the entire team, and von Braun was restless at the seemingly interminable delays and interrogations.  Slow progress was made, as freedom was granted by degrees, until full citizenship; the days of Truman and Eisenhower, the post-war boom, the threat of communism, none of these deterred von Braun from his dream.  By the fifties, the Air Force, Navy and Army had their own rocket development programs, often with strong rivalries between them, but von Braun gained national stature as America’s leading rocket scientist.  He became an icon of space to millions of children at their black and white TV sets on March 9, 1955, with the first of several Walt Disney shows about manned space travel – at the time, still the subject of science fiction.  But not for long.  Von Braun’s strategic importance to the nation gained a huge and unexpected boost on October 4, 1957, when historic bleeps were heard beaming down from space, heralding both hopes and fears.  The Russians’ Sputnik 1 was in orbit.

Reactions were swift and disorderly.  Von Braun was not surprised; he had foreseen this two years earlier, and had warned that the Russians might beat us into space.  His reaction was a politely but sternly worded I-told-you-so, but more than that, an optimistic appeal about the promise of space flight.  But his German team, which was ready with its Redstone (Jupiter-C) rocket at Huntsville, Alabama (where his team resided from 1950 to 1970), was snubbed by the top brass in favor of the Vanguard.  In the rush to catch up just two months after Sputnik 1, and a month after Sputnik 2 carrying the first animal (the dog Laika), the Vanguard launch button was pushed.  To the shocked eyes of already embarrassed Americans, it exploded in a cataclysm of fire and smoke.  The Army Redstone project was given the next shot.  On January 31, carrying a small scientific payload named Explorer 1 developed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Von Braun’s Jupiter-C launched the satellite flawlessly into orbit.  The mood in the country was electric.  Newspapers trumpeted the news, featuring the victory picture showing William Pickering (JPL Director), James Van Allen (whose instruments on this flight detected the radiation belts bearing his name), and Wernher von Braun holding a replica of Explorer 1 high overhead.  Of this picture, which symbolizes one of America’s defining moments, Van Allen said, “Wernher, as usual, carries the brunt of the load.”

The 1961 Kennedy speech committing America to put a man on the moon, the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs – all these are oft-told adventure epics.  The subjects of countless documentaries, they need not be repeated in detail here, though they bear retelling, especially among a rising generation with no first hand knowledge of those heady days of the space race.  Readers are encouraged to relive the adventure with the well-done HBO documentary series From the Earth to the Moon, and better yet, to visit the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Florida.  Take the all-day bus tour where you can walk where Von Braun walked, see the hangar that served as his office, look at the launch buttons he pushed in bunkhouses just yards from the early rockets, stand in awe of the Apollo launch pad 39A (now used for the Space Shuttle), and stare upward at the indescribable hugeness of the Vehicle Assembly Building where Saturn V rockets rolled out a mile on huge crawlers to the pad.  Then end your day at the superb Apollo Saturn V Theater, where a series of presentations let you relive the tension of countdown, as you watch the original flight operations computers come to life with dramatic music and sound effects and images on a giant screen, to the dramatic touchdown on the moon with a lifesize Lunar Module descending to a cratered surface.  In between is the most awesome sight of all: a full-scale Saturn V rocket, in Smithsonian-mint condition, horizontally mounted above you in a hangar a quarter mile long.  This is a sight that must be seen to be believed; it is a monument that should be visited by every American.  It will make you proud, and humble.  That something this large, heavy and complicated, could ever have been built, on time, on schedule, and launched with 100% success every time, is a tribute to thousands of talented and committed people, and to their leader, their inspiration: Wernher von Braun.

Speaking of leadership, von Braun is a case study par excellence.  His remarkable ability to build, lead, and inspire a team is legendary.  The size and importance of the projects he led to success have few equals, but even small business managers or scout leaders would do well to learn from his leadership style.  A large and imposing man, von Braun brought a commanding presence merely by walking into the room, yet was an inspirer, not a dictator.  Ernst Stuhlinger said, “...he possessed ... an irresistible charm, coupled with almost magic powers of persuasion, which helped him conquer many hesitant or doubtful minds” (Ordway, p. 330).  His leadership ability combined tremendous drive, humor, grace under pressure, dignity, humility, the power to encourage and inspire, and single-minded vision.  “What is the most important thing a man needs,“ he was once asked, “when he wants to build a spaceship and travel to the moon?”  “The will to do it!” was his instant reply.  “We have a job to do!” was his positive appeal, in a tone that conveyed excitement and teamwork, and the need to put aside lesser things.

He could be ruthlessly direct, as when he chided JPL and Army teams for their petty rivalries during the push to launch Explorer, “Are you grown men, or young schoolboys?  Is your precious little ego more important to you than a satellite in orbit?  Now, you go back and work out your differences.  If you can’t, I will replace you on this project!”  But even in this they knew he was calling them up to a higher standard, not talking them down; and he subtly complimented their maturity by implying they could solve their problems without his micromanagement.  He led by example, Stuhlinger says:

He had the rare and precious gift of instilling in his many co-workers his own enthusiasm for hard work and high quality.  But he was not only a tough and demanding task master, he was a path finder and problem solver, and he always overflowed with an exuberant joy of life that lighted up many dark chasms on the road to the stars.  (Ibid.)
Most of the time, even under stress, von Braun was upbeat and positive with his team.  Michael Collins (Apollo 11 astronaut) said, “he realized that rockets could only be as successful as the people who built them, and he assembled an extraordinarily talented team, people who worked well with each other, and who were totally devoted to Wernher” (Ordway, p. 330).  He had a warm smile and firm handshake that would make even a janitor feel important, part of something big.  And he rarely took credit for the successes.  He was quick to honor his co-workers above himself.  But the record of his leadership speaks loud and clear: Collins lists just some of the later accomplishments of those who worked under the leadership of this “warm and friendly man, interested in everyone around him”:
Thirty-three Saturn flights, all successful, all without loss of life, all without weapons ... Saturns sent twenty-seven Americans to the Moon, twelve of them to walk on it.  Saturns sent nine astronauts up to Skylab, which itself was a converted Saturn upper stage.  And, finally, the last Saturn sent an American crew up to join a Russian spacecraft in earth orbit.
In response, his adopted country showered honors on him, such that he surpassed Lord Kelvin’s record (21) for honorary doctorates: von Braun received 25, along with numerous other medals, awards, and honors from around the world.  In the waning days of his illness, almost too weak to receive it, he accepted the National Medal of Science from President Gerald Ford, responding to a friend humbly, “Isn't this a great country!  Here I have come in from another country and they give me this wonderful honor.  Isn’t this a wonderful country!”  Today, von Braun’s bust is prominently on display at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville where he made his greatest contributions.  The Von Braun Center hosts the city’s fine arts, and the Von Braun Astronomical Society that he helped found continues its telescope events.  The Von Braun Memorial Lectures continue at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC.  Tour guides at the Kennedy Space Center hold him in high esteem.  Elderly NASA employees who can, brag about having met Dr. Wernher von Braun.

Though nominally Lutheran from his childhood, Wernher von Braun appears to have gotten serious about his faith only later in life.  Ordway says, “Throughout his younger years, von Braun did not show signs of religious devotion, or even an interest in things related to the church or to biblical teachings.  In fact, he was known to his friends as a ‘merry heathen’” (p. 270).  In the days of Apollo, however, through the 1960s and 70s, “a new element began to surface in his conversations, and also in his speeches and his writings: a growing interest in religious thought.”  He was not overt or invasive about it, but it showed, and his scientific colleagues and the press appear somewhat baffled by it, treating it like some kind of personal quirk, something they did not expect from a leading rocket scientist pushing the limits of human achievement.  After the Apollo 11 success, for instance, a reporter asked him what he was thinking when he gave the final ‘yes’ for launch.  The reporter must have been surprised at his unabashed answer, “I quietly said the Lord’s prayer.”  Ordway comments that he could have been thinking of a dozen matters at that hectic moment, but his thought was, Thy will be done.

Having known von Braun so well, Ordway elaborates the prayer for him:

It would have been true to his nature if he had added, “You gave me this love for exploration and adventure and spaceflight, and also this gift to transform the dreams into reality.  I have lived and worked as one little part of Your boundless creation.  If we succeed with this journey to the Moon, it will be to Your glory.  If we don’t, it is Your will.  As far as I am concerned, I have used all the talents You have put into me, and I have done my very best.”  Whether these thoughts actually came to his mind at that moment, nobody will ever know. (Ordway, pp. 269-270.)
Von Braun was not pushy about religion, but neither was he embarrassed or annoyed by people asking if he believed in God: “Yes, absolutely!” would be his cheerful answer, “And then, he would begin to talk in his characteristic von Braun style, with perfect grammar and syntax, letting his carefully chosen words flow like a sparkling mountain stream, while he described his religious convictions with an almost disarming simplicity“  (Ordway, p. 270).  Especially around 1975 when illness was advancing, “His desire to see the world of science and technology in full harmony with the world of religion, particularly as it is manifested in Christian faith, grew even stronger,” Ordway says (p. 272).  Whether a direct quote or a paraphrase is not clear, but Ordway has von Braun saying,

“Finite man cannot begin to comprehend an omnipresent, omniscient, omnipotent, and infinite God ... I find it best to accept God through faith, as an intelligent will, perfect in goodness and wisdom, revealing Himself through His creation ... ”
    It was surprising to some of von Braun’s associates that in spiritual matters, he would reach so deeply into the realm of the irrational.

Here Ordway seems to misunderstand his good friend.  Faith is not irrational; it is the rational step beyond the limits of evidence.  Von Braun understood that science can never answer ultimate questions of origins and destiny, not even of purpose for why things are the way they are.  Of course von Braun’s “entire work for space was solidly based on the exact laws of natural sciences” (p. 273), Ordway knows, but there are limits to science.  When von Braun might say, “It is best not to think, but just to believe,” his belief was not irrational belief in something or anything; it had an object: the revelation of God in the Bible.  As a devoted Christian believer, von Braun had confidence in the word of God.  Once a person has the settled conviction that the Bible is God’s revelation, yes— it is best just to believe it, especially since its message is not applicable to scientific inquiry.  A message like For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son (John 3:16) is not an outworking of natural laws and mathematics.  It is a communication from infinite intelligence (and love) to finite intelligence.  Responding to that communication is surely the most rational thing a scientist can do.

Von Braun often stressed that “science and religion are not antagonists.  On the contrary, they are sisters”  (Hill, intro.).  He had no problem with “knowing” and “believing” living side by side; in fact, he thought it most irrational to deny the obvious: “It is as difficult for me to understand a scientist who does not acknowledge the presence of a superior rationality behind the existence of the universe as it is to comprehend a theologian who would deny the advances of science” (American Weekly, Jan. 10, 1960).  Science can observe rationality and order and design, but the details of the Who behind “the grandeur of the cosmos” requires revelation.  That von Braun believed in the revelation of Scripture, including Jesus Christ who died on the cross for our sins, will be apparent from an essay we will quote in its entirety from an Introduction he wrote for a book on creation.

In regards to creation vs. evolution, von Braun opposed the one-sided teaching of Darwinian evolution in the public schools.  In 1972, he wrote a letter to the California School Board, which was considering a controversial bill on the teaching of evolution.  He used his influence as a scientist and well-known public figure to argue that students need to hear the case for creation:

To be forced to believe only one conclusion—that everything in the universe happened by chance-would violate the very objectivity of science itself. Certainly there are those who argue that the universe evolved out of a random process, but what random process could produce the brain of a man or the system of the human eye?

Some people say that science has been unable to prove the existence of a Designer... They challenge science to prove the existence of God.  But, must we really light a candle to see the sun?

We plan to reproduce the entire letter separately, along with other selected writings, since it is always best to read comments in context, and Dr. Von Braun’s own eloquence could only be tarnished by our embellishment.

For largely political reasons, the mood of the NASA top brass was changing after the euphoria of Apollo; by the time of Skylab, von Braun’s influence was waning in favor of younger minds and untested ideas.  Noting the change, von Braun thought it best to graciously retire rather than to fight (though superiors later acknowledged the wisdom of his advice: he advocated a scaled-down shuttle, rather than an expensive supermodel, and James Webb later admitted this saved the shuttle program from the budget axe).  An effusive outpouring of affection from his Huntsville colleagues characterized his retirement party in 1975.  Von Braun went to work for a very dear friend, Dr. Henry Ulm, at Fairchild Industries in Virginia.  Unfortunately, the career change was short.  That year, he was diagnosed with cancer, and in spite of a few promising remissions, it became clear at age 64 his days were numbered.  He looked on the bright side.  It gave him quality time with his wife and two daughters and son, time he had long missed because of his heavy work load.

Reflecting on his years of building the space program, he asked colleagues whether he had done the right thing, considering all the needs of the suffering around the world.  Friends reinforced his own belief that it was worth it.  As it did with Morse’s telegraph, new technology brings in its coattails many benefits: jobs, infrastructure, whole towns of supporting processes, including highways, restaurants, churches, schools, and charities.  Because of the space program, thousands of people have access to better education and higher-paying jobs, and the spin-off technologies have improved the lives of millions.  The cost of the space program, a tiny fraction of what the country spends on entitlements and foreign aid, is more than compensated for by the many benefits that sprang from it, and continue to spring from it, because the legacy of von Braun lives on in the continued exploration of space.  At this writing, over 100 space shuttle launches have gathered valuable scientific data about our world from above, and additional spacecraft are exploring Mars and Jupiter and Saturn in ways that would make von Braun thrilled.  And what value could anyone put on inspiring a whole generation with the dreams of exploring space?  Or taking the world on a great adventure, fulfilling a monumental goal on schedule, in spite of enormous obstacles, during a wartime era when a world was in crisis?  For a magical moment, the world stopped its riots and bombings and stared in fixed silence at the image of Neil Armstrong stepping off the ladder onto the surface of the moon.  Humanity looked back on the blue gem of earth in its stark contrast to the blackness of space.  Yes, Dr. von Braun, it was worth it.

Wernher von Braun wrote two more things in his last year.  One was a book co-authored with Frederick Ordway called New Worlds, Discoveries From the Solar System (published posthumously, 1979).  It being a secular science book, von Braun did not discuss religion or faith.  His attitudes about creation were clearly coincident with today’s Intelligent Design Movement, but beyond that, it is not clear how he felt about Genesis.  The book assumes long ages, but interestingly, there are points here and there where he casts a little doubt about what the standard evolutionary theories claim.  The other writing was a short introduction to a little paperback book on creation, probably as a favor to the author, Harold Hill, a friend he apparently met at Fairchild.  Though the body of the book is eminently forgettable, von Braun’s introduction is not.  It comprises one of his clearest statements about science, creation, the Bible, and the gospel of Jesus Christ.  It will also be included in its entirety on another page as part of our series.

Von Braun was visited by many dignitaries and friends as his health declined, and his funeral was like that of a head of state, attended by Presidents, astronauts, NASA administrators, personal friends and other German rocket scientists.  The accolades Ordway has reproduced in his biography are impressive.  The NASA Administrator said he continued in the tradition of Newton and Einstein.  President Carter said all the people of the world had profited from his work.  Major General John Medaris said, “His imagination strolled easily among the stars, yet the farther out into the unknown and unknowable vastness of Creation his thoughts went, the more he was certain that the universe, and this small garden spot within it, came from no cosmic accident, but from the thought and purpose of an all-knowing God.”  Von Braun died as he had hoped, with a clear mind able to experience the transition to the afterlife.  According to Ordway, his last credo was, “Thy will be done.”

... yes, in earth as it is in heaven.

Learn More About
Wernher von Braun

Be sure to visit our special page of quotes, Von Braun – In His Own Words.

A must-see is the Marshall Space Flight Center (Huntsville, Alabama) history page about von Braun.  Their biography includes historical photos, interviews, recollections, a bibliography, and links to other sources.  Also read the pictorial biography on their Exploration feature.

Read this touching story by Scott Hancock, a NASA employee who took Wernher von Braun on a “virtual space flight” when he was becoming weak with cancer.  He considers him a hero.

  James Irwin     1930 - 1991 

To follow up the biography of Wernher von Braun, let’s hear about one of the few men who got to ride on top of one of his behemoth Saturn V rockets: Apollo 15 astronaut James Irwin.

This individual was not a scientist in a professional sense; he was an astronaut, and not just an astronaut, but one of the 12 people in history who has walked on the moon.  But what is a scientist?  If we mean by the word a seeker for truth, someone who uses observation and experimentation to uncover explanations for natural phenomena, then anyone can be a scientist more or less.  James Irwin qualifies more than most.  He deployed scientific experiments on the surface of the moon, and helped earth-bound scientists uncover many important facts about our celestial neighbor.  To qualify for his rigorous Apollo training, he had to know more than most about celestial mechanics, astronomy, and geology.  Even after his historic mission, James Irwin used his scientific training on some rigorous expeditions of discovery most historians don’t tell you about.

When you lean far back and look up, you can see the earth like a beautiful, fragile Christmas tree ornament hanging against the blackness of space.  It’s as if you could reach out and hold it in your hand.  That’s a feeling, a perception, I had never anticipated.  And I don’t think it’s blasphemous for me to say I felt I was seeing the earth with the eyes of God.  I believe, looking back on it now, the good Lord did have His hand in it.  For me to travel such a roundabout way, and finally end up in the space program, and then go to the moon—it’s amazing it ever happened.
Thus begins Jim Irwin’s book To Rule the Night (Holman, Nashville, 1973, 1982), an autobiographical account of the events leading up to and following his historic Apollo 15 mission to the moon.  Written with the help of William A. Emerson, Jr., the book’s title is taken from Genesis 1:14, “And God made two great lights: the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night.”  (That the moon shines by reflection makes it no less a “light” than a lamp; we speak still of a bright full moon.)  For millennia, people saw the lesser light from earth.  What a rare privilege to see the earth from the lesser light!  Surely God’s handiwork must seem all the more sublime to see our home, blue and brilliant, standing out against the stars.

Irwin’s comment that it was amazing it ever happened stems from the fact that up into his Air Force career, he did not seem to have either qualifications or interest in the space program to have ended up in such a privileged position.  He did not get particularly high grades, and seemed rather bored with military life.  He was expecting to fulfill his term and get a job as a commercial pilot when he had a chance to fly a P-51, the hottest new aircraft of the time.  Feeling all that power as he accelerated almost vertically, that was the turning point.  He was hooked.  He lived to fly.

Even after becoming passionate about flying, it was still amazing Irwin ever made it into the astronaut corps.  He had a serious accident as a test pilot at Edwards that left him hospitalized and grounded.  He had high blood pressure and heart problems.  And despite repeated attempts, he was turned down by NASA, until he was just about at the age limit (36).  With only one month to spare, and with his superiors going to bat for him, he finally got a call in spring 1966 from Deke Slayton, inviting him to come to Houston.  “I’m ready,” he said eagerly.  “When do you want me?”  He had trained hard, exercised hard and tested hard; by this time, he felt he had the best qualifications of all the Air Force candidates.

We’ll fast-forward past the astronaut training (those interested can read the book) and let Irwin describe another rare privilege he had: riding on top of one of Wernher von Braun’s mighty Saturn V rockets.  On the morning of July 21, 1971, strapped into his seat beside Col. David R. Scott (mission commander) and Major Alfred M. Worden (command module pilot), Col. James B. Irwin gripped the controls at the word, “Ignition.”

We sensed and then heard all that tremendous power being released underneath us on the pad.  Slowly, tremulously, the rocket began to stir....
    The muffled roar flows through you.  You just hang there.  Then you sense a little motion, a little vibration, and you start to move.  Once you realize you are moving, there is a complete release of tensions.  Slowly, slowly, then faster and faster; you feel all that power underneath you....
    As you build up to 4 G’s, you weigh four times as much as you do on the earth, and you are plastered against the is difficult to raise your arms to touch a switch or move a lever....
    Just then you come into staging and the engine shuts down—WHAM!  All of a sudden you are thrown forward against your straps.  It feels as if you are going to go right into the instrument panel; you unconsciously put your hands up to absorb the impact.  You are holding, just lying there.  The engine shuts down, the structure unloads, and the spent stage drops off.  That’s a hundred feet of rocket dropping off.  After an interval of a few seconds the next stage lights off –BAM!  You are pushed back on the couch again.... The guys who briefed us told us that when you go through staging it feels like a train wreck.
The ship accelerated up to 18,000 mph into earth orbit, but reached almost 25,000 mph during trans-lunar injection (TLI).  In the book, Irwin describes all the experiences of flight, the approach of the moon, and the feeling of walking on the surface in personal, human terms.  He was the eighth man of 12 to walk on the moon.  We get to share vicariously what it must have been like, because he realized he was a representative of America and of all people of the earth, fulfilling the dreams of millions.

Apollo 15 was a highly successful and interesting mission.  Irwin and Scott were the first to use the new Lunar Rover, an “$8 million dune buggy” as he called it.  Apollo 12 astronaut Alan Bean (for whom Irwin was alternate), reminisced, “Dave and Jim could travel faster, gather more samples, and make more scientific observations with their lunar wheels.  It was a great mission.” (Bean, p. 32).  They found a bright crystalline rock sitting on a pedestal, later dubbed the “Genesis Rock”, that was significant for planetary scientists studying the moon’s origin.*  Interestingly, their scoops only went in about 12 inches before hitting very resistant hardpan (p. 78).  They saw layering on the mountains that was difficult to explain geologically.  Irwin saw colors on the moon: not only the grays and whites, but light greens and browns.

The strenuous work Irwin put in on the moon may have caused strain that contributed to his later heart problems.  Nevertheless, the two astronauts fulfilled a huge amount of observation, rock collecting and experiments, and had a little time for fun, too.  Jim tried broad jumping and got three feet high and 10 feet across in that bulky suit and backpack that would have made him weigh 380 lbs on earth, but only 64 on the moon in 1/6 earth gravity.  The suits restricted movement a lot.  They had to walk by jumping from the ball of one foot to the other.  It felt, Irwin said, “like walking on a trampoline—the same lightness, the same bouncy feeling” (p. 64).  They had to be careful in their play, though; one tear in the suit, and the blood would boil, and an astronaut would have 10 to 20 seconds to live.  Most of the lunar surface was soft soil, however, so this was only a remote danger.  On live camera, Dave Scott dropped a hammer and feather together to demonstrate to schoolchildren all over the world that “Mr. Galileo was right” – objects of different masses really do fall at the same speed.  Jim stepped on the feather by mistake and lost it, much to Dave’s chagrin, who wanted to save it for posterity.  Irwin thought, “I’m wondering if hundreds of years from now somebody will find a falcon’s feather under a layer of dust on the surface of the moon and speculate on what strange creature blew in there” (p. 85).  It will probably be obvious.  Without erosion on the moon, the footprints and all the flight hardware left behind will still be intact, providing clear evidence of “intelligent design” having been responsible.  Scott’s historic photo of Irwin saluting against the backdrop of Mt. Hadley (higher than Mt. Everest), with the lunar module, rover and American flag all in place, became a poster print Irwin sent to all who requested one back on earth, signed, His love from the moon – Jim Irwin.

Jim felt God’s love and presence in a powerful way out there.  Though separated from home by 215,000 miles, he sensed a nearness and presence of God that he never anticipated.  Some other Apollo astronauts also had spiritual experiences during their missions, but Irwin knew the God of the Bible personally.  In the midst of their hectic schedule, he had time to briefly quote his favorite Bible verse, Psalm 121:1, I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help.  It was particularly fitting against the massive hills of the Apennine Mountains and canyons of Hadley Rille, but we must hasten to verse 2, which gives the answer to the question: My help cometh from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.  Graciously deferring to the hard-working ground crew back on Earth, Jim appended, “but of course we get quite a bit from Houston, too.”  Several times when problems arose deploying experiments, he prayed for help.  Almost immediately, ideas would come to mind that worked.  He describes some of these moments:

It was almost like a revelation.  God was telling me what to do.  I never asked Houston because I knew there would be a delay.  I didn’t have time for Houston to get an answer to me; I needed an immediate answer.  I could see several logical ways to go about solving these mechanical problems, but I wanted to know the best way.  I prayed, and immediately I knew the answer.  I am not talking about some vague sense of direction.  There was this supernatural sensation of His presence.  If I needed Him I could call on Him, call on His power.
(To Rule the Night,p. 19):
He describes the sensation of looking up at home:

In the three days of exploration, there were a couple of times when I actually looked up to see the earth—and it was a difficult maneuver in that bulky suit; you had to grab onto something to hold yourself steady and then lean back as far as you could.  That beautiful, warm living object looked so fragile, so delicate, that if you touched it with a finger it would crumble and fall apart.  Seeing this has to change a man, has to make a man appreciate the creation of God and the love of God.
(Ibid., p. 60.)
Alan Bean, mentioned earlier, has given the world a legacy unlike any of the other twelve Apollo astronauts.  He became an artist.  His large-format book of paintings, with text by Andrew Chaikin and introduction by John Glenn, Apollo, An Eyewitness Account by Astronaut / Explorer / Artist / Moonwalker Alan Bean (Greenwich Workshop, 1998), is a must for Apollo aficionados.  Bean’s impressionistic works capture the spirit and feeling of events from all the Apollo missions in ways that photographs never could.  Intimately acquainted with the mission vehicles and lunar activities, as well as the lighting and sensations of being on the moon as only one could who has been there, Bean’s art combines accurate detail with feeling.  He captures moments both momentous and whimsical that the cameras missed, and captions each painting with first-person accounts of the experiences that inspired each work.  Alan Bean had a special place in his heart for Jim Irwin.  More than any of the other Apollo team members, Alan considered Jim a brother.  Adjacent to a dignified painting of Irwin in the Apollo spacesuit, Mt. Hadley reflected in the visor, Bean wrote this tribute:


Jim Irwin was assigned as my backup on Apollo 12.  He knew his job extremely well.  I knew that if anything happened to me at the last minute, Jim Irwin would do an excellent job on our mission and fit right in with Pete Conrad and Dick Gordon.
    It was easy to like Jim.  He had a personality that suggested you could have a lot of confidence in him.  He wasn’t an individual who tried to convince you that what he was doing was right or what you were doing was wrong, it was more like he wanted to work with you, and find the best way to do something together.
    He flew a wonderful flight on Apollo 15 in July, 1971.  He and Dave Scott were there 3 days and had what I felt was the greatest mission of Apollo up to that point.  Not only because theirs was the first extended lunar scientific expedition, but because of their skill.  While they were on the moon, Dave Scott and Jim Irwin worked extremely hard and displayed some heart irregularities.  It was only after they got back that they discovered the extent of NASA’s concern for them and worry that this situation may have caused permanent damage.
    After all the post-flight activities were complete, Jim left NASA and founded High Flight, an interdenominational evangelical organization devoted to spreading his word, his witnessing, his experience to other people.  Jim described being on the moon as a deeply spiritual experience.  Less than two years later, Jim experienced the first of several serious heart attacks.  He felt that his physical efforts on the moon, combined with the way the human body eliminates excessive potassium and other minerals in zero gravity, had damaged his heart.  He died of a heart attack in 1991 at the age of 61.
    We used to see each other at astronaut reunions or accidentally in airports from time to time, and when we parted company, he would put his arm around me and say, “Well, I hope to see you again soon, brother.”  It was a surprise the first time as that isn’t the way one astronaut talks to another and I didn’t know what to say.  After this happened a few times, I wanted to reply because I felt very close to him but I just couldn’t make myself say those words.  Since I left the space program and became an artist, I think differently about myself and my life.  I miss Jim a lot and I understand how I miss him and respect him as the brother I never had.
(Bean, p. 152.)

The crew of Apollo 15 had a very successful return flight, followed by the usual parades and visits with international dignitaries: President Nixon, King Hussein of Jordan, Golda Meir of Israel, Anwar Sadat of Egypt, and to numerous countries in Europe and the far east, including Taiwan, and even Russia during the height of the Cold War.  One unfortunate episode got the crew in trouble, however.  With the crew’s knowledge and participation, Dave Scott had taken 400 envelopes with first-day stamps to the moon and sold them to a German dealer, who in turn sold them for a lot more money.  The rules about profiting from Apollo had been unclear, it seems, but NASA was very concerned about the appearance of impropriety when the matter became known, and reprimanded the crew members.  All accepted the reprimand honorably, and monies were returned, such that none of them profited from the matter.  NASA subsequently imposed severe restrictions on what astronauts could sell from their experiences.  Other than this learning experience, the reputations of the crew members were impeccable.  Jim’s wife Mary often traveled with him.  They had five children: Joy, Jill, James, Jan, and Joe, and called Colorado Springs their home.

It’s a hard act to follow, walking on the moon, yet Irwin’s career was, in a way, just starting to take off.  When speaking to a Baptist church one evening, telling about the closeness to God he felt on the moon, he realized he was in a unique position to share the gospel.  People were enthusiastically interested to hear what an astronaut had to say, especially one who was a Christian.  Jim started a non-profit organization named High Flight Foundation, based on the famous poem of that name.  It had two missions: to share the gospel from his experiences as an astronaut, and to stimulate archaeological research in support of the Bible.  In spite of heart problems, Jim took on some heavy-duty adventures: climbing Mt. Ararat in Turkey to investigate claims that remains of Noah’s Ark had been found, and searching for possible sites of the Red Sea crossing by Moses and the Israelites.  Irwin’s reputation unlocked doors with foreign governments.  As a result, he was able to get clearances to bring teams and equipment to sites that had been frustratingly difficult to get near for other researchers.

Mt. Ararat (nearly 16,945 ft., in eastern Turkey), with its loose rock, harsh winds, glaciers, deep gorges and landslides, is one of the most difficult mountains in the world to climb.  Irwin led teams up the slopes five times.  On one of these he was knocked unconscious by a falling rock.  He lost several teeth and a lot of blood.  After spending the night alone in the cold above 14,000 ft, he was barely discovered in time by a team member.  Of the dangers of this mountain, Irwin wrote, “We faced risk of physical danger, for Ararat is a crumbling mountain.  Every few minutes we could hear rock slides and small avalanches.  We slept in numbing cold, fell on loose rock, dodged tumbling boulders, grew exhausted from high-altitude climbing, had feet sore with blisters, had painfully cracked lips from sunburn, received various cuts and nicks, all in pursuit of a hidden and uncertain treasure.”  He wrote a book after the third expedition, entitled More Than an Ark on Ararat: Spiritual lessons learned while searching for Noah’s Ark (Broadman, 1985).  In it, he tells this story and other adventures.  (He signed my copy, ”David – He shows His love on the mountains too!  Jim Irwin, Apollo 15.”)  Unlike some sensationalists, Irwin never claimed to have found the Ark, but was keenly interested in following up on leads and eyewitness reports.  John McIntosh, another Ark researcher involved in 14 research expeditions and 7 climbs on Ararat, met Irwin at base camp at the 11,000 foot level in 1982.  McIntosh was welcomed aboard Irwin’s team and worked with him for five years.  He says of Irwin, “I think he impressed everyone he met as a very gracious, loving, dedicated and generous Christian brother” (personal communication, 2003).  Irwin was still planning expeditions to Ararat when his final, fatal heart attack took him home to be with the Lord in 1991.

For the 20 years God gave him after his lunar expedition, Jim Irwin never hesitated to share the gospel.  He responded to Golda Meir, Prime Minister of Israel, who asked if the moon mission had changed his life or strengthened his faith, and said, “Before the flight, I was not really a religious man.  I believed in God, but I really had nothing to share.  But when I came back from the moon, I felt so strongly that I had something that I wanted to share with others, that I established High Flight in order to tell all men everywhere that God is alive, not only on earth, but also on the moon.”  (Irwin, p. 243).  The details of that message, that he shared countless times to attentive audiences, is his own adaptation of the well-known Four Spiritual Laws from Campus Crusade for Christ:

  1. God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.  The highest flight plan man can have on earth is to understand this love and this personal plan.  [Irwin quotes John 3:16]
  2. Man is sinful and separated from God, thus he cannot know and experience God’s love and plan for his life.  Man’s flight plan is marred because he is sinful and separated from God.  This is much like being separated from the Command Module in a space walk.  Man will die unless he is reconnected.  [He quotes Romans 3:23 and 6:23]
  3. Jesus Christ is God’s only provision for man’s sin.  Through Him you can know and experience God’s plan for your life.  The connecting link, like the umbilical cord on a space walk, between God and man is Jesus Christ.  [Quotes John 14:6 and I John 5:11-12]
  4. We must individually receive Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord: Then we can know and experience God’s love and plan for our lives.  The connecting link must be made personally.  It isn’t something someone else can do for us.  It is intensely personal and private.  [Quotes Revelation 3:20].  Asking Him in is personally accepting Him.
  5. (Irwin, pp. 231-232.)
Only after viewing earth from the moon, and totally dedicating his life to Christ, did Col. James B. Irwin begin to sense how amazing a flight plan could be, when its designer was not only the voice from the Command Module, but the Manufacturer of all the flight hardware: yet near and loving enough to call him “Brother Jim”:
For both He who sanctifies and those who are being sanctified are all of one, for which reason He is not ashamed to call them brethren, saying: “I will declare Your name to My brethren; In the midst of the assembly I will sing praise to You.”
(Hebrews 2:11-12).

*Irwin describes this rock as being dated later at 4.15 billion years old (To Rule the Night, p. 77).  John McIntosh believes, however, that Irwin was a young-earth creationist, because “He certainly believed that Noah’s flood was a global event and occurred around 5,000 years ago.”  Perhaps Irwin came to this conviction later.

Learn More About
Jim Irwin

Visit the High Flight Society at Seattle Pacific, an campus organization inspired by Irwin’s High Flight Foundation.

Learn about the crew of Apollo 15 at the NASA Headquarters website.

Here is a short biography on the Arlington National Cemetery website.

See Irwin’s biography on NASA’s Johnson Space Center website, and another short sketch on the hall of fame, and another on The Space Race.

For a list of Ararat expeditions Irwin participated in or supported, see Noah’s Ark Search.  At the ICR Website, John Morris has a report on the 1987 expedition Irwin’s High Flight Foundation supported.

See a painting of Irwin by Alan Bean, Apollo 12 astronaut.  Here is another of Irwin looking up at the earth.  View more of his paintings on Gallery One.

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