Saturday, May 6, 2017

George Lemaître

Belgian Catholic priest, astronomer and professor of physics at the Catholic University of Leuven. He proposed the theory of the expansion of the universe, widely misattributed to Edwin Hubble. He was the first to derive what is now known as Hubble’s law and made the first estimation of what is now called the Hubble constant, which he published in 1927, two years before Hubble’s article. Lemaître also proposed what became known as the Big Bang theory of the origin of the universe, which he called his “hypothesis of the primeval atom” or the “Cosmic Egg”.

Lemaître began studying civil engineering at the Catholic University of Leuven at the age of 17. In 1914, he interrupted his studies to serve as a Belgian artillery officer in WW I, receiving the Belgian War Cross with palms.

After the war, he studied physics and mathematics, and began to prepare for diocesan priesthood. He obtained his doctorate in 1920 with a thesis entitled l’Approximation des fonctions de plusieurs variables réelles (Approximation of functions of several real variables), written under the direction of Charles de la Vallée-Poussin. He was ordained a priest in 1923 and  became a graduate student in astronomy at the University of Cambridge, spending a year at St Edmund’s House (now St Edmund’s College, Cambridge). Arthur Eddington taught him modern cosmology, stellar astronomy, and numerical analysis. He spent the next year at Harvard College Observatory in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with Harlow Shapley, who had just gained renown for his work on nebulae, and at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he registered for the doctoral program in sciences.

In 1925, on his return to Belgium, he became a part-time lecturer at the Catholic University of Leuven. In 1927, he published an article in the little-known journal, Annales de la Société Scientifique de Bruxelles, under the title “Un Univers homogène de masse constante et de rayon croissant rendant compte de la vitesse radiale des nébuleuses extragalactiques” (“A homogeneous Universe of constant mass and growing radius accounting for the radial velocity of extragalactic nebulae”). In this report, he presented his a family of solutions to Einstein’s field equations that described an expanding universe, derived from General Relativity and later known as Hubble’s law, and provided the first observational estimation of the Hubble constant. While the article was not widely noticed, Arthur Eddington reportedly helped translate it into English in 1931, unfortunately omitting the article’s estimation of the “Hubble constant”. Lemaître returned to MIT to present his doctoral thesis. Upon obtaining what was now his second Ph.D., he was named ordinary professor at the Catholic University of Leuven.


In 1930, Eddington published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society a long commentary on Lemaître’s 1927 article, in which he described the latter as a “brilliant solution” to the outstanding problems of cosmology. The original paper was published in an abbreviated English translation in 1931, along with a sequel by Lemaître responding to Eddington’s comments. Lemaître was then invited to London to participate in a meeting of the British Association on the relation between the physical universe and spirituality. There he proposed that the universe expanded from an initial point, which he called the “Primeval Atom”. He developed this idea in a report published in Nature. Lemaître himself also described his theory as “the Cosmic Egg exploding at the moment of the creation”; it became better known as the “Big Bang theory,” a pejorative term coined during a 1949 BBC radio broadcast by the astronomer and atheist Fred Hoyle, who was then still a proponent of the steady state universe and remained so until his death in 2001. Hoyle would later convert to theism as a result of his own astrophysical work.

In 1931, Lemaitre was the first scientist to propose the expansion of the universe was actually accelerating which was confirmed observationally in the 1990s through observations of very distant Type IA supernova with the Hubble Space Telescope. In 1933, Lemaître found an important inhomogeneous solution of Einstein’s field equations describing a spherical dust cloud, the Lemaître–Tolman metric. Lemaître was also an early adopter of computers for cosmological calculations. He introduced the first computer to his university (a Burroughs E101) in 1958 and was one of the inventors of the Fast Fourier transform algorithm.  Among his many awards for outstanding science, he was given the inaugural Eddington Medal awarded by the Royal Astronomical Society. He died on 20 June 1966, shortly after having learned of the discovery of cosmic microwave background radiation, which provided further evidence for his proposal about the birth of the universe. The fifth Automated Transfer Vehicle to the International Space Station was named Georges Lemaitre in his honor. He is the Father of Cosmology.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Bernabé Cobo

Born at Lopera in Spain, 1582; died at Lima, Peru, 9 October, 1657. He went to America in 1596, visiting the Antilles and Venezuela and landing at Lima in 1599. Entering the Society of Jesus, 14 October, 1601, he was sent by his superiors in 1615 to the mission of Juli, where, and at Potosí, Cochabamba, Oruro, and La Paz, he laboured until 1618. He was rector of the college of Arequipa from 1618 until 1621, afterwards at Pisco, and finally at Callao in the same capacity, as late as 1630. He was then sent to Mexico, and remained there until 1650, when he returned to Peru. Such in brief was the life of a man whom the past centuries have treated with unparalleled, and certainly most ungrateful, neglect.

Father Cobo was beyond all doubt the ablest and most thorough student of nature and man in Spanish America during the seventeenth century. Yet, the first, and almost only, acknowledgement of his worth dates from the fourth year of the nineteenth century. The distinguished Spanish botanist Cavanilles not only paid a handsome tribute of respect to the memory of Father Cobo in an addressed delivered at the Royal Botanical Gardens of Madrid, in 1804, but he gave the name of Cobæa to a genus of plants belonging to the Bignoniaceæ of Mexico, Cobæa scandens being its most striking representative.

Cobo's long residence in both Americas (sixty-one years), his position as a priest and, several times, as a missionary, and the consequently close relations in which he stood to the Indians, as well as to Creoles and half-breeds, gave him unusual opportunities for obtaining reliable information, and he made the fullest use of these. We have from his pen, two works, one of which (and the most important) is, unfortunately, incomplete. It is also stated that he wrote a work on botany in ten volumes, which, it seems, is lost, or at least its whereabouts is unknown today. Of his main work, to which biographers give the title "Historia general de las Indias", and which he finished in 1653, only the first half is known and has appeared in print (four volumes, at Seville, 1890 and years succeeding). The remainder, in which he treats, or claims to have treated, of every geographical and political subdivision in detail, has either never been finished, or is lost. His other book appeared in print in 1882, and forms part of the "History of the New World" mentioned, but he made a separate manuscript of its in 1639, and so it became published as "Historia de la fundaciónde Lima", a few years before the publication of the principal manuscript.

"The History of the New World" places Cobo, as a chronicler and didactic writer, on a plane higher than that occupied by his contemporaries not to speak of his predecessors. It is not a dry and dreary catalogue of events; man appears in it on a stage, and that stage is a conscientious picture of the nature in which man has moved and moves. The value of this work for several branches of science (not only history) is much greater than is believed. The book, only recently published, is very little known and appreciated. The "History of the New World" may, in American literature, be compared with one work only, the "General and Natural history of the Indies" by Oviedo. But Oviedo wrote a full century earlier than Cobo, hence the resemblance is limited to the fact that both authors seek to include all Spanish America — its natural features as well as its inhabitants. The same may be said of Gomara and Acosta. Cobo enjoyed superior advantages and made good use of them. A century more of knowledge and experience was at his command. Hence we find in his book a wealth of information which no other author of his time imparts or can impart. And that knowledge is systematized and in a measure co-ordinated. On the animals and plants of the new continent, neither Nieremberg, nor Hernçndez, nor Monardes can compare in wealth of information with Cobo. In regard to man, his pre-Columbian past and vestiges, Cobo is, for the South American west coast, a source of primary importance. We are astonished at his many and close observations of customs and manners. His description of some of the principal ruins of South America are usually very correct. In a word it is evident from these two works of Cobo that he was an investigator of great perspicacity, and, for his time, a scientist of unusual merit.

Charles Plumier

A French botanist, born at Marseilles, 20 April, 1646; died at Puerto de Sta Maria near Cadiz, 20 November, 1704. At the age of sixteen he entered the order of the Minims. He devoted himself to the study of mathematics and physics, made physical instruments, and was an excellent draughtsman, painter, and turner. On being sent to the French monastery of Trinità dei Monti at Rome, Plumier studied botany with great zeal under two members of the order, and especially under the well-known Cistercian botanist, Paolo Boccone. After his return to France he became a pupil of Tournefort, whom he accompanied on botanical excursions. He also explored the coasts of Provence and Languedoc. His work, of permanent value for the science of botany, began in 1689, when, by order of the government, he accompanied Surian to the French Antilles. As this first journey proved very successful, Plumier was appointed royal botanist; in 1693, by command of Louis XIV, he made his second journey, and in 1695 his third journey to the Antilles and Central America. While in the West Indies he was greatly aided in his work by the Dominican Labat. In 1704, when about to start on his fourth journey, intending to visit the home of the true cinchona tree in Peru, he was taken ill with pleurisy and died. He is the most important of the botanical explorers of his time. All natural scientists of the eighteenth century spoke of him with admiration. According to Cuvier he was "perhaps the most industrious investigator of nature", while Haller said, "vir ad incrementum rei herbariæ natus" (a man born to extend the knowledge of botany). Tournefort and Linnæus named in his honour the genus Plumeria, which belongs to the family of the Apocynaceœ and is indigenous in about forty species to Central America; it is now called Plumiera with the name of Plumieroideœ for its first sub-family. Plumier accomplished all that he did in fifteen years (1689-1704); his labours resulted in collections, descriptions, and drawings.

His first work was, "Description des plantes de l'Amérique" (Paris, 1693); it contained 108 plates, half of which represented ferns. This was followed by "Nova plantarum americanarum genera" (Paris, 1703-04), with 40 plates; in this work about one hundred genera, with about seven hundred species, were redescribed. At a later date Linnæus adopted in his system, almost without change, these and other newly described genera arranged by Plumier. Plumier left a work in French and Latin ready to be printed entitled "Traité des fougères de l'Amérique" (Paris, 1705), which contained 172 excellent plates. The publication "Filicetum Americanum" (Paris, 1703), with 222 plates, was compiled from those already mentioned. Plumier also wrote another book of an entirely different character on turning, "L'Art de tourner" (Lyons, 1701; Paris, 1749); this was translated into Russian by Peter the Great; the manuscript of the translation is at St. Petersburg. At his death Plumier left thirty-one manuscript volumes containing descriptions, and about 6000 drawings, 4000 of which were of plants, while the remainder reproduced American animals of nearly all classes, especially birds and fish. The botanist Boerhave had 508 of these drawings copied at Paris; these were published later by Burmann, Professor of Botany at Amsterdam, under the title: "Plantarum americanarum, quas olim Carolus Plumierus detexit", fasc. I-X (Amsterdam, 1755-60), containing 262 plates. Plumier also wrote treatises for the "Journal des Savants" and for the "Mémoires de Trévoux". By his observations in Martinique, Plumier proved that the cochineal belongs to the animal kingdom and should be classed among the insects.

Marin Mersenne

French theologian, philosopher, and mathematician; b. 8 September, 1588, near Oizé (now Department of Sarthe); d. 1 September, 1648 at Paris. He studied at Le Mans and at the Jesuit College of La Flèche, where a lifelong friendship with Descartes, his fellow student, originated. Mersenne entered the novitiate of the Minims at Nigeon near Paris (1611), was sent to Nevers as professor of philosophy (1614-1620), and returned to Paris. His first publications were theological and polemical studies against Atheism and Scepticism, but later, Mersenne devoted his time almost exclusively to science, making personal experimental researches, and publishing a number of works on mathematical sciences. 

His chief merit, however, is rather the encouragement which he gave to scientists of his time, the interest he took in their work, and the stimulating influence of his suggestions and questions. Gassendi and Galileo were among his friends; but, above all, Mersenne is known today as Descartes's friend and adviser. In fact, when Descartes began to lead a free and dissipated life, it was Mersenne who brought him back to more serious pursuits and directed him toward philosophy. In Paris, Mersenne was Descartes's assiduous correspondent, auxiliary, and representative, as well as his constant defender. The numerous and vehement attacks against the "Meditations" seem, for a moment, to have aroused Mersenne's suspicions; but Descartes's answers to his critics gave him full satisfaction as to his friend's orthodoxy and sincere Christian spirit.

Mersenne asked that, after his death, an autopsy be made on his body, so as to serve to the last the interests of science.

Mersenne's works are: "Quæstiones celeberrimæ in Genesim" (Paris, 1623), against Atheists and Deists; a part only has been published, the rest being still in manuscript, as also a "Commentary on St. Matthew's Gospel"; "L'impiété des déistes et des plus subtils libertins découverte et réfutée par raisons de théologie et de philosophie" (Paris, 1624); "La vérité des sciences contre les sceptiques et les pyrrhoniens" (Paris, 1625); "Questions theólogiques, physiques, morales et mathématiques" (Paris, 1634); "Questions inouïes, ou récréations des savants" (Paris, 1634); Les mécaniques de Galilée" (Paris, 1634), a translation from the Italian; "Harmonie universelle, contenant la théorie et la pratique de la musique" (Paris, 1936-7); "Nouvelles découvertes de Galilée", and "Nouvelles pensées de Galilée sur les mécaniques" (Paris, 1639), both translations; "Cogitata physico-mathematica" (Paris, 1644); "Euclidis elementorum libri, Apollonii Pergæ conica, Sereni de sectione coni, etc." (Paris, 1626), selections and translations of ancient mathematicians, published again later with notes and additions under the title, "Universæ geometriæ mixtæque mathematicæ synopsis" (Paris, 1644).

Julian Edmund Tenison Woods

Priest and scientist, b. at Southwark, London, 15 Nov., 1832; d. at Sydney, New South Wales, 7 Oct., 1889, sixth son of James Dominick Woods, a lawyer, and Henrietta Mary St. Eloy (a convert), second daughter of Rev. Joseph Tenison, Rector of Donoughmore, Wicklow, Ireland. He was baptized in the Belgian Chapel, Southwark, and was confirmed by Bishop (later Cardinal) Wiseman; he was educated in a Catholic school at Hammersmith, and later at Newington Grammar School, Surrey. For a time he was employed on the staff of the "Times", and became interested in the work of the Catholic schools. In his eighteenth year he entered the Passionist novitiate, but, owing to ill-health, soon left. Going to the South of France he taught in Mont-Bel college for naval cadets at Toulon, where he developed a taste for geology and natural science.

In France he met Bishop Willson of Hobart Town, Van Dieman's Land (Tasmania), whom he accompanied thither in 1854 as assistant in the Catholic schools. Later he went to Adelaide, and became sub-editor of the "Adelaide Times". Meanwhile he studied with the Austrian Jesuits at Sevenhill and was ordained priest at St. Patrick's, Adelaide, on 4 January, 1857. A large tract of country in the south-eastern district, having Penola for a centre and extending over 22,000 square miles, was entrusted to his charge. To provide for the Catholic education of the children in his extensive parish he founded at Penola in 1866 the Sisters of St. Joseph of the Sacred Heart, placing a Miss Mary MacKillop in charge of the first school. From this humble beginning the Sisters under Mother Mary (MacKillop) of the Cross have grown into the present flourishing congregation with numerous houses spread over Australia and New Zealand.

In 1866 Bishop Sheil of Adelaide appointed Father Woods his private secretary, chaplain and director-general of schools. In 1867 Sister Mary, later mother-general, advisedly opened the novitiate of the Sisters of St. Joseph at Kensington near Norwood, Adelaide. She spent the whole of her religious life in Australia. In 1869 Father Woods founded the Brothers of the Sacred Heart, putting Brother Camillus (Terence Woods) at their head, for the work of boys' schools. At Father Woods's suggestion Bishop Sheil invited (1869) the Sevenhill Jesuits to establish themselves at Norwood. A gifted missionary, Father Woods, was invited (1870) by Bishop Quinn of Bathurst to give missions in his diocese; and for eleven years he laboured with great success in New South Wales, Queensland, and Tasmania. During his absence, however, difficulties arose; by episcopal authority the Brothers were disbanded and the Sisters for a time dispersed. Their manner of observing poverty and their freedom from diocesan control were objected to. In a short time the storm subsided. Father Tappeiner, S.J., of Norwood, took Father Woods's place as director and friend. Mother Mary was sent to Rome by Bishop Reynolds, then (1873) administrator of the Diocese of Adelaide. Pius IX, 20 April, 1874, approved of the rule of the Sisters after it had been revised and reported on by Father Anderledy, later General of the Jesuits. The Sisters were allowed to live under central government, possess property, and accept fees for tuition. This was affirmed anew when Leo XIII erected the institute into a congregation, 25 July, 1888. During his apostolic labours Father Woods found opportunity for scientific pursuits.

His "Geological Observations in South Australia" (London, 1862) won him the friendship of Sir Charles Lyell. In 1883 he accepted the invitation of Sir Frederick Weld to visit Singapore. He then explored Malacca for minerals, traversed Java, and spent some time in Siam. That same year he received a gold medal from the King of Holland in recognition of his scientific labours. The British Admiralty requested him to report on the coal resources of the East, as he was probably then the leading authority on this subject. His discoveries were of great benefit to the British navy, and he was munificently recompensed by the Admiralty, which placed his reports in its archives. After visiting China and Japan his health became impaired, and on his homeward journey in H.M.S. "Flying Fish", before landing at Port Darwin, he visited several islands previously unknown. At the request of the government resident at Port Darwin, he thoroughly explored the mineral districts of the Northern Territory of South Australia.

After a short visit to Queensland he returned to Sydney, where he gradually became paralysed. Some of his best work was done as an invalid. He received the Passionist habit on his death-bed, and was buried in Waverley Cemetery, Sydney. Father Woods was a fellow of the Geological Society of London (1859), and was elected president of the Linnean Society of New South Wales in 1880. In addition to the works mentioned above, he wrote: "Not quite as old as the hills" (Melbourne, 1864); "History of the Discovery and Exploration of Australia" (London, 1865); "Fish and Fisheries of New South Wales" (Sydney, 1882); "Australian Essays"; "Australian Bibliography"; "On Natural History in New South Wales" (Sydney, 1882); "On the Volcano of Taal Philippines" (Sydney, 1887); "North Australia and its Physical Geography" (Adelaide, 1887); "Fisheries in Oriental Regions" (Sydney, 1888); "Anatomy and Life History of Mollusca" (Sydney, 1888), a prize essay which won the W.B. Clarke medal; "Desert Sand Stone of Australia" (Sydney, 1889); "On Vegetation in Malaysia" (Sydney, 1889); and "Geographical Notes in Malaysia and Asia" (Sydney, 18888). The catalogue of the Public Library, Adelaide, contains the names of seventy-nine books, pamphlets, and articles written by Father Woods; the articles, which treat chiefly of geology, conchology, and zoology, were mainly contributed to the journals of the various Australasian scientific societies.

Jean-Baptiste Labat

Dominican missionary, born at Paris, 1664; died there, 1738. He entered the Order of Preachers in his native city at the age of twenty years and was professed on 11 April 1685. After the completion of his philosophical and theological studies he was ordained and for several years taught philosophy publicly to the secular students of Nancy. Abandoning this work he devoted himself to missionary activity and for many years preached in the various churches of France. The missionary fields of America were proving a strong attraction to the zealous clergy of his day, and Labat became filled with a burning desire to assist in the evangelization of the Indians. Accordingly, in 1693, he obtained permission from the general of the order to depart for those colonies of the West Indies which were then under French domination, and laboured among the Indians for thirteen years, until 1706, when he sailed for Italy in the interests of his mission. After attending a meeting of the order at Bologna, and presenting to the general a report of his work, he prepared to return to American, but was denied permission and detained in Rome for several years.

During this period he commenced a long contemplated history of the West Indies. The work was finally published in six volumes at Paris, in 1722, with copious illustrations made by himself ("Nouveau Voyage aux isles Françoises de l'Amérique", Paris, 1722). Labat had a wide reputation as a mathematician and won recognition both as a naturalist and as a scientist. He embodied in the history his scientific observations and treated comprehensively and accurately of the soil, trees, plants, fruits, and herbs of the islands. He also explained the manufactures then in existence and pointed out means for the development of commercial relations. He published similar works on other countries, drawing information from the notes of other missionaries. His two works on Africa have become well known: "Nouvelle relation de l'Afrique occidentale", Paris, 1728 and "Relation historique de l'Ethiopie occidentale" (Congo, Angola, Matamba, after the Italian of Father Cavazzi, Cap. (Paris, 1732). The latter treatise is supplemented with notes and statistics drawn from Portuguese sources.

Giovanni Battista Riccioli

Italian astronomer, b. at Ferrara 17 April, 1598; d. at Bologna 25 June, 1671. He entered the Society of Jesus 6 Oct., 1614. After teaching philosophy and theology for a number of years, chiefly at Parma and Bologna, he devoted himself, at the request of his superiors, entirely to the study of astronomy, which at that time, owing to the discoveries of Kepler and the new theories of Copernicus, was a subject of much discussion. Realizing the many defects of the traditional astronomy inherited from the ancients, he conceived the bold idea of undertaking a reconstruction of the science with a view to bringing it into harmony with contemporary progress. This led to his "Almagestum novum, astronomiam veterem novamque complectens" (2 vols., Bologna, 1651), considered by many the most important literary work of the Jesuits during the seventeenth century.

The author in common with many scholars of the time, notably in Italy, rejected the Copernican theory, and in this work, admittedly of great erudition, gives an elaborate refutation in justification of the Roman Decrees of 1616 and 1633. He praises, however, the genius of Copernicus and readily admits the value of his system as a simple hypothesis. His sincerity in this connexion has been called into question by some, e.g. Wolf, but a study of the work shows beyond doubt that he wrote from conviction and with the desire of making known the truth. Riccioli's project also included a comparison of the unit of length of various nations and a more exact determination of the dimensions of the earth. His topographical measurements occupied him at intervals between 1644 and 1656, but defects of method have rendered his results of but little value.

His most important contribution to astronomy was perhaps his detailed telescopic study of the moon, made in collaboration with P. Grimaldi. The latter's excellent lunar map was inserted in the "Almagestum novum", and the lunar nomenclature they adopted is still in use. He also made observations on Saturn's rings, though it was reserved for Huyghens to determine the true ring-structure. He was an ardent defender of the new Gregorian calendar. Though of delicate health, Riccioli was an indefatigable worker and, in spite of his opposition to the Copernican theory, rendered valuable services to astronomy and also to geography and chronology. His chief works are: "Geographiæ et hydrographiæ reformatæ libri XII" (Bologna, 1661); "Astronomia reformata" (2 vols., Bologna, 1665); "Chronologia reformata" (1669); "Tabula latitudinum et longitudinum" (Vienna, 1689).