Henry J. Eyring, grandson of Henry Eyring, the scientist, never had any illusions or even serious thoughts about writing his grandfather's biography. But Elder Neal Maxwell, former University of Utah vice president and member of the LDS Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, now deceased, suggested many years ago that he do so.
Elder Maxwell was a neighbor of the Eyrings on Herbert Avenue in Salt Lake City, and he had great admiration for the scientist. Initially, he said, "Henry, you need to write the story of your grandfather."
"He didn't elaborate," said Henry J. Eyring, during a phone interview from BYU-Idaho, where he serves as an administrator. "I'm not a good enough scientist to do justice to the science, as a one-time geology student, and I was also concerned that my father, Henry B. Eyring (an LDS apostle and a member of the LDS First Presidency), was very high profile. How is a grandson going to write such a book when the sons know the story so much better?"
The younger Eyring said he understood Elder Maxwell's interest. "He wanted young church members to get the benefit of the faith and testimony of an eminent scientist. He wanted to demonstrate that a young person could go away and learn everything that is true and still keep his faith."
Eyring thought about it, but he didn't want to do it. Then came the second request from Elder Maxwell, "and I got a good case of guilt just before leaving to preside over an LDS mission in Japan. My kids went to general conference with my father. In my father's office, there is a bronze bust of his father and my toddler planted a kiss on the face of his grandfather. That incident caused me to reconsider doing the book."
So, in the several weeks left before he went to Japan, Eyring did intensive research in the U. archives. "I thought I'd discovered gold. It's hard to cheer and dance in an archive, but I couldn't believe what I'd found."
Among the things Eyring discovered were stacks of letters. His grandfather had apparently corresponded with everyone who ever wrote to him, including "children, critics and people with crazy schemes. We might think some of these did not deserve a reply. But it was miraculous to see the way he treated people. He wrote to them with such respect. He had the ability to love and nurture strangers. It was a key discovery for me."
Eyring found that the Henry Eyring was "an old shoe kind of guy, who impressed both Nobel scientists and gas station attendants. He was clear in his mind that he could be fearless, aspire to solve problems, yet be happy enough to laugh at himself when he couldn't solve a problem. He treated everyone as if they were his brothers and sisters."
Eyring was also surprised to learn how much his grandfather's faith in science rested on LDS Church founder Joseph Smith. "He saw Smith as an eager seeker of truth, not himself perfect, and he said he didn't even understand the science himself."
The author sees his famous relative as a man of humility: "The more he studied, the more humble it made him. Einstein died looking for a unified field theory explaining gravity and it hasn't been done yet. It's an intellectual playground, but omnipotence is a long way off. Most of us feel learned when we know more than the next guy. That didn't happen to Grandpa because he always measured his knowledge against God's. There would always be things between science and religion that couldn't be reconciled."
In the book, "Mormon Scientist: The Life and Faith of Henry Eyring," Eyring writes about LDS apostle and later President Joseph Fielding Smith's interesting discussions with the senior Eyring about science and religion. They disagreed on some things, but Henry Eyring felt no rancor. "He had disagreements in his laboratory, too. I think President Smith knew who he was working with, too, or he wouldn't have invited him to his office. It was a productive time for both."
In the younger Eyring's opinion, the absolute rate theory is his grandfather's major scientific accomplishment. "If he had stayed at Princeton University, he would have been nominated for a Nobel Prize. By going to Utah to teach at the U., he had more graduate students and influenced a lot more people. As dean of the graduate school, he also worked with a lot of new Ph.D.s."
The senior Eyring was especially well-known for his wry sense of humor. "He was really good at making fun of himself through foot races with his students and desk jumping. He could disarm you, and he always did it at his own expense."
The structure of the book came to Eyring quickly, so he created 14 linear files of materials, "but I was on overload. There was too much good stuff. Then I went to Japan for three years. Elder Maxwell died midway through our mission."
When Eyring returned home, he spent the first seven weeks in a rented home in Rexburg, Idaho, "banging out the book. It was cathartic. I did it for Elder Maxwell. I felt I'd made good."54 comments on this story
Illustrating his own humility, the author tried unsuccessfully to persuade Deseret Book to publish the book anonymously. He asked an English editing class at BYU-Idaho to edit the manuscript."They improved the manuscript immeasurably," he said.