Curiosity and faith fueled Henry Eyring

Published: Thursday, April 28 2011 4:00 a.m. MDT

Imagine you're a Mormon scientist invited to an apostle's office to discuss disagreements in science and religion.

It happened in 1955 when world-famous chemist Henry Eyring met with Elder Joseph Fielding Smith, who later became the 10th president of the LDS Church. They talked for about an hour and gentlemanly agreed to disagree, according to the biography "Mormon Scientist: The Life and Faith of Henry Eyring."

"Brother Smith, I have read your books and know your point of view, and I understand that is how it looks to you. It just looks a little different to me," Eyring said.

The reply implied the conversation was a little more animated.

"Well, Brother Eyring. I would like to have you come and let me talk with you sometime when you are not quite so excited," the apostle said.

Eyring's grandson, author and BYU-Idaho administrator Henry J. Eyring, said the debate with Joseph Fielding Smith — wrongfully viewed as a confrontation — was a great example of faith and an open-minded search for truth. The scientist was firm in his faith of Jesus Christ, but he was also insatiably curious.

"He really believed in Heavenly Father, who knew everything and who wanted to share everything with him. This life is a learning laboratory," the grandson said. "He was absolutely confident that if he worked hard, he could learn what God knows."

The son of a rancher, Eyring was born in 1901 in Colonia Juarez, Chihuahua, Mexico, Eyring earned multiple science-related degrees at the University of Arizona and the University of California at Berkeley during the 1920s.

He taught at Princeton University from 1931 to 1946 and then became the University of Utah dean of graduate school. In the process he mentored generations of future Mormon scientists.

One of the ways he inspired LDS students, his grandson Henry said, was to encourage them to seek the influence of the Holy Ghost in their research.

"You have the power of inspiration and revelation. You've got a unique avenue for making discoveries. You know there is a Heavenly Father and an order to this universe," Eyring paraphrased his grandfather. "Now you know you work hard, it's not revelation in a vacuum.

"He worked harder than anybody because he knew that was the price of receiving revelation."

During his 50-year career, professor Eyring published more than 600 scientific articles and a dozen textbooks on various topics. He also wrote several books harmonizing science and religion.

Eyring's greatest scientific achievement is called the Absolute Rate Theory (ART). Steven M. Kuznicki, who wrote the introduction for "Mormon Scientist," says the theory holds that when atoms or molecules collide, they briefly combine to form something new and different.

Eyring's first paper on the topic was rejected. About the same time Eyring was in a car accident that almost killed him and the rest of his family. He saw his survival as an opportunity to refine the paper.

Although the article was rejected a second time, he didn't give up. Eventually the theory was accepted and understood. ART has been called one of the most potent forces to ever appear in chemistry and nearly won Eyring the Nobel Prize. He broke paradigms because he was imaginative and willing to think outside the box, his grandson explained.

"How many people with great ideas and capacity like his didn't persevere in difficult moments like that? He gave folks courage to be very innovative, to think broadly about scientific problems, to speculate and be willing to cross disciplinary boundaries," the author said. "He went where his curiosity took him."

As for those lively debates with President Smith, grandson Eyring believes both men came away enlightened.

"When he found someone to debate with, he wasn't confrontational and he didn't back down. He would say, 'Let's talk together about where the truth really lies. Let's learn together.' I am convinced they both had a deeper understanding of the gospel and science as a result," grandson Henry J. Eyring said.

Eyring was father to President Henry B. Eyring, first counselor in the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

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