Can a believer in God be a good scientist? An anonymous Internet critic has recently insisted that people of faith "clearly lack curiosity, critical thinking skills, courage or integrity" and — claiming to be both scientist and research company executive — declares that he doesn't willingly hire Mormons or other believers for scientific work.
A faithful member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints responded by mentioning Baruch Blumberg, who died suddenly on April 5, 2011, while participating in a conference at NASA's Ames Research Center. Still very active in his 86th year, Blumberg developed a vaccine for hepatitis B that has saved millions of lives (particularly in underdeveloped countries), directed the NASA Astrobiology Institute, presided over the American Philosophical Society and won a Nobel Prize.
He also participated, whenever possible, in weekly discussions of the Jewish Talmud, describing the mental discipline of Talmudic study as a major influence on his life.
One might also think of Francis Collins, leader of the Human Genome Project; or the late Allan Sandage, among the most influential astronomers of modern times; or Owen Gingerich, emeritus research professor of astronomy and the history of science at Harvard University and former senior astronomer at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory; or of any number of others.
I'll mention somebody closer to home.
Henry Eyring was a theoretical chemist. Born in 1901 in the Mormon settlement of Colonia Juárez, Mexico, he studied mining engineering, metallurgy and chemistry at the University of Arizona, and received his doctorate in chemistry from the University of California at Berkeley in 1927.
After postdoctoral teaching and research at the University of Wisconsin, in Berlin (where he worked mainly with the famous chemist and philosopher of science Michael Polanyi), and back in Berkeley, he spent 15 years at Princeton University. Then, in 1946, he accepted appointment as dean of graduate studies at the University of Utah.
Author of more than 600 scientific articles, 10 scientific books and several books on science and religion, Eyring was elected to the National Academy of Sciences and presided over both the American Chemical Society and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
In 1966, he received the National Medal of Science for his development of the absolute rate or transition state theory of chemical reactions, one of the most important achievements in 20th-century chemistry. Since several others later received the Nobel Prize for work based on it, his failure to receive the prize himself puzzled many. It's been suggested that the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences didn't understand or appreciate his theory in time to honor him for it. However, the Academy eventually awarded him its Berzelius Medal, perhaps as partial compensation. He also won the Priestley Medal, the highest award given by the American Chemical Society, and the Wolf Foundation Prize in Chemistry.
Eyring died on Dec. 26, 1981, in Salt Lake City, just two months after a large meeting in Berlin that celebrated the 50th anniversary of a scientific paper he had co-authored with Polanyi.
Eyring's religious beliefs didn't hinder his science. They motivated it: "For one who feels compelled, as I do, to accept the existence of the Master Architect, it is important to examine His handiwork for the light it throws on Him and on His program for His children.
"Contemplating this awe-inspiring order extending from the almost infinitely small to the infinitely large," he once wrote, "one is overwhelmed with its grandeur and with the limitless wisdom which conceived, created and governs it all.
"Apparent contradictions between religion and science often have been the basis of bitter controversy. Such differences are to be expected as long as human understanding remains provisional and fragmentary. Only as one's understanding approaches the Divine will all seeming contradictions disappear. Such complete understanding is to be approached as a part of the eternal progress which will continue in the life to come. In the meantime, we can only continue our quest for the balanced view that comes from weighing all evidence carefully in the search for enduring values. The road is a long one, but the outcome is assured if we are willing to travel it.
"Some have asked me: 'Is there any conflict between science and religion?' There is no conflict in the mind of God, but often there is conflict in the minds of men."