With The Interpreter Foundation’s “Science and Mormonism” conference coming up this weekend, my thoughts have been focused on that topic. Thus, it’s scarcely surprising that I’ve been thinking about perhaps the most widely respected Mormon scientist in our history thus far.
Henry Eyring, a theoretical chemist known primarily for his contributions to the understanding of chemical reaction rates, was born in 1901 in the Mormon settlement of Colonia Juárez, Chihuahua, Mexico. After earning degrees in mining engineering, metallurgy and chemistry from the University of Arizona, he received his doctorate in chemistry from the University of California at Berkeley in 1927. He did postdoctoral teaching and research at the University of Wisconsin from 1927-1929, and was a fellow at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin in 1929-1930, working mainly with the famous chemist and philosopher of science Michael Polanyi. Then, after another year in Berkeley, he began 15 years of teaching and research at Princeton University in 1931. In 1946, he was appointed dean of the graduate school at the University of Utah, and he finished out his career in Salt Lake City.
The author of more than 600 scientific articles, 10 scientific volumes and several books on the relationship between science and religion, Eyring was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1945 and became president of the American Chemical Society in 1963 and of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1965. 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 other chemists later received the Nobel Prize for work based on it, his own failure to receive the Nobel Prize remains rather mysterious. In any event, the academy awarded him the Berzelius Medal in 1977, perhaps as partial compensation. He also won the Priestley Medal, the highest award given by the American Chemical Society, in 1975 and the Wolf Foundation Prize in Chemistry in 1980.
Eyring’s faith was closely bound up with his science. “Contemplating this awe-inspiring order extending from the almost infinitely small to the infinitely large, one is overwhelmed with its grandeur and with the limitless wisdom which conceived, created and governs it all. Our understanding, great as it sometimes seems, can be nothing but the wide-eyed wonder of the child when measured against omniscience.
“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,” Eyring declared.
“For me, there has been no serious difficulty in reconciling the principles of true science with the principles of true religion.” Still, he recognized that there are “those who find themselves troubled by an inner conflict between the traditional teachings of the Christian faith on the one hand, and on the other the challenge of modern education to explore, to dissect and to test in the cold light of fact and demonstrated proof.
“I believe,” he continued, “that many of our young people have impoverished their lives by a thoughtless denial of all aspects of the faith of their fathers in their desire to be what they call scientific and objective.”
But the blame was shared. “I am also of the opinion that some theologians have unwittingly assisted in this rebellion by taking positions so dogmatic as to stifle the honest and thoughtful inquiries of youth when they needed help and sought it.” However, he insisted, “In this church, you only have to believe the truth. Find out what the truth is!” said Eyring, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Apparent contradictions between religion and science, he explained, “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.”
Also: “There is no conflict in the mind of God, but often there is conflict in the minds of men.” And “The things we believe are only a part of the things that are yet to be revealed.”
Henry Eyring died on Dec. 26, 1981, in Salt Lake City, just two months after a large meeting was held in Berlin to celebrate the 50th anniversary of his famous paper with Polanyi, “Über einfache Gasreaktionen” (On Simple Gas Reactions). He continues to be a worthy role model for Latter-day Saint scientists.
Daniel Peterson teaches Arabic studies, founded BYU's Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, directs MormonScholarsTestify.org, chairs hmormoninterpreter.com, blogs daily at patheos.com/blogs/danpeterson and speaks only for himself.