Academic journal article Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith

On Tipping Points and Christian Scholarship

Academic journal article Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith

On Tipping Points and Christian Scholarship

Article excerpt

The use of the phrase "tipping point" has become commonplace. A term introduced in epidemiology is now being used by climate scientists, sometimes with apocalyptic warnings. Tipping point describes a critical point in an evolving situation that leads to a new and irreversible development. In short, it is considered to be a turning point. When we look back at the trajectory of our own lives we can undoubtedly identify some intellectual tipping points.

As I compose this editorial during early April, I look back to March with a certain ache in my heart. I experienced the passing of two mentors, two professors who functioned as tipping points in my own academic development. The first was a cantankerous philosopher, a founder of the field of philosophy of biology, Marjorie Glicksman Grene (b. 1910), lately of Virginia Tech; the second, an able physicist turned historian of science, Martin J. Klein (b. 1924) of Yale University. They shaped my thinking in a variety of ways.

Grene doggedly insisted that philosophy mattered in the generation of scientific knowledge, and that thinkers like Michael Polanyi, J. J. Gibson, and Merleau-Ponty offered insights that legitimately challenged the reigning paradigms of reflection in the sciences. She continually stressed the embodied nature and historicity of human beings: it was Descartes' disembodied "cogito" that drew her ire.

Klein demonstrated how, in a close analysis of the development of quantum theories, one can detect different scientific styles which enhance our understanding and assessment of the contributions of a particular thinker. As a historian of science, Klein became a leading expert on the origins of the quantum theory and for ten years served as senior editor of the Einstein Papers Project. Klein was nominated to the National Academy of Sciences in 1977, the only historian of science to hold that honor.

Klein had known and intensively studied many of the leading lights of the new physics. His research dealt with the interrelated developments of quantum mechanics and statistical thermodynamics, and usually concentrated on the work of individual physicists, such as the development of Ludwig Boltzmann's statistical ideas, Josiah Willard Gibb's early work in thermodynamics, Paul Ehrenfest's contributions to the quantum theory, the origins of Erwin Schrodinger's wave mechanics, and the life and work of Niels Bohr and Albert Einstein. If there is a way of describing Klein's work in the history of physics one can do no better than appeal to one of his favorite Herbert Butterfield quotes. Butterfield, the English historian, wrote,

   The value of history lies in the
   richness of its recovery of the concrete
   life of the past. It is a story
   that cannot be told in dry lines, and
   its meaning cannot be conveyed in a species of
   geometry. There is not an essence of history that
   can be got by evaporating the human and the
   personal factors, the incidental or momentary
   or local things, and the circumstantial elements,
   as though at the bottom of the well there was
   something absolute, some truth independent
   of time and circumstance . … 
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