Practical Mystic: Religion, Science, and A. S. Eddington

  • Matthew Stanley
University of Chicago Press: 2007. 320 pp. $37.50 0226770974 | ISBN: 0-226-77097-4
Eddington saw science and religion as processes of seeking. Credit: GETTY IMAGES

In this extraordinary book about the life of the distinguished English astrophysicist Sir Arthur Eddington, Matthew Stanley examines the entangled roles of science and religion in his work. Practical Mystic is not a biography in the ordinary sense — readers will look hard to find dates for Eddington's birth and death (1882–1944), and much else has been omitted. But included in rich detail are Eddington's Quaker milieu and the tensions he faced at the tribunal as a conscientious objector during the First World War, his astrophysical research, his pioneering fascination with Einstein's relativity, and his role as a major popular writer on astronomy and the philosophy of science.

I can recall only one other book that attempts to build a convincing biographical interconnection between a religious ethos and scientific achievements — Job Kozhamthadam's The Discovery of Kepler's Laws: The Interaction of Science, Philosophy, and Religion (1994). Trained as a theologian, Kepler saw God's design throughout the cosmos. Whether that drove him to search for the physical (rather than the traditional geometrical) understanding that led him to his three laws seems inconclusive. In Stanley's analysis of Eddington, there is no doubt of the compatibility and mutual influence of science and religion.

To analyse the relationship between science and society (including religion), Stanley examines the bridging function of what he calls “valence values”. Like the bonding ring of electrons, these values facilitate the interaction between science and culture. Through the lens of these values, Stanley uses Eddington as a test case for exploring the interaction of science and religion in Britain in the first half of the twentieth century.

Unlike the natural theologians of the previous century, Eddington did not seek a harmonization between science and religion. He saw both as processes of seeking. As he reminded his audience at the British Association for the Advancement of Science, “A knowledge of nature is the great end of our work; but, if we cannot attain that, there is at least the struggle after knowledge, which is perhaps no less a thing.” Eddington could have said the same of his religion.

When he approached fundamental questions of astrophysics, Eddington did not try first to establish basic laws from which conclusions could be deduced (as Newton had done and as his rival James Jeans insisted on doing), rather he built a web of approximations whose results could be compared with nature. Instead of first asking specifically what could power the Sun, he worked through possible structures to establish the likelihood of an extremely hot, temperature-dependent core as the seat of the Sun's energy source. (He suggested his critics should find a hotter place.)

Out of the same search procedures came his famous law linking the luminosity of stars with their mass. Stanley describes the astrophysics with considerable skill and using essentially no mathematics. It must be a little perplexing to the non-specialist though when the expression “κ ε” appears with no definition, nor does Stanley explain that “κ” stands for opacity.

Eddington introduced Einstein's general theory of relativity to the English-speaking world. Stanley tells this story well, arguing that Eddington's Quaker faith and his pacifism motivated his desire to test the work of a German scientist at a time when, after the First World War, Germany and its scientists were loathed by the Anglophone community.

The results of the 1919 eclipse expedition, which showed stars near the Sun slightly displaced by the curvature of space associated with its mass, made Einstein famous overnight and thrust Eddington into the limelight too.

A story — now almost an urban legend — has gained currency that Eddington was so convinced of the accuracy of Einstein's prediction of the bending of starlight by the Sun, that he fudged the treatment of marginal eclipse plates to obtain the desired results. Here Stanley argues that the integrity of Eddington's work is beyond doubt (he has published full details elsewhere). A thorough examination of the case by Daniel Kennefick (preprint at arXiv:0709.0685 v2; 2007) substantiates Stanley's claim.

Among the omissions in Stanley's biographical study is the put-down of S. Chandrasekhar's calculations of the ultimate collapse of highly massive objects, something Eddington found aesthetically distasteful. (For a perceptive, neutral view of this episode see Journal for the History of Astronomy.) Perhaps this also connects with Eddington's aversion to the idea of the Universe starting at a finite time past, something that may have smacked too much of the ultimate miracle for his religious outlook and a dead end for his philosophy of seeking. Stanley's Practical Mystic is not a biography but a biographical study — a fascinating one.