14 January 2008

Maury's Faith

On this date in 1806, Matthew Fontaine Maury was born.

Maury was a true cross-disciplinary scientist. A published astronomer, oceanographer and geologist, he is best known for his work on oceanic geology, or perhaps as one of the great mediators between science and religion, a need as dire today as it was 200 years ago.

As one would expect of a 19th century man of learning, Matthew grew up in an educated family. His grandfather was Reverend James Maury, teacher of both James Madison and Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson even lived with the Maurys for two years. James emphasized geography, making it a central part of his lessons, and is widely credited with encouraging young Jefferson's later push to settle the West.

After the death of his beloved brother John, an officer in the Navy, Matthew's parents forbade him to enter naval service. Then, as now, there was no way to better encourage a curious mind than to forbid it something, and Matthew entered the Navy in 1825. He would, from that point forward, always remain in love with the sea, even after a shipboard injury forced him to abandon sailing at the age of 33.

One of his best-known studies had rather mixed effects, depending on your perspective. He was the first to systematically chart whale sightings, realizing that the great whales were migratory and followed certain paths. While this was, of course, a revelation in marine biology, and a hugely important biological finding, it also led to far more efficient harvesting of whales, to the point that populations could not withstand.

Maury was also a founding member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. During the Civil War, he developed a new form of torpedo for the South that had serious implications for enemy shipping. Had he been on the Northern side, he may have been remembered as a hero, but his scientific achievements are largely lost in his allegiance to the South.

Above all else, though, Maury was a man of faith. He quoted scripture, read the Bible daily, and was by all accounts a strictly Christian man. His science was a profession, and a great love of his, but never interfered with his beliefs, nor vice versa. Some so-called creation scientists would put him forward as an example of someone that would clearly take their side today, but I have to disagree. I think he would be, as many scientists today are, more of a spectator in the conflict between religion and science, and I like to believe that a man so dedicated to both ways of knowing saw no reason why they should be so at odds.

Tomorrow, The Real Dr. Strangelove

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