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The Religious Affiliation of Nobel Prize-winning Physicist
Arthur Holly Compton

From: Raymond J. Seeger, "Compton, Christian Humanist" in
The Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation, 37 (March 1985): 54-55 (; viewed 26 September 2005): As Arthur Holly Compton (1892-1962) grew older, his outlook became broader, but always from a fixed Christian viewpoint. His father, a Presbyterian minister, was professor of philosophy at Wooster College; his mother, born a Mennonite, was Foreign Secretary for the Missionary Society of the Presbyterian Church. His sister Mary was a missionary in India and Pakistan; his brother Karl, a physicist, became President of MIT; his younger brother Wilson was an economist.

...At twenty-eight he was appointed head of the Washington University Physics Dept., where he discovered the total reflection of X-rays and the so-called Compton Effect, i.e., the recoil of a high-energy photon with longer wavelength from a free electron (like an elastic collision). In 1926 he published a book, "X-rays and Electrons." His confirmation of Einstein's particle theory of radiation resulted in Compton being awarded the 1927 Physics Nobel Prize (together with C.T.R. Wilson). In the 1930's he made intensive studies of the controversial cosmic rays, particularly their variation with latitude and altitudeevidence of their extraterrestrial origin. In 1934 he was George Eastman Visiting Professor at Oxford. While Chairman of the University of Chicago Physics Dept. (1940-5), he became Director of the Metallurgical Laboratory, in charge of the WWII Plutonium Project, where the first self-sustaining nuclear reaction took place Dec. 2, 1942 -- ostensibly to develop an atomic bomb before the Nazis might do so...

Throughout his life Compton was active in church affairs, from teaching a Sunday School class in Princeton to being an elder in the Second Presbyterian Church in St. Louis, to being a member of the national Presbyterian Board of Education. He was ecumenical in his relations, e.g., General Chairman of Laymen's Missionary Movement, Protestant Co-Chairman of National Conference of Christians and Jews, General Chairman World Brotherhood, Interchurch Relation of Presbyterian Church, et al. He lectured at the Jewish Theological Seminary, from which he received an Honorary Litt. D.

Although always a strong advocate of national defense, Compton had to face a personal problem, as a Christian, toward actual war. Science and technology, he believed, are morally neutral, but is war itself ever just? Yes, if it is required to insure a lasting peace! He was willing to risk his own life-and the lives of others-for the survival of human values. With E. Fermi, E.O. Lawrence, and J.R. Oppenheimer (he was always pro-Oppenheimer) he served on an advisory panel to the military on the potential use of the first atomic bomb. Afterwards upon being questioned in Japan about the USA decision, he remarked later, "I could not say I was sorry." Unfortunately the heart of the war problem is still the heart of man! He himself realized that organized religion would be required to "inspire man to cast envy and hate aside and work for each other's welfare. It is we who must shape our new world."

Compton believed that one of mankind's basic problems is an inspiring meaning for life are beyond science. Consequently, he was concerned about the relation of science and religion, a problem with which his father had wrestled. In particular, he was pleased with the freedom evident in the uncertainty principle of modern physics, which can be interpreted as experimentally statistical-even though the system is theoretically causal. He concludes, "The great significance of science to man is that it encourages his growth as a free man."

For Compton the heavens (an ordered cosmos) still "declare the glory of God and the firmament showeth His handiwork" -- "a sentiment that has been of even greater meaning to the increased number of men and women, and especially of youth who have caught the spirit of science." (As a ball of light expands in the dark, its contact with the dark unknown increases-so, too, the mystery of the universe deepens as the knowledge of it spreads.) "It is only in so far as we have a vision of excellence for men's lives that science has a human meaning." "The hope of civilization lies in the advancement of science." "In their essence there can be no conflict between science and religion. Science is a reliable method of finding the truth. Religion is a search for a and I work." satisfying basis of life." "Only our religious leaders have seriously attempted to tell us where to go." Compton noted that St. Paul had characterized a religious man as being "alive to all true values." "By enabling men to see more clearly what those values are and to work for them more effectively, science has become an ally of religion."

For Compton "the supernatural is as real as the natural world of Science." God, he believed, is "the creative and controlling force at work in the world for all who want to find Him." "It is only in unusual phenomena, such as miracles, that God is [directly] concerned. The familiar phenomena of nature require no deistic explanation-they are self- evident." Not only is God the Father the ruler of the universe, but Jesus is God the Hero Son to be admired and , but that ultimate values of life emulated. "That Jesus' spirit lives so vitally in man today makes me hope that by following in His footsteps in my small way I also may live forever." There is abroad, moreover, a spirit of the highest good, God the Spirit (an interpretation of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity).

"The Christian God is the God of love." "Faith, hope, love endure, these three, but the greatest of these is love." "This is not science, or nature. It is the true supernatural." "A surprisingly large share for carrying through the program of God for the universe rests on our [educated] shoulders.

Compton summarized his creed in the conclusion of his MacNair lectures: "If indeed the creation of intelligent persons is a major objective of the Creator of the Universe, and if, as we have reason to surmise, mankind is now His highest development in this direction, the opportunity and responsibility of working as God's partners in His great task are almost overwhelming. What nobler ambition can one have than to cooperate with his Maker in bringing about a better world in which to live? 'My father worketh hitherto, and I work."


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Webpage created 26 September 2005. Last modified 26 September 2005.
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