James Joule was born in 1818. Because his father was a successful brewer, chemistry was in his blood. He was taught at home for many years, and then his father sent him to study under John Dalton, the founder of modern atomic theory. Dalton suffered a stroke two years later, but his influence on Joule continued long after he stopped teaching. Even though Joule ended up taking over the family brewery, he spent a lot of time doing experiments, mostly focused on trying to explain electricity and magnetism in terms of Dalton’s new atomic theory.
However, the more experiments he performed, the more interested he became in the heat that was generated in electrical systems. As he studied heat, he eventually demonstrated that he could convert mechanical energy into heat. This allowed him to argue that heat is just another form of energy, which went against the scientific consensus of his day. Of course, today we know he was correct, and because of that, the standard unit for measuring energy is named after him (the Joule).
Joule was a Christian, and one of the reasons he studied science was to learn more about the nature of God. In a set of notes for a lecture that he never gave due to failing health, he wrote:1
After the knowledge of, and obedience to, the will of God, the next aim must be to know something of His attributes of wisdom, power and goodness as evidenced by his handiwork…It is evident that an acquaintance with natural laws means no less than an acquaintanceship with the mind of God therein expressed.
I have used that quote a lot in talks that I have given, because I think it expresses a deep truth: We can learn something about the nature of God by studying His creation. Indeed, that’s the main reason I study science today. In addition, many of the students who use my science courses tell me that it’s one of the reasons they are planning to go into science as a career.
While I don’t want to diminish the importance of that truth, there is another truth that we can learn through the scientific work of James Joule. Remember, we honor him today because he demonstrated that the scientific consensus of his day was wrong when it came to the nature of heat. At that time in history, natural philosophers (the standard term for scientists back then) believed that heat was a self-repelling fluid, which was called “caloric.” When something was hot, there was a lot of caloric, and when something was cold, there was little caloric. Heat flows from hot things to cold things because caloric is repelled from itself. Thus, it strives to flow away from where there is a lot of it and travels to where there isn’t much of it.
This theory was pretty successful in explaining many experiments that dealt with heat, and it was proposed by Antoine-Laurent de Lavoisier, one of the most important chemists of the 18th century. Between the weight of the experimental evidence and the fame of the theory’s author, there were few who were willing to question it. However, Joule did. Why? Well, there were lots of experiments that showed heat could be converted into mechanical motion. Since it was clear that mechanical motion isn’t a fluid, that meant the fluid known as caloric would have to be destroyed to make this mechanical motion. In addition, Joule showed that under the right circumstances, mechanical motion could be converted into heat. That meant mechanical motion must also be able to produce the fluid.
That didn’t sit well with Joule. Why? Here are his own words:2
…we might reason a priori that the absolute destruction of living force can not possibly take place because it is manifestly absurd to suppose that the powers with which God has endowed matter can be destroyed, any more than they can be created, by man’s agency.
In other words, Joule thought that heat couldn’t be a fluid, because it should be impossible for man to create and/or destroy something that is such a fundamental part of God’s creation. As a result, he decided heat must be just another form of energy. Of course, we now know that he was correct.
So what’s the point? The first quote by Joule indicates that science can tell us something about the nature of God. However, the second quote (and the success of the idea that it fostered) tells us something else: The nature of God can tell us something about science. It was Joule’s concept of the nature of God that allowed him to go against the scientific consensus of his day and produce a new description of heat – a description that we now know is correct!
Now if Joule were the only example of a scientist who used his concept of God’s nature to advance science, I wouldn’t take this as a general lesson. However, throughout the history of science, we see scientists whose concept of God’s nature has influenced their science in an incredibly positive way. Copernicus put the sun at the center of the universe because of his concept of God. Newton went against the scientific consensus of his day and applied the mathematics he discovered about gravity on earth to all the planets because of his concept of God. Even some modern-day scientists still use their concept of the nature of God to advance science. To date, the only working theory of planetary magnetic fields comes from one physicist’s idea of how God might have created planets. In addition, the 2010 Outstanding Contribution to Innovation and Technology award was won because of work inspired by the lead investigator’s view of God and His creation.
I wonder how many other scientific revolutions could happen if more scientists allowed their view of the nature of God to impact how they do their scientific research.
1. Clifford Pickover, Archimedes to Hawking: Laws of Science and the Great Minds Behind Them, Oxford University Press 2008, p. 7
Return to Text
2. The Duke of Argyll, “A Great Confession,” Popular Science Monthly, 33:71, 1888
Return to Text