Mormons and Science

by | Sep. 15, 2008

LDS Life

Members of the Church have been at the forefront of multiple technologies for nearly a century, and you probably enjoy the fruits of their labor more often than you think.

Here are some accounts of the many contributions that LDS scientists have made to modern society.

Elemental Science (Chemistry and Physics)

Henry Eyring

Henry Eyring was one of the twentieth century's greatest chemists and researchers, receiving the highest awards in chemistry, including the Wolf Prize and the Joseph Priestly Medal. He wrote numerous books discussing his scientific findings, including how they related to the Church. One topic that particularly intrigued him was that of organic evolution. In his book Reflections of a Scientist he wrote: "One time I was stuck most of a day in London and couldn't face the thought of sightseeing, so I went to the London Zoo. I was attracted by a crowd watching the great apes. One fellow in particular was getting a lot of attention as he sat close to the front of the cage on a tree platform. As the zoo visitors moved closer, he suddenly spewed them with water he had in his mouth. Now, that was interesting! I found a bench across the path--out of range--and watched. The ape got down and went over to his water trough to reload. He then went about the cage awhile and finally repositioned himself on the platform. He waited--patiently. Finally a new group of humanoids, not aware of the danger, moved into range. Spray! Splat! Bullseye! The fellow practically chortled out loud as he made his trip to the trough. I spent the entire afternoon enjoying his enjoyment. Theoretically, he was there for our amusement, but quite clearly, he didn't understand that. He thought we were there for his. I have to admit I kind of admired the fellow. Animals seem pretty wonderful to me. I'd be content to discover that I share a common heritage with them, so long as God is at the controls."

When researching subjects controversial to members of the Church, like evolution or the age of the earth, Eyring said he followed one fundamental principle: believe only the truth, and the gospel is truth. He believed the briefness of the creation story in the scriptures was God's intention, and that one day we will understand everything, but the time is not now. Eyring believed it was perfectly fine that in the meantime, we learn as much as humanly possible about the earth and our beginnings. He made it clear in his teachings that scientists are not enemies of God, but are as diligent and truthful as any other human being. He continued in his book: "Organic evolution is the honest result of capable people trying to explain the evidence to the best of their ability. From my limited study of the subject I would say that the physical evidence supporting the theory is considerable from a scientific viewpoint. "'Now wait a minute,' you say. 'I thought you weren't an evolutionist!' I'm not. I'd be just as content to find out that God stirred up some dirt and water and out stepped Adam, ready to occupy the Garden of Eden. The only important thing is that God did it."

Other LDS Elemental Scientists:

* E. Park Guyman developed a patented solvent extraction process that has the potential to convert American tar sands into billions of barrels of high grade asphalt and crude oil.

* Paul Boyer received the Nobel Prize for describing the mechanism of ATP synthesis.

* Alex Oblad contributed fundamental work in catalysis and contributions to the production of high octane gasoline and synthetic ammonia.

* George Hill's coal research included development directed toward the transformation of coal for liquid automobile fuel.

* Richard Thomas was head of The National Academy of Science Committee on Toxicology and is now president and CEO of The International Center for Environmental Technology.

* Scott Woodward was selected by the Egyptian government to study the DNA and lineage of Egyptian mummies.


Philo Farnsworth

Philo Farnsworth was named one of Time magazine's most important people of the century. And for what? The invention of the television, of course. Farnsworth was born in 1906 in Beaver City, Utah, but his family moved quickly thereafter to a ranch in Rigby, Idaho.

The idea for the electric television first came to him when he was only fourteen years old, while he was tilling potatoes, back and forth, row by row. Despite his lack of a college, or even a high school education for that matter, he realized that an electron beam could scan images in a similar way, back and forth, line by line. In high school he grew more captivated by electricity and persuaded his chemistry teacher, Justin Tolman, to let him audit a senior chemistry class. After high school he continued working on his idea for the television, and by age twenty-one had his own laboratory for research.

On September 7, 1927, Farnsworth painted a straight line on a square of glass, placed it into his newly invented image dissector camera tube, lit it with an arc light, and there on his receiver was the first transmitted image. "There you are, electronic television," Philo was known to have said at the event. Investors had been on his case and were demanding to know when they would start seeing money from his invention. Farnsworth had the transmission system worked out well enough to give a demonstration for the press and investors; the first image he showed them was a dollar sign. RCA (one of America's largest corporations at the time) immediately caught on to the genius and astronomical potential of Farnsworth's invention. They offered to buy his patent for $100,000--an equivalent of over $1 million today--but he refused, beginning the life-long battle between RCA and Farnsworth. He never gave up his research, and the rest is, well, history. Today, the average American household has 2.73 TV sets.

Other Technologies Invented by Members of the Church:

* Marvin Harris invented the transistor radio.

* William Clayton invented the odometer.

* Jonathan Browning, a revolutionary gunsmith, invented the repeating rifle.

* Lester Wire invented the electric traffic light.

* Alvino Rey invented the electric guitar.

* Thomas Stockham was the father of digital sound recording (CDs, DVDs, etc.) and led the 1974 technological effort to recover sound from the eighteen-minute gap in Nixon's White House tapes.


Kim O'Neill

Northern Ireland native Dr. Kim O'Neill is a professor of microbiology and molecular biology at Brigham Young University and specializes in cancer immunology research. His contributions to the medical world include a cancer test he and BYU patented in 1997 that quickly, accurately, and inexpensively detects cancer development at an early stage.

O'Neill is interested in three main aspects of cancer research. The first is promoting a diet rich with fruits and vegetables in order to prevent cancer. "There has been a lot of current research that indicates the major benefits of eating fruits and vegetables," O'Neill says. "Up to seventy-five percent of cancer can be prevented by a healthy lifestyle." This includes exercise, eating healthy foods, and not smoking. "Our laboratory focuses on the benefits that can be obtained through a diet rich in fruit and vegetables. We are investigating the many different plant chemicals that are involved in reducing cancer risk."

O'Neill promotes education by publishing his findings in scientific journals, giving lectures, and has even co-authored a book on the subject called Power Plants. "Power Plants is for the layman and gives a good guide on plant nutrition, and offers a scientific approach to phytonutrition in a practical format that anyone can use for optimal health," O'Neill says. "It will encourage you to eat a better diet and realize fruits and vegetables will prevent lifestyle diseases (like heart disease and cancer)." His book compliments the Word of Wisdom, he says, demonstrating how those living it faithfully have protection against lifestyle diseases. His second aspect of research is aimed at enhancing the body's defense system to fight cancer. "The body has natural defenses against cancer," O'Neill says. "We study the immune system and how it interacts with tumor cells. Using this knowledge we can help with the development of possible vaccines that could be used against certain forms of cancer."

O'Neill has developed methods to study angiogenesis (blood vessel development)--one of the fundamental steps in the transition of tumors from a localized state to a metastatic state, or the spreading of cancer from one organ to another. "Understanding how we can enhance the immune system's ability to recognize cancer cells will play a major role in the fight against cancer," he says. His third research focus is in the early detection of cancer, which, as a general rule, means the cancer could be easier to treat with a better survival rate. "We have discovered a tumor marker found in serum that will aid in diagnosis, prognosis, and tumor management," O'Neill says. "This marker accurately reflects tumor presence, and tumor stage. . . . We can tell when they [patients] actually develop cancer in a very early stage." The test was patented, and is now in the process of getting into a production line so the general public will have access to it.

Other Prominent LDS Doctors and Medical Researchers:

* Harvey Fletcher invented the hearing aid, stereophonic sound, the audiometer, and more than twenty other devices.

* Ewart Swinyard developed medications to suppress epilepsy.

* Harvey Greenfield was a member of the Jarvik-7 team that developed the first artificial heart.

* Homer Warner contributed to the development of computer sciences for the benefit of medical diagnoses, particularly for heart ailments.

* J. Edwin Seegmiller helped develop amniocentesis to help study the health of fetuses.

* Jim Parkin pioneered artificial ears through cochlear implants.

* John Dixon pioneered laser surgery.

* Wayne Quinton developed artificial kidneys.

Computer Science 

Edwin Catmull

Catmull and his team at Pixar awed the world in 1995 with the revolutionary computer-animated movie Toy Story, showed us that clown fish really are funny in Finding Nemo, and walked away with over eight Oscars for their films, including their latest, Ratatouille.

Growing up, Catmull loved Disney classics like Pinocchio and Peter Pan and dreamed of becoming a film animator for Disney. He spent his childhood making sketches and creating flip-books to bring his characters to life. But realistically, Catmull knew his dream wasn't likely, so he opted for studying computer science and physics at the University of Utah instead. In the 1970s he discovered the new field of computer graphics and found an opportunity to combine his college degree with his passion--the possibility of using both technology and animation was exactly what he needed.

In 1973 he made a graphic animation of his left hand, which was discovered by Hollywood and was incorporated into the film Futureworld. Catmull became the director of the new Computer Graphics Lab at NYIT, where George Lucas noticed Catmull's talent and hired him as the vice president of computer graphics at Lucasfilm. Finally, he was working in the film industry, doing what he had always dreamed of. But his success didn't end there. In 1986, Steve Jobs bought the digital division of Lucasfilm, and with the help of Catmull, the two co-founded Pixar--a now multi-billion dollar animation studio. It was here where the Pixar team envisioned stories of toys that secretly came to life, monsters with a sense of humor, and a family of superheroes who are quite incredible. They revolutionized the world of animation film, and Disney liked what they saw.

In 2006, Walt Disney Animation Studios and Pixar merged, making Catmull the president. Along with other projects, he worked especially hard to revive Disney sequels, which in the past hadn't done so well. "The problem is [Disney's] sequels weren't very good," Catmull said at a Brigham Young University devotional earlier this year. "We realized, as we went through with this, the very concept of [doing] 'B-work' was bad for our souls." With lots of imagination and plenty of hard work, Toy Story 2 was a hit, and now Disney and Pixar plan to release two more sequels: Toy Story 3 (2010) and Cars 2 (2012).

Other Mormon Computer Scientists:

* Alan Ashton invented the modern word processor.

* Nolan Bushnell claimed the title of the father of video games with the invention of "Pong."

* Drew Major invented NetWare, a corporate computer network, and founded Novell.

Earth Science 

Earl Douglass

Earl Douglass lived to fossil hunt. In 1902, he began work at the Carnegie Museum digging for and classifying early mammal fossils in Montana and Utah. But this type of work wasn't enough for Douglass--he wanted to make a great discovery.

One day, Dr. W. J. Holland, director of the Carnegie Museum, approached him with a radical idea; he had heard the Uinta Mountains had fossils from the Jurassic era, but no one really knew for sure. In 1908, Douglass and Holland set off in search of something they could only hope to find. In The Great Dinosaur Hunters and Their Discoveries by Edwin Harris, there is an excerpt from Holland's diary about the hunt: "We decided that we would set forth early the next day with our team of mules and visit the foot-hills, where Hayden [another geologist] had indicated the presence of Jurassic exposures.... The next day we went forward through the broken foot-hills which lie east and south of the great gorge through which the Green River emerges from the Uinta Mountains on its course toward the Grand Canyon of Arizona. As we slowly made our way through stunted groves of pine we realized that we were upon Jurassic beds. We tethered our mules in the forest. Douglass went to the right and I to the left, scrambling up and down through the gullies in search of Jurassic fossils, with the understanding, that, if he found anything he was to discharge the shot gun which he carried, and, if I found anything, I would fire the rifle, which I carried." They spent days scaling, and sometimes falling, over the rocky terrain in search of their prize. They hunted for the telltale Jurassic bones, but found nothing. Holland went back to Pittsburg, but Douglass continued his search with another colleague, "Dad" Goodrich.

Then, on August 17, 1909, they were rewarded for their exhausting search. Douglass and Goodrich had separated, like they always did, and were searching when Douglass's keen eye saw something slightly protruding from a rock high up. Douglass scrambled up the rocks to the exposed bones and found he had made the discovery of a lifetime. Here lay the vertebrae of an enormous dinosaur, still entirely intact. That evening Douglass proudly wrote in his journal: "At last in the top of the ledge where the softer overlying beds form a divide ... I saw eight of the tail bones of a Brontosaurus in exact position." Douglass and a team worked to find more fossils through the harsh Utah winter and were never discouraged by the below-zero temperatures. They continued to dig through layer upon layer where the fossils lay hidden. He and his team ended up uncovering over 350 tons of fossils, and the location was soon proclaimed the Dinosaur National Monument. Douglass described the quarry as "one of the most astounding and instructive sights imaginable." Today, hundreds of thousands of visitors come to the quarry in eastern Utah to see the display of dinosaur fossils in the rock.

Other LDS Geologists:

* Milton Wadsworth created new methods for the beneficiation of minerals.

* Tracy Hall invented the synthesis of diamonds.


Don Lind

When the United States instigated the first manned mission into space in 1961, Don Lind couldn't help but feel he had found his calling in life. "Wow," he thought, "I'm a pilot and a scientist--I'm perfect for the job!"

Lind's journey to becoming an astronaut was a long one, with lots of tests, applications, and plenty of prayer. But in the end, Lind was accepted into NASA's space program in 1966, becoming a likely candidate to be one of the few men to walk on the moon. Lind told LDS Living that he believes the Word of Wisdom helped him pass the physical tests and place him ahead of the other thousands of applicants. "We had to undergo sixty hours of medical tests, which included methods of the Spanish Inquisition," says Lind. "You had to be in top physical condition to pass. Luckily, I didn't smoke, I didn't drink, and I was into physical fitness before the physical fitness craze."

Soon after being accepted, he began intense and grueling training. "Our training involved night-shifts at the local hospital emergency room to learn what to do if we had to perform emergency surgery in space," says Lind. "We learned survival skills in the Panamanian jungle, which we'd need if we landed far off course. We also were taught graduate-level geology courses. But rather than learning in the classroom, we'd go to the actual formation, sit on the edge of it, and then learn about it with the world's expert teaching the class. We couldn't get that caliber of training at any university in the world." Lind was finally prepared for space--he knew exactly what to do and couldn't wait to do it. But he did.

Lind ended up waiting longer than any other American in history for his first spaceflight--a grueling nineteen years. But his time finally came, and he flew to space on the Challenger in 1985 for the Spacelab-3 science mission. The eight-day journey consisted of experiments, studying the Aurora Australis or Southern Lights, among other things. The spacecraft returned home safely, but no one knew at the time it was nothing less than a miracle that it did. Nine months later, when the Challenger set off again, it exploded seventy-three seconds after liftoff, killing the seven astronauts onboard. The investigation concluded the accident was due to a breach in the O-rings--rings designed to seal the sections of the fuel rocket booster. The study showed that the O-rings used for Lind's mission were held together by less than four millimeters, and should have broken. Lind believes he was saved because of his faith. "The Lord keeps his promises," says Lind, "I received a priesthood blessing before I went to space that I would go and come in safety, and I knew that's what would happen. We weren't more righteous or more deserving of the Lord's help--those on the Challenger were good people--but it had been promised to us."

Another Famous Mormon in Space:

* James T. Fletcher was appointed twice to be Director of NASA by Presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan

As a side note...

Henry Eyring In an interview in the April 1986 Friend, Elder Henry B. Eyring recalled, "My father was never anxious about his work; he just loved it. My mother was a very musical person. She played the piano and loved the symphony. Dad would go to the symphony with her, and when the music stopped, he'd stand up and ask, 'Is it over?' and Mother would realize that he'd been thinking about molecules the whole time. Chemistry to him was the air he breathed."

Chemistry was Eyring's life. He loved it so much that he wanted to share it with his children, encouraging his sons to study science and prepare for careers in the field. But not everyone wanted to be a scientist like he did. In the April 1996 issue of the Liahona, Elder Eyring shared a story about the time his father learned that his son didn't share his obsession for chemistry. Henry B. Eyring was studying physics at the University of Utah when he came to his father for help on a particularly complex mathematical problem. They went to the blackboard, which was kept in the basement for things like this, and began to tackle the problem. His father soon recognized it as the same one his son had been working on the week before, and Eyring Jr. had to confess that he hadn't been working on it. "You don't understand," Eyring Sr. told him. "When you walk down the street, when you're in the shower, when you don't have to be thinking about anything else, isn't this what you think about?" Eyring Jr. admitted it was not. He then recalls, "My father paused. It was really a very tender and poignant moment, because I knew how much he loved me and how much he wanted me to be a scientist. Then he said, 'Hal, I think you'd better get out of physics. You ought to find something that you love so much that when you don't have to think about anything, that's what you think about.'"

Although he was a truly gifted scientist, his compassion for others was one of his greatest gifts. Students, colleagues, and friends alike speak highly of Henry Eyring, and a book, Mormon Scientist, has been published in his memory.

Another side note...

Anne Osborn Poelman Anne Osborn Poelman is a genius in the medical field. She is currently one of the world's leading radiologists and is the author of numerous textbooks on neuroradiology. She travels over 100,000 miles around the globe every year giving lectures anywhere from Egypt to Japan to South Africa. Poelman is one of only two radiologists in the world to be an honorary members of the Chinese Medical Association. Not only is her extreme talent in the medical world unique, but so is the fact that she's female, as well as a member of the Church.

Poelman was first introduced to the gospel while in medical school. She related her conversion story in a PBS documentary called The Mormons: "When I was a medical student at Stanford [I had a professor]--a wonderful, outstanding man who was an internationally known scientist and researcher, and much beloved of the medical students because of his demeanor: the way he interacted with his students and his willingness to spend extra time with us. And one day, a group of medical students--we were sitting out on the front lawn of the medical center, eating our bag lunches over the noon hour--and one of the students happened to mention that this particular professor was a Mormon. "Now, that totally caught me by surprise, because the only thing I knew about the Mormon Church was a little bit about the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and the small amount that my sister and I had gleaned on a very brief trip through Temple Square on our way from Indiana to Stanford."

After that, Poelman didn't think much about the Mormons until two years later when she was volunteering at the Red Cross. One of the instructors was an LDS man who shared the same attitude and demeanor of her professor. This sparked her curiosity. She wondered why these Mormon men, who didn't even know each other, were so alike. So she began her investigation of the Church. She found a church meeting house, and after sitting in her car debating whether to go in or leave, she made a choice to stay, which ultimately, changed her life. Soon the missionaries were invited to her house, but not without great skepticism on her part. But as Poelman listened to the words of the terrified "greenie" sitting on her couch, she knew what he was saying was true. "I've made my professional life with my eyes and brain and memory and pattern-recognition, looking at images of the brain and so on. But the things that I know most surely, that have made the most significant difference in my life, I really have to say I know not by the power of the intellect, but by the power of the heart and the spirit. I think your intellect, and the intellectual approach, can only take you so far."

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