Verbiest: The Priest Who Invented the Automobile

Even one who is as maladroit as I when it comes to the Internet, profits from “YouTube” with its cavalcade of some of the great people and events of more than a century. Would that it could go back farther, but there are many moving scenes to which we have access. One shows Father Georges LeMaitre, father of the “Big Bang” with Albert Einstein at the California Institute of Technology in January of 1933. Father Le Maitre, priest and physicist, had challenged Einstein’s postulate of a static state universe. Father Le Maitre contended that an expanding universe, exploding from a “first atomic moment” or “atomic egg” actually sustained Einstein’s general theory. Others were not convinced and a decade later, in that dark mill of science which is Cambridge University, Arthur Eddington rejected it and Fred Hoyle called LeMaitre’s theory the “Big Bang” as a term of mockery. But Einstein was deeply moved and said at the conclusion of Le Maitre’s presentation, “This is the most beautiful and satisfactory explanation of creation to which I have ever listened.”

Beauty. Now, it was not Augustine as many think, but Galileo paraphrasing Augustine’s insistence on the right use of reason who said that the Scriptures teach us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go. But Augustine did confess, “Late have I loved thee, Beauty ever ancient, ever new.” This was the ineffable beauty of the Creator, reflected in the symmetry of the entire universe. For all his theological constraints, it is significant that Einstein chose first to call Le Maitre’s explanation “beautiful.”

This past March, YouTube delivered another powerful scene which, I admit, brought fugitive tears to my Anglo Saxon eyes. At Stanford University, an assistant professor of physics, Chao Lin Kuo, knocks on the door of the Russian physicist Andrei Linde to tell him that many years of patient observation near the South Pole, seems to confirm his theory of primordial gravitational waves issuing from the pure quantum gravity of Le Maitre’s “first atomic moment.” In astonishment, Linde’s wife, also a physicist, speechlessly embraces the young man. Overwhelmed, Professor Linde accepts a glass of champagne and says hesitatingly, “I always live with the feeling—what if I believe this just because it is beautiful?”

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If “beauty will save the world,” pace Dostoyevsky, it will also salvage physicists, since beauty cannot contradict truth. And when physicists are allured, the heart of all science succumbs, for as Ernest Rutherford said, “All science is either physics or stamp collecting.” Pope Urban VIII, who championed Galileo until that man, though of faith, made Simplicio in his Dialogue of Two Chief World Systems the weak proponent of divine omniscience, conjoined his patronage of science with that of art.   For him, Galileo was not alien to those artists he also promoted: Bernini, Lorraine, Poussin and Cortona. One need not fear hoping that a thing is true because it is beautiful. Truth cannot be ugly, and beauty is always a radiance of truth itself. Discord arises only when the categories are mixed up: when how to go to heaven is invoked to tell how the heavens go, or when knowing how the heavens go is applied to deny that we can go to heaven. Father Le Maitre politely corrected Pope Pius XII for saying that his cosmological discoveries affirmed the “Fiat Lux!” of Genesis. The pope obliged the professor and backed off.  On a lower level of discourse, the brilliant Father Stanley Jaki, who taught that modern physical science is the product of the Christian understanding of order and providence, corrected me once in a similar way, but not as delicately as Father Le Maitre did, for Father Jaki had an Hungarian spirit that did not tarry in the halls of patience or languish in understatement.

The list of great Catholic scientists is as long as the years since modern science became conscious of itself, but my clerical perspective would focus on Catholic priests compelled by beauty to discover more about the ordering of things for, as Alexander Pope wrote, “Order is heaven’s first law.”   Everyone knows of Roger Bacon and Albert the Great. But Copernicus was a priest, too, and likewise the geneticist Mendel. Barsanti developed the internal combustion engine after Buridan theorized inertial motion. Clavius was a guide in designing the Gregorian calendar, Gassendi observed the transit of a planet across the sun. Picard was the first to calculate accurately the size of the earth, Steno founded modern geology as Mabillion did paleography and Valentin modern chemistry and Marenne acoustics. The first wireless transmission of the human voice was by Sarasa.  Kirche was the first to observe microbes by microscope and Jedlike invented the dynamo and electric motor. Thirty-five craters on our moon are named for priests who contributed to natural science.

A particularly compelling model for the way the care of souls unites with the custody of creation is the singular prodigy, Father Ferdinand Verbiest. He was born on October 9, 1623, the very day that Cardinal Maffeo Barberini, the future Urban VIII, wrote in a letter to Cesarini of the wonderful circumstance “in questa mirabil congiuntura” by which Galileo had supported Copernicus. Father Verbiest grew up in Pillem, Flanders, now Belgium and the homeland of Father LeMaitre. Having studied in Bruges and Kortrijk, he studied philosophy and mathematics in Leuven and then, having joined the Society of Jesus, he pursued theology in Seville and Rome, along with astronomy. His hope to be a missionary in Central America thwarted, he was sent to China along with thirty-five other missionaries, and was one of ten survivors by the time the boat reached Macau in 1659. In the steps of Matteo Ricci and Adam Schall, the Jesuits had already established their presence in the imperial observatory in Beijing. Upon the death of their patron, the young Shunzi Emperor, jealous court astronomers, led by Yang Guangxian, tortured them, and Verbiest was among those who were forced into a crouched positioned, unable to sit or stand for two months. Then sentenced to be cut to pieces while still alive, they were released after an earthquake and fire were taken as omens in their favor. Verbiest next submitted to several contests of his mathematical and astronomical skills, including the calculation of a lunar eclipse.

The new Kangxi Emperor made Father Verbiest his tutor in geometry, philosophy and music. Father Verbiest was a priest first of all, and secured permission to preach the Gospel throughout the empire, in return for translating the first six books of Euclid into Manchu. Some 800,000 conversions are attributed to his influence. Among his thirty published works is his translation of the Missal into Mandarin. He also reformed the Chinese calendar, and calculated all solar and lunar eclipses for 2000 years. Ever the diplomat, but guiltless of human respect, when told not to correct the Chinese calendar he boldly answered: “It is not within my power to make the heavens agree with your calendar. The extra month must be taken out.” And so it was. He rebuilt the imperial observatory and designed new instruments: an altazimuth, celestial globe, ecliptic armilla, equatorial armilla, quadrant altazimuth and an eight foot sextant. Using his surveying skills, and conferring in Latin with the Russian ambassador on behalf of the Qing emperor, he fixed the official Russo-Chinese borders. Rather like Aquinas dying after his magnificent brain was fatally wounded by a tree branch, Verbiest died in a fall from a bolting horse. He was given an imperial burial, and became the only European accorded an “immortal” name, Kiao-Li-Siang Kiai.

Verbiest had also studied the properties of steam. His “Astronomia Europea” describes an “auto-mobile” which he designed as a toy for the emperor around 1672. It used a rudimentary boiler (a prototype of the Stanley Steamer) with wheels turned by steam forced towards a turbine. This was a scale model not constructed to carry passengers, but while the invention of the car may be attributed to Cugnot, Anderson, Benz or Daimler, and some have even proposed Leonardo earlier, there are those on the other side of their planet in remote Cathay who would say that the real inventor was Verbiest. More recently he was honored on a Belgian postage stamp.

Will Durant said, “Every science begins as philosophy and ends as art.” These great priests in the name of Christ loved creation because of the Creator and they never spent their intellects at the expense of the salvation of souls. They had no need to fear that their theories might be tricks because they were beautiful. Chimeras can fool the senses, but not beauty. And the Source of all beauty is Truth itself. “Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty, God shines forth” (Psalm 50:2).


  • Fr. George W. Rutler

    Fr. George W. Rutler is a contributing editor to Crisis and pastor of St. Michael’s church in New York City. A four-volume anthology of his best spiritual writings, A Year with Fr. Rutler, is available now from the Sophia Institute Press.

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