Saturday, June 27, 2009

When Did Leeuwenhoek Know?

The well-known phrase “What did he know, and when did he know it?” is an artifact of past courtroom inquiries. As I research scientific discoveries since the beginning of the Scientific Revolution, that phrase frequently comes to mind. Sometimes I am amazed how long ago certain discoveries were made; at other times, how recently.

Our world revealed by the microscope and telescope came more clearly into view with advances in the 17th century. Robert Hooke was a versatile scientist who, among other wide ranging discoveries, experimented with the compound microscope. Perhaps more credit in microscopy, however, should go to Hooke’s contemporary, Dutch textile merchant Antonie van Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723). Leeuwenhoek’s simple microscopes were superior in many respects.

Considered the father of microbiology, Leeuwenhoek is said to be an “unlikely” scientist. In the first decades of his life he was not formally educated and did not have a scientific background. But his curiosity led him to develop simple one-lens microscopes which have been shown to magnify up to 300 or more times. With them he first viewed and described the wonders of the microscopic world such as living bacteria, green algae (spirogyra), protozoa, animal sperm cells, blood flow in capillaries, and much more. He named these tiny organisms “animalcules.” He debunked an idea popular at the time--spontaneous generation, and showed that fertilization and reproduction occurred by the union of sperm and egg.

Leeuwenhoek is an interesting example of an ordinary non-scientist whose scientific interest and perseverance provided personal enjoyment and a permanent legacy. He wrote many letters describing his extraordinary discoveries, especially to the Royal Society of London, but did not otherwise publish his findings. He also kept secret his method of producing the tiny spheres of glass which became the high powered lenses for his simple microscopes. He thought that by revealing his manufacturing secrets the scientific community would quickly forget his role in innovative microscope technology.

He made many references to the wonders of God’s great and small creatures. Leeuwenhoek spoke reverently that his discoveries bespoke the wonders of creation and the Creator and expressed, in his Dutch Reformed Calvinist faith, a high view of scripture and salvation in Christ. He was part of a large contingent of famous early scientists such as Robert Boyle who believed natural laws were originated by God and that our discovery of them works both to the glory of God and the benefit of man.

There is a strange irony evident in the observation that many early scientists had no difficulty crediting God with creative authorship in the world of nature. As marvelous as were the early discoveries such as Leeuwenhoek’s, the extended discoveries in the world of biology and in most other fields of science, especially in the last 50 years outdistance them exponentially. This highlights a strange phenomenon in the world of modern science. Many scientists express disdain for propositions of design in the physical and biological world. They hide securely behind their insistence that pure science seeks to propose only naturalistic explanations for observed phenomena.

Early scientists such as Leeuwenhoek and Boyle had no problem recognizing and celebrating the apparent work of the Creator in the world of nature. This occurred hundreds of years before many scientists demanded that all scientific propositions be framed in naturalistic terms. The question is not whether a proposal meets the parameters of “science” as defined by our contemporary scientists. Rather, we should be concerned whether proposals that supernatural input is evident, which in some cases may exceed purely natural events, pass the “smell test” of logic, reason, and rationality.