Decoding the Stars: A Biography of Angelo Secchi, Jesuit and Scientist, written by Ileana Chinnici

In: Journal of Jesuit Studies
Agustín Udías, S.J. Universidad Complutense de Madrid, Emeritus,

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Jesuit Studies 16. Leiden: Brill, 2019. Pp. xx + 367; 77 color ills. Hb, $169.00.

Francisco Malta Romeiras

Jesuits and the Book of Nature. Science and Education in Modern Portugal. Jesuit Studies 25. Leiden: Brill, 2019. Pp. xvii + 367; 23 color ills., 11 tables. Hb, $139.00.

The history of Jesuit contributions to natural sciences is a subject that attracts considerable interest. Jesuits are popularly known as men religious involved in scientific work even appearing as such in science fiction novels. Literature abounds, especially about the roles played by Jesuits such as the mathematician Christopher Clavius, the astronomers Christoph Scheiner and Giovanni Battista Riccioli, the polymath Athanasius Kircher, and the physicist Roger Boscovich in the early years of modern science. Less attention has been paid to the scientific work of Jesuits in more modern times, that is after the restoration of the Jesuit order in 1814. (The Society, it should be remembered, was suppressed in 1773.) Jesuit scientific work changed somewhat in the nineteenth century: it assumed a rather apologetic character, aimed at critics who attacked the Catholic Church for alleged opposition to science.

Both monographs deal precisely with post-suppression Jesuit scientists, but their approach is different. Chinnici’s book focuses on the work and personality of a single person, the Italian astronomer Angelo Secchi; Romeiras investigates a group of Portuguese Jesuit professors of science, principally biology, in two schools, and the publication of Brotéria—a Jesuit scientific journal. The period covered is also a little different: the first concerns the second part of the nineteenth century while the second, the early twentieth century. The Italian and Portuguese contexts are also very different as are the scientific fields investigated (astronomy and astrophysics as opposed to biology). Both books, however, shed light on the perennial question why members of a religious order dedicate their lives to work in natural sciences.

Ileana Chinnici has written the first modern biography of Angelo Secchi, director of the observatory of the Collegio Romano. In the middle of the nineteenth century, Secchi was one of the first to initiate the study of the nature of heavenly bodies and thus contributed to the foundation of what is now called astrophysics. Prior to his investigation, astronomy was limited to celestial mechanics, that is, the study of the position and motion of stars, planets, and comets. The application of spectroscopic analysis to the studies of stars and planets, which was underway, opened a new field to which Secchi was one of the first to make important contributions. His proposed classification of the spectra of stars, an important tool in astrophysics, is still used albeit with some modifications. Among his many contributions, his studies of the sun, using this new methodology, were path-breaking. Secchi also contributed to other fields of science, such as meteorology, geomagnetism, and geodesy. Elected a foreign member of the Royal Society in 1856, he and Stephen Perry, director of Stonyhurst Observatory, are the only Jesuit scientists to have received this honor. Moreover, as Chinnici mentions in the preface, her biography aspires to be a sort of “autobiography,” in that she generally used Secchi’s own words with many long quotations from Secchi’s works and letters. The original Italian quotations are in the footnotes. The Secchi presented by Chinnici is “an intriguing figure, unusual for being both a Jesuit and a scientist, […] being forthright and outspoken, given sometimes to a lively polemical style, he easily attracted criticisms and disparagements.” Secchi battled against anti-clerical liberals on the one hand and dire-hard neo-Thomists on the other. As a well-known figure, Secchi was often the target of the anticlerical press whereas his book Sull’unità delle forze fisiche (The unity of physical forces) was denounced by neo-Thomists as dangerous to the Catholic faith. His relations with fellow scientists were less stressful.

Romeiras’s book centers on the teaching of science at the Colégio de Campolide (near Lisbon) and Colégio de São Fiel (on the outskirts of Castel Branco). The colleges were founded in 1858 and 1863 respectively. The background for the emphasis on science teaching in these schools can be traced back to Pombal’s smear campaign to discredit Jesuits before their expulsion in 1759. He denounced them for their alleged opposition to science. Anti-Jesuitism still permeated anticlerical circles in Portugal after the return of the Jesuits in 1858. In this hostile environment, Jesuits at these two colleges developed very progressive science curricula with the establishment of physics and chemistry laboratories and natural history museums. Among the professors the biologists Joaquim da Silva Tavares, Cândido Azevedo Mendes, and Carlos Zimmermann stand out. Romeiras reports how the rise of anticlericalism and anti-Jesuitism in late nineteenth-century Portugal ultimately resulted in another expulsion after the declaration of the republic in 1910. The schools were closed and the scientific material, including valuable natural history collections, especially Azevedo Mendes’s collection of moths and butterflies, and Zimmermann’s of diatoms were confiscated.

Romeiras dedicated considerable space to Brotéria, a journal founded in 1902. Brotéria is distinctive among Jesuit journals in that it began as a scientific journal dedicated to botany and zoology with a special interest in entomology and taxonomy. In 1907, a popular science series was added with a variety of subjects such as agriculture, commerce, medicine, and industry. This series ceased publication in 1924. Henceforth Brotéria was a cultural journal that continues until today. The scientific Brotéria continued up to 2002, the last twenty-two years dedicated to genetics, with Luis Archer, a pioneer of molecular genetics in Portugal, as director.

The two monographs investigate contemporary Jesuit involvement with the sciences, specifically their management and work in observatories and their teaching at colleges and universities. In 1824, the first Jesuit observatory was established at the Collegio Romano; seventy-six others followed. In the mid-nineteenth century few private institutions had observatories in Europe and North America; there were practically none in Africa, Asia, and Central and South America. The observatories were not only astronomical but also meteorological, seismological, and geomagnetic. Jesuits worked in the observatories principally before the Second World War. After 1970, for various and sundry reasons, many observatories were closed or their management given up by the Society. The one exception is the Vatican Observatory, a pontifical institution, where Jesuits continue their astronomical work. Since the Society’s restoration in 1814, Jesuits have been active in teaching science and scientific research. Mainly in the early part of the twentieth century, Jesuits contributed to the development of biology, especially in the fields of botany and entomology. Now, with very few exceptions, the professors of science at Jesuit universities and colleges are laymen and women.

Hence questions may remain after reading these excellent monographs: What had motivated Secchi and the Portuguese Jesuit biologists to engage in scientific work? There is no doubt that historical factors played an important role in the scientific work of the early Jesuits in that the era of the expansion of Jesuit education coincided with the beginning of modern science. Moreover, some specific elements of Jesuit or Ignatian spirituality should be considered in a reply. Ignatius of Loyola persistently urged that all, including science, must be done “for the greater glory of God.” Another significant Ignatian phrase is “finding God in all things,” including science. Thus, nothing, notwithstanding its profane nature, can be an occasion to finding God. Jerónimo Nadal, a companion of Ignatius coined the expression “contemplative at the same time in action,” meaning that Jesuits are called to find God not only in the silence of prayer but in action itself, for example, in scientific research.

Thus, teaching physics or biology or looking through a telescope in an observatory are activities perfectly compatible with a Jesuit’s vocation. Secchi and the Portuguese professors are just examples of this noble tradition.

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