Quakers in the World

Quakers in the World

Studying the Skies: Meteorology and Astronomy

 The spiritual values of Quakerism led many 19th C Quakers to closely observe God’s creation (as they saw it) in the natural world around them, especially in the fields of Botany, Meteorology and Astronomy. Barred initially from attending Universities in England, many were self-taught. The Quaker concept of continuing revelation fits well with the need for scientists to remain open to ideas and observations that challenge received wisdom.

In Cumbria in the northwest of England in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, a cluster of Quakers began recording observations of the weather and of the night skies.

Elihu Robinson (1734-1807), though less scientific in his approach than some of his successors, kept some of the earliest records of weather in Cumbria.

Robinson was a mentor to John Dalton (1766 – 1844), who, though better known for his discovery of the atom, kept meticulous meteorological records for over 60 years, enabling him to conclude that our atmosphere is composed of a mixture of gases exerting mechanical pressure.

Isaac Fletcher (1713-81) made observations of the night sky, including recording a transit of Venus in 1761 and a lunar eclipse in 1776. His grandson, also Isaac Fletcher (1827-79) built his own observatory at Tarn Bank, which he used to make measurements of binary stars. He was made a member of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1849 and of the Royal Society in 1855.

Another cousin, John Fletcher Miller (1816-1856) kept a detailed and meticulous meteorological record of the area around Whitehaven, where he lived, and did the same during travels to Australia and Chile. He established stations to measure rainfall at different altitudes around the Lake District, proving it to be one of the wettest places on earth.

Luke Howard (1772 – 1864) developed the system of cloud classification still in use today, using the Latin terminology stratus, cumulus, cirrus, and nimbus. Howard also wrote the first book on English urban climatology entitled ‘The Climate of London,’ which introduced new thinking on atmospheric electricity and the cause of rain. He also investigated the possibility of lunar influence on weather.

Charles May (1801-60) built instruments for the Astronomer Royal including a transit circle (for timing the passage of stars) and an altazimuth (a two-axis mount for supporting and rotating telescopes).

Other Quaker members of the Royal Astronomical Society from that period included William Allen, Isaac Brown, Joseph Gurney Barclay and Joseph Beck.

It is an indication of the level of interest among Quakers of this period that tables of meteorological observations were published in The Friend. These tables would typically use the Quaker style of numbering days of the week and months (e.g. the fourth day of the fifth month), to avoid the use of ‘heathen’ names.

Elizabeth Brown (1830 – 1899) began by helping her father, Isaac Brown, with his meteorological observations, and was elected one of the first women fellows of the Royal Meteorological Society. She made two lengthy expeditions to observe solar eclipses – one to Russia in 1887 and one to Trinidad in 1889 – which she described in her books In Pursuit of a Shadow and Caught in the Tropics.

Thomas William Backhouse (1842- 1919) built an observatory at his home, West Hendon House, Sunderland. From there he catalogued almost ten thousand stars visible to the naked eye.

Arthur Eddington (1882-1944) was the first British scientist to receive papers expounding Einstein’s theory of general relativity, and his observations of the solar eclipse in 1919 provided the first proof that light is subject to gravity. He found a close relationship between religious mysticism and the feeling of inspiration experienced by scientists on the cusp of a major breakthrough.

Lewis Fry Richardson (1881 – 1953) was a mathematician, physicist and pacifist regarded as the father of modern weather forecasting. His numerical method of forecasting, developed in the trenches of the First World War, only became a practical possibility with the advent of modern computers.

Jocelyn Bell Burnell (1943 - ), is a ground-breaking astrophysicist. Her discovery, as a PhD student, of pulsars (a class of rotating neutron stars) led to observations that helped confirm Einstein’s theory of gravitational waves. Burnell has spoken widely about the relationship between scientific method, with its concept of the provisional nature of scientific understanding, and her Quaker faith, with its concept of continuing revelation.

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Further Reading and Credits

Quakers, Jews, and Science: Religious Responses to Modernity and the Sciences in Britain, 1650-1900 by G. N. Cantor; OUP 2005