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January 10, 2017

How an American astronomer's scientific conversion set the foundation for bridging Darwin's gap.


In science, it's remarkable how often the expression of the idea that something is impossible to achieve simultaneously plants the slow-germinating seed for its discovery.


Take for example Charles Darwin dismissal of the immediate possibility of learning about the origins of life, what I've called Darwin's Gap.


Darwin saw a gap, and unwittingly provided a bridge at the same time.


His theory of natural selection deeply inspired the scientists who set the foundation for current origins of life research.


For one young American, crossing this scientific bridge required a profound come to science moment.



Most histories don't remember George Ellery Hale as one of Darwin's great disciples.


After all, Hale was an astrophysicist and eventually the world's greatest telescope builder, ever. Over the course of 60-years, he imagined and guided the construction of the four consecutively largest telescopes on Earth.


Yet it was also Hale who deliberately extended Darwinian thinking to the stars, and thus set the groundwork for thinking about the origins of life in a cosmic context.


This all hinged on Hale's come to science moment.


Raised in Chicago, Hale was a freshman student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1886. He was already deeply sci-curious; as a teen he'd already built his own chemistry lab and observatory. And he'd begun a life-long devotion to stellar spectroscopy, to teasing apart the


Sun's light to understand its fundamental nature.


At MIT, living away from home for the first time, the 19-year-old experienced what many college students do: hearing his own voice more clearly and needing to square this with his parents' beliefs.


For Hale this came to a head with his family's fundamentalist Calvinist culture. Both his maternal and paternal grandfathers were Congregational Ministers.


His mother, Mary, grew-up in a home "dominated by an avenging God, which would have saddened the gayest child and which inevitably darkened her outlook on life and colored the religious upbringing of her own children," according to Hale biographer Helen Wright.


Hale's mother conveyed a deep devotion to Biblical absolutism and told George that Darwinian theory was heretical.


At MIT, Hale wasn't drawn to freshman partying, but another part of him let loose: He began to doubt the literal truth of fundamentalism.


As he took part in daily morning prayers in the evangelical home at which he boarded, the young man felt profound guilt over what he experience as a growing divide with his family culture. He became deeply depressed.


Hale was caught between the intellectual demands of received truth and perceived truth. Of what he read in the Bible, and what he'd begun to see and discover with his own eyes.


This came to a head in the fall of 1886, when he attended a talk Darwinism and Some of Its Applications by the visiting British naturalist Alfred Russell Wallace at Boston's Lowell Institute.


Wallace explained that "just as Copernicus and Galileo had dislodged the earth from its central place in the universe, so Darwin had eliminated man as an object of special creation and made him merely a part of the vast evolutionary scheme of the universe."


For Hale it was a conversion.


He realized that the telescope and spectrograph provided a path to observed truth. And evolutionary theory provided the larger framework, a network of connections to be explored in an effort to extend Darwin to the stars and elucidate a new creation story for a new scientific age.



"We are now in a position to regard the study of evolution as that of a single great problem, beginning with the origin of the stars in the nebulae and culminating in those difficult and complex sciences that endeavor to account for, not merely the phenomenon of life, but for the laws which control a society composed of human beings," Hale wrote in The Study of Stellar Evolution.


Hale's observatories, particularly the Mount Wilson Observatory, provided the key observations for the rise of the sciences of astrochemistry and astrobiology, today cornerstones of origins of life research.


In the process of his scientific conversion, Hale was comforted and guided by Thomas Huxley's ("Darwin's bulldog") insistence, shared by Wallace and Darwin himself, that "a deep sense of religion is quite compatible with an entire absence of theology."


This is a lovely quote worth repeating: "a deep sense of religion is quite compatible with an entire absence of theology."


Hale could follow his searcher's spirit and believe his eyes, without doubting a connection with the divine.

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