Tuesday, September 14, 2010

In Memoriam: Pierre Duhem, September 14, 1916

Eternal rest grant unto thy servant Pierre, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him. May his soul and the souls of all the faithful departed through the mercy of God rest in peace. Amen.

On this day, 94 years ago, Pierre Duhem died. Today is also the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, and there is a fitting harmony here, though some may find it mysterious: a harmony between the Instrument of Salvation and this heroic historian of science. Let us of the Duhem Society, and all scholars, ponder this mystery: the cross is Defeat; the cross is Christ; the cross is the path to Science Writ Large. And if you need a starting point to link them, start in the Nicene Creed with the clause per quem omnia facta sunt = "through Him all things were made". Also see the quote from St. Paul given below by Father Jaki - one might give a series of lectures on the great truth that Jesus is Lord of Science and of Engineering just as much as He is Lord of Philosophy and Theology...

Let us also begin now to consider our plans - in six years we MUST have an international conference on Duhem. That's not very long, my friends; we must begin to plan for it. Perhaps two, one in Europe and one in America. But there must be a meeting, and lectures, and a publication. There is work to be done - I think specifically of translations and reprints (with commentaries). God willing we shall find a way of getting it done. Let us ask Duhem and Jaki to intercede for us, that God's will be done, whether in the lab or in the classroom, wherever we may be.

For your meditation, here is a fitting excerpt from Jaki's second book on Duhem.

--Dr. Thursday

Obviously, Duhem did not long for a fashionable and easy Christian faith and life. His life had too many trials to let him entertain illusions, especially their spiritual kinds. At the center of his religious life stood the cross of Christ. A proof of this is his obvious identification with two crosses in the outskirts of Cabrespine, the subject of two exquisite drawings of his. Ultimately, they are the most genuine context for putting Duhem on the scene of his life and work.

One of the crosses, the Croix d'Estresse (the cross of distress), he drew on September 4, 1912. His drawing of it has its own value for students of the history of art, as the cross is a rare example of crosses with a Pietà carved on their reverse side. The cross, erected in 1632, has since attracted many pilgrims. They still keep going to the place where it stood until about six years ago when it mysteriously disappeared while a new road was constructed to the property acquired by some from abroad. (Perhaps through this reference the Department of Aude will take note and appropriate action). Let it be hoped that Duhem's drawing of that cross will not become its sole detailed evidence and a painful reminder of widespread illegal trafficking in art objects in the region. In any case, the drawing by Duhem remains a lasting evidence of his spontaneous recourse to the Virgin invoked as the mother of all afflicted. It should not be difficult to evoke Duhem's sentiments as he drew the figure which in a kneeling position under the Pietà raises his hands in supplicant prayer towards the One of whom it was never heard that anyone turning to Her would have had his prayers unanswered.

The other cross, erected in 1638, a plain one in the midst of the communal field, Duhem drew on August 21, 1916, less than a month before his death. He made that simple cross speak by emphasizing its size. He did so by letting it be seen from an angle whereby it appears equal in height to the mountain behind and thus dominates the field. A purely artistic technique, but hardly in the case of Duhem who never pretended to show what he was not convinced about. He let his whole life be dominated by the cross, the very act that alone makes a Christian for whom "every treasure of wisdom and knowledge is deposited in Christ" (Col.2:3). It was through identification with Christ that Duhem's vast knowledge of science, including its philosophical and historical dimensions, took on a prophetic character.

[S. L. Jaki, Scientist and Catholic: Pierre Duhem 109-10]

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