When I teach our Natural Sciences Capstone seminar class, I must give the graduating seniors a challenging, cumulative assignment, appropriate to a 1-credit seminar course that meets once a week. In my class, these opposing requirements are met by assigning them to write a two-page proposal for the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program (NSF GRFP), due at the end of the quarter.
My task in the first week is psychological: to calm their anxiety at this assignment. Even two pages is daunting because they must describe a novel research project, appropriate to a single graduate student, from hypothesis to expected results.
It’s the “novel” part that worries the students most, I think. They are familiar with reading articles and writing reports, but not with writing grants. So, I tell them those are the same thing and that one leads to the other. In fact, they can stand on the shoulders of giants, by extending published ideas. No one writes grants ex nihilo, after all.
Because we take ten weeks to complete the proposal, it’s a slow-growth process. The goal is the finished proposal—the fruit of the students’ labor—and each week they take a step toward that goal. Students survey the literature, outline the steps of a controlled experiment, and predict its results. To reach the goal, they can’t just scatter seed—they need to plant it in ordered rows.
I have to watch out for students who are paralyzed by this assignment. When all of science is open to you, the sheer number of possible experiments can be terrifying. I tell them to try building on a past project: a lab experiment from class, or their independent research. I also expand the fields of study beyond what the NSF allows, so that they can complete a project aligned with their future career, such as clinical or educational research.
Both of these changes help the students to see the end of their project more clearly, either because they’ve already completed a similar experiment or because they have already envisioned themselves working in a clinic or classroom. Either way, they have an idea of what to expect. Planning experiments requires a vision of the future.
Anticipating the future, even partially, is difficult but essential to science. Hindsight identifies figures like Francis Bacon, The Man Who Saw Through Time, according to Loren Eiseley’s biography (which verges on hagiography).1 Bacon, for better and for worse, had a “total vision of what science and the experimental method could achieve over the centuries.”2 Bacon’s “vast vision” would encompass the NSF GRFP assignment, both in “promoting government-supported research” leading to agencies like the NSF, and in emphasizing the centrality of experimental science to education.
Bacon’s inductive method led to an age of relentless scientific interrogation of nature, inspiring experimentalists like Jan Baptista van Helmont. Perhaps van Helmont’s most famous experiment started when he planted a tree in exactly 200 pounds of earth. He intended to contradict the Aristotelian view that most of the tree’s mass was earth by showing “that all Vegetables do immediately, and materially proceed out of the Element of Water only.”3
Van Helmont “saw through time” and anticipated that the tree would gain mass, while the earth would neither gain nor lose. Five years later, he found what he predicted: the tree weighed 169 pounds, but the earth still weighed “the same 200 pounds, wanting about two ounces.” Van Helmont, following the methods of science, had isolated and measured a system to overturn received wisdom.4 Like Bacon, he makes for a convenient secular saint: he was even persecuted by the Spanish Inquisition, although the reasons why are more complicated than popular accounts suggest.
The tree was van Helmont’s original experiment, but it was not van Helmont’s original hypothesis. Two centuries before van Helmont weighed that tree, and a century before Bacon wrote of the scientific method, van Helmont’s experiment was itself anticipated by the late-medieval bishop Nicholas of Cusa.5 Nicholas wrote of a similar experiment in such detail that, to me, it reads like an NSF GRFP. And he did so not in spite of his faith, but because of it.
In Idiota de Staticis Experimentis (1450–53), Nicholas writes of the knowledge that can be gained by weighing materials precisely: “If a man should put an hundred weight of earth into a great earthen pot,” then plant seeds, let them grow, and remove the plants, “hee would finde the earth but very little diminished, when he came to weigh it againe: by which he might gather, that all the aforesaid herbs, had their weigh from the water.”6
Nicholas doesn’t say that he actually did this experiment, although he’s awfully specific and certain. If he did, his experiment may not have been as well-controlled as van Helmont’s. Yet Nicholas clearly got the right answer, and even exceeded van Helmont’s understanding by including “an anticipation of the role of light in plant nutrition” and suggesting that “some further knowledge might be gained from ashing the plants.”7
This last suggestion, if followed, could have been revolutionary. It could lead to the knowledge that most of the tree’s material wasn’t transmuted from water, but from air. But those experiments would have to wait a few centuries.
More important to Nicholas (and to us, I’d argue) is that he interpreted the growth of a plant theologically as well as scientifically. Nicholas rightly saw the end result of the scientific experiment—so perhaps he rightly saw the end result of its theological meaning, which is the more important of the two to him.8
Both scientific and theological meanings are tied up with Nicholas’s method of seeing. In Chapter 7 of The Vision of God—titled “What is the Fruit of Seeing Face to Face and How is it to be Had?”—Nicholas describes looking at a simple seed and seeing the tree and fruit that will come from it.9 This is seeing the future, so that Nicholas is literally “The Man Who Saw Through Time.”
Thomas Pfau writes that that Nicholas did not simply perceive the tree “in its contingent three-dimensionality” but grasped in four dimensions “its teleological constitution . . . having fully realized its invisible form.”10 (The fourth dimension is time.) Nicholas saw the end in the beginning, and the fruit in the seed, because of his conviction that God sees all ends. The Sower sees the fruit that will come from the seed He has sown.
Nicholas made it clear that God is the only One who truly sees the future fruit: “in the seed I perceive the tree, ‘tis yet in a limited power only.”11 So I expect that Nicholas wouldn’t be bothered by his wrong idea that trees came from water but would be busy asking about how it could be that they come from air. (It would delight me to explain that part of this power comes from magnesium—as soon as I explain what magnesium is!) Nicholas’s hypothesis bore good fruit, even if it was unexpected.
Nicholas gave a theological framework for looking at a painting, for listening to a song, and for watching a tree grow (or more generally, for examining any part of nature with rigor). Since both nature and my mind were made by the One God, Nicholas trusted that the regular patterns he saw in nature are authentic, if partial, expressions of eternal truth: “I may perceive Thine Absolute Face to be the natural face of all nature, to be the face which is the Absolute Being of all being, to be art, and the knowledge of all that may be known.”12
When I design experiments like Bacon but interpret them like Nicholas, the seeming opposites of science and faith coincide. I can interpret my experiments like Nicholas did his. I know that all this matters, and that I can turn to God in struggle. Basically, I can have hope.
So, if the NSF GRFP is a small exercise in science, it is also a small exercise in hope. In some cases, the mind disciplined by science can see through the fog of a dynamic but deceptive world, piercing down to the unchanging, predictable laws of nature. Nicholas shows us how to place this effective, but limited, scientific method into a theological context so that it serves us, rather than we serving it. Acts of planning and performing science, both great and small, participate in this hope—even writing a two-page NSF GRFP research proposal.
- Loren C. Eiseley, The Man Who Saw Through Time (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1973).
- Eiseley, The Man Who Saw Through Time, 37.
- Steffen Ducheyne, “Joan Baptiste van Helmont and the question of experimental modernism,” Physis, Rivista Internazionale di Storia della Scienza, 42 (2005): 305–332.
- The truth is even stranger—most of a tree’s mass comes from air! “About half a tree’s dry weight is carbon” originally from CO2. As explained and calculated by UCSB ScienceLine at http://scienceline.ucsb.edu/getkey.php?key=6685.
- Possibly anticipated a thousand years before by the author of the pseudo-Clementine Recognitions. Herbert M. Howe, “A rRot of Van Helmont’s Tree,” Isis 56, no. 4 (1965): 408–419.
- A. D. Krikorian and F. C. Steward, “Water and Solutes in Plant Nutrition: With Special Reference to Van Helmont and Nicholas of Cusa,” BioScience 18, no. 4 (1968): 286–292.
- Krikorian and Steward, “Water and Solutes,” 289.
- This is not an airtight argument, but more of a correlation or suggestion; right science does not always lead to right theology! Yet might it not sometimes correlate?
- “[T]hat tree existed in its seed, not as I now behold it, but potentially. I consider with care the marvellous might of that seed, wherein the entire tree, . . . and all trees, existed.“ Nicholas of Cusa, The Vision of God, (New York: Cosimo, 2016), 28.
- Thomas Pfau. Incomprehensible Certainty: Metaphysics and Hermeneutics of the Image (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2022), 406.
- Nicholas of Cusa, The Vision of God, 29.
- Nicholas of Cusa, The Vision of God, 31.