Christian Anfinsen, Nobel laureate and theist

Christian Anfinsen, Nobel laureate and theist March 17, 2019

 

Dr. Christian B. Anfinsen
Christian Anfinsen (1916-1995), 1972 Nobel laureate in Chemistry
(Wikimedia Commons public domain image)

 

Christian Anfinsen (1916-1995) earned his doctorate in biochemistry at Harvard University in 1943.  At various points, he taught chemistry at the University of Pennsylvania (where he earned his master’s degree) and at Harvard (for seven years) and  worked as a researcher at Denmark’s Carlsberg University, the Heart Institute of National Institute of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, and the National Institute of Arthritis, Metabolism, and Digestive Diseases; and served as a professor of biology at Johns Hopkins University from 1982 until his death thirteen years later.  He was among the pioneers in the study of enzymes.

 

He was an editor of Advances in Protein Chemistry and served on the editorial board of the Journal of Biological Chemistry and was elected President of the American Society of Biological Chemists for the Academic Year 1971-72.

 

Along the way, while serving as president of that society, Dr. Anfinsen received the 1972 Nobel Prize in Chemistry “for his work on ribonuclease, especially concerning the connection between the amino acid sequence and the biologically active conformation.”

 

Until the late 1970s, Anfinsen described himself as an agnostic.  During the year after his divorce from his first wife in 1978, however, he met and married Libby Esther Schulman Ely and converted to her Orthodox Judaism.  Reportedly, he found Judaism philosophically interesting.   In any event, he remained a practicing traditional Jew for the rest of his life.  He had, he said in explanation, been profoundly impressed by “the history, practice, and intensity of Judaism.”

 

Another factor in his conversion may have been his own partially Jewish heritage:  On 16 November 1995, his widow delivered a speech in his honor at the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot, Israel, during the dedication of its Memorial Garden.  He had served as a member of the Weizmann Institute’s Board of Governors.  In her remarks, she said:

 

“His religious background is interesting in that his Jewish maternal grandmother’s family disappeared when the Nazis invaded Bergen, Norway. His parents were Bible reading Lutherans, and he himself was an agnostic until the later 70’s when he studied and converted to traditional Judaism. He felt the following quote from Einstein accurately expressed his beliefs. ‘The most beautiful and most profound emotion we can experience is the sensation of the mystical. It is the sower of all true science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead. That deeply emotional conviction of the presence of a superior reasoning power, which is revealed in the incomprehensible Universe, forms my idea of God.’ He xeroxed and distributed this quote to many.”

 

Direct evidence of his liking for the quotation comes in a letter that he himself sent to Professor Henry Margenau and Roy A. Varghese, the editors and compilers of the 1991 anthology Cosmos, Bios, Theos: Scientists Reflect on Science, God, and the Origins of the Universe, Life, and Homo Sapiens (where it is found on page 140):

 

“I enclose a favorite quotation from Einstein that agrees almost completely with my own point of view.

“Einstein himself once said that ‘The most beautiful and most profound emotion we can experience is the sensation of the mystical. It is the sower of all true science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead. That deeply emotional conviction of the presence of a superior reasoning power, which is revealed in the incomprehensible Universe, forms my idea of God’” (as cited in Margenau and Varghese, Cosmos, Bios, Theos, 140).

 

In a letter to Henry Margenau dated 28 March 1989, Anfinsen wrote:

 

“Thank you for your letter of March 13 and your kind words about my small contribution to your anthology. I can think of little more to add to my final point having to do with the nature of God and the existence of God. . . .  Clearly, an all-powerful, all-knowing entity must exist to explain our existence.”

 

Replying to a question from the book’s editors, Professor Anfinsen wrote as follows:

 

“I think only an idiot can be an atheist. We must admit that there exists an incomprehensible power or force with limitless foresight and knowledge that started the whole universe going in the first place.” (Anfinsen, as cited in Margenau and Varghese, Cosmos, Bios, Theos, 139).

 

I get something of an ironic kick out of that last remark, since I’m commonly accused of mean-spirited name-calling and vicious personal attacks.  Yet I’ve never said anything even remotely as rough as what Professor Anfinsen says.

 

Oh well.  It’s better to suffer as an innocent and maligned martyr, I suppose, than to have actually merited the charges made against me.

 

[A  note drawn from and paraphrasing “Nobel Laureate Christian B. Anfinsen on the Existence of GOD,” by Tihomir Dimitrov, http://2012daily.com/community/blogs/142]

 

 

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