Thomas Romney Robinson
Thomas Romney Robinson (23 April 1792 - 28 February 1882) was a 19th-century astronomer and physicist; an Anglican Reverend, the longtime director of the Armagh Astronomical Observatory, one of the chief astronomical observatories in the UK of its time. He was a winner of the Royal Medal, and President of the British Association for the Advancement of Science.
- Let me remind you that science is not necessarily wisdom. To know, is not the sole nor even the highest office of the intellect ; and it loses all its glory unless it act in furtherance of the great end of man's life. That end is, as both reason and revelation unite in telling us, to acquire the feelings and habits that will lead us to love and seek what is good in all its forms, and guide us by following its traces to the first Great Cause of all, where only we find it pure and unclouded.
If science be cultivated in congruity with this, it is the most precious possession we can have— the most divine endowment. But if it be perverted to minister to any wicked or ignoble purpose — if it even be permitted to take too absolute a hold of the mind, or overshadow that which should be paramount over all, the perception of right, the sense of Duty — if it does not increase in us the consciousness of an Almighty and All-beneficent presence, — it lowers instead of raising us in the great scale of existence.
This, however, it can never do but by our fault. All its tendencies are heavenward ; every new fact which it reveals is a ray from the origin of light, which leads us to its source. If any think otherwise, their knowledge is imperfect, or their understanding warped, or darkened by their passions. The book of nature is, like that of revelation, written by God, and therefore cannot contradict it ; both we are unable to read through all their extent, and therefore should neither wonder nor be alarmed if at times we miss the pages which reconcile any seeming inconsistence. In both, too, we may fail to interpret rightly that which is recorded ; but be assured, if we search them in quest of truth alone, each will bear witness to the other, — and physical knowledge, instead of being hostile to religion, will be found its most powerful ally, its most useful servant. Many, I know, think otherwise ; and because attempts have occasionally been made to draw from astronomy, from geology, from the modes of the growth and formation of animals and plants, arguments against the divine origin of the sacred Scripture, or even to substitute for the creative will of an intelligent first cause the blind and casual evolution of some agency of a material system, they would reject their study as fraught with danger. In this I must express my deep conviction that they do injury to that very cause which they think they are serving.
Time will not let me touch further on the cavils and errors in question ; and besides they have been often fully answered. I will only say, that I am here surrounded by many, matchless in the sciences which are supposed so dangerous, and not less conspicuous for truth and piety. If they find no discord between faith and knowledge, why should you or any suppose it to exist ? On the contrary, they cannot be well separated. We must know that God is, before we can confess Him ; we must know that He is wise and powerful before we can trust in Him, — that He is good before we can love Him. All these attributes, the study of His works had made known before He gave that more perfect knowledge of himself with which we are blessed. Among the Semitic tribes his names betoken exalted nature and resistless power; among the Hellenic races they denote his wisdom; but that which we inherit from our northern ancestors denotes his goodness. All these the more perfect researches of modern science bring out in ever-increasing splendour, and I cannot conceive anything that more effectually brings home to the mind the absolute omnipresence of the Deity than high physical knowledge. I fear I have too long trespassed on your patience, yet let me point out to you a few examples.
What can fill us with an overwhelming sense of His infinite wisdom like the telescope? As you sound with it the fathomless abyss of stars, till all measure of distances seems to fail and imagination alone gauges the distance ; yet even there as here is the same divine harmony of forces, the same perfect conservation of systems, which the being able to trace in the pages of Newton or Laplace makes us feel as if we were more than men. If it is such a triumph of intellect to trace this law of the universe, how transcendent must that Greatest over all be, in which it and many like it, have their existence! That instrument tells us that the globe which we inhabit is but a speck, the existence of which cannot be perceived beyond our system. Can we then hope that in this immensity of worlds we shall not be overlooked? The microscope will answer. If the telescope lead to one verge of infinity, it brings us to the other ; and shows us that down in the very twilight of visibility the living points which it discloses are fashioned with the most finished perfection, — that the most marvellous contrivances minister to their preservation and their enjoyment, — that as nothing is too vast for the Creator's control, so nothing is too minute or trifling for His care. At every turn the philosopher meets facts which show that man's Creator is also his Father, — things which seem to contain a special provision for his use and his happiness : but I will take only two, from their special relation to this very district. Is it possible to consider the properties which distinguish iron from other metals without a conviction that those qualities were given to it that it might be useful to man, whatever other purposes might be answered by them. That it should.be ductile and plastic while influenced by heat, capable of being welded, and yet by a slight chemical change capable of adamantine hardness, — and that the metal which alone possesses properties so precious should be the most abundant of all, — must seem, as it is, a miracle of bounty. And not less marvellous is the prescient kindness which stored up in your coalfields the exuberant vegetation of the ancient world, under circumstances which preserved this precious magazine of wealth and power, not merely till He had placed on earth beings who would use it, but even to a late period of their existence, lest the element that was to develope to the utmost their civilization and energy migbt be wasted or abused.
But I must conclude with this summary of all which I would wish to impress on your minds—* that the more we know His works the nearer we are to Him. Such knowledge pleases Him ; it is bright and holy, it is our purest happiness here, and will assuredly follow us into another life if rightly sought in this. May He guide us in its pursuit ; and in particular, may this meeting which I have attempted to open in His name, be successful and prosperous, so that in future years they who follow me in this high office may refer to it as one to be remembered with unmixed satisfaction.
- Robinson in his 1849 adress, as quoted in the Report of the Nineteenth Meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, London, 1850.