January 1

    Stephen Hawking

    On this date in 1942, cosmologist Stephen Hawking was born in Oxford, England, “300 years after the death of Galileo,” as he once noted. He attended Oxford, studying physics, then earned his Ph.D. in cosmology at Cambridge. By his 21st birthday he had been diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s disease).

    Despite his disability, which confined him to a wheelchair and forced him to rely on mechanized speech, Hawking became a research fellow, worked at the Institute of Astronomy, and in 1973 joined the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics at Cambridge.

    Hawking is celebrated for his work on unifying General Relativity with Quantum Theory. His popular science books include A Brief History of Time, Black Holes and Baby Universes and Other Essays and The Universe in a Nutshell. Although some rationalists have been disappointed in his tendency to use the term “god” too loosely as a metaphor, Hawking made it clear he did not believe in a personal god.

    In an interview with Diane Sawyer on ABC News (June 7, 2010), Hawking said, “There is a fundamental difference between religion, which is based on authority, [and] science, which is based on observation and reason. Science will win because it works.”

    In his follow-up book The Grand Design (2010), Hawking and co-author Caltech physicist Leonard Mlodinow wrote that “God” is not necessary: “Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.”

    In an interview with the Spanish newspaper El Mundo (Nov. 6, 2015), Hawking was more forthright about declaring his atheism: “Before we understand science, it is natural to believe that God created the universe. But now science offers a more convincing explanation. What I meant by ‘we would know the mind of God’ is, we would know everything that God would know, if there were a God, which there isn’t. I’m an atheist (Soy ateo).”

    In his last book, Brief Answers to the Big Questions, published posthumously in 2018, Hawking wrote, “There is no God. No one directs the universe.” Included in his parting advice: “Remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see and wonder about what makes the universe exist. Be curious. And however difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at.”

    Hawking met Jane Wilde in 1962, the year before his motor neuron diagnosis. They married in 1965 and had three children: Robert (1967), Lucy (1969) and Timothy (1979). His poor health and her strong Christian beliefs led to their divorce in 1995, after which he soon married Elaine Mason, one of his nurses.

    After their divorce in 2006, Hawking resumed closer relationships with Jane and his children. Her book Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen was published in 2007 and was made into a film, “The Theory of Everything,” in 2014.

    Hawking died at his home in Cambridge at age 76 on March 14, 2018. His ashes were interred in Westminster Abbey’s nave between the graves of Sir Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin.

    NASA public domain photo

    “All that my work has shown is that you don’t have to say that the way the universe began was the personal whim of God.”

    —Hawking, "Black Holes and Baby Universes and Other Essays" (1993)
    Compiled by Annie Laurie Gaylor

    Garrett Lisi

    Garrett Lisi

    On this date in 1968, Antony Garrett Lisi was born in Los Angeles. He earned B.S. degrees in physics and mathematics from the University of California at Los Angeles in 1991 and received his Ph.D. in physics from the University of California at San Diego in 1999. After graduation he moved to Hawaii and worked as a snowboard instructor and hiking guide. Lisi briefly taught at the University of Hawaii at Maui in 2005 before deciding to pursue independent research.

    He authored the paper “An Exceptionally Simple Theory of Everything,” published on the online database arXiv on Nov. 6, 2007. The Theory of Everything, also called the E8 Theory, unites the electromagnetic force, strong force and weak force, as well as gravity and all elementary particles, through the use of the mathematical structure E8. It is an alternative to the popular string theory, which purports that these forces and particles are united by a complex system of vibrating strings.

    The New Yorker called Lisi a “committed atheist” in its issue of July 21, 2008. In 2011 and 2012 he co-hosted “Invention USA,” a History channel documentary series. He lives with his longtime girlfriend, Crystal Baranyk, an artist.

    PHOTO: By Cjean42 of Lisi being interviewed in Los Angeles in 2011. CC 3.0

    “Lisi, an atheist, says the whole notion of God misses the point. He’s not after the creator of the universe — he’s after the universe itself. Everything.”

    —Lisi profile, Maui Time (Feb. 16, 2011)
    Compiled by Sabrina Gaylor

    Victor Stenger

    Victor Stenger

    On this date in 1935, particle physicist, author and skeptic Victor John Stenger was born in Bayonne, New Jersey. Stenger, the son of a first-generation Lithuanian immigrant and a second-generation Hungarian immigrant, grew up in a Catholic neighborhood. He earned a bachelor’s in electrical engineering from Newark College of Engineering and a master’s in physics from UCLA, followed by a Ph.D. After taking a position on the University of Hawaii faculty, Stenger began a long and influential career during one of the most exciting times for physics in history.

    His experiments helped establish standard models in physics, examining and uncovering the properties of quarks, gluons, neutrinos and “strange” particles. Stenger also made contributions to the emerging fields of high-energy gamma ray and neutrino astronomy. In his last major research endeavor before retiring in Colorado in 2000, Stenger collaborated on a project in Japan that demonstrated for the first time that the neutrino has mass. The project’s head researcher won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2002.

    In addition to his numerous and influential peer-reviewed articles, Stenger wrote 12 books, including the 2007 bestseller God: The Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows that God Does Not Exist. Some of his other titles include Not By Design: The Origin of the Universe (1988), The Unconscious Quantum: Metaphysics in Modern Physics and Cosmology (1995), The New Atheism: Taking a Stand for Science and Reason (2009), The Fallacy of Fine-Tuning: Why the Universe Is Not Designed for Us (2011), and God and the Folly of Faith: The Fundamental Incompatibility of Religion and Science and Why It Matters (2012).

    Stenger’s work hinged on the interplay between philosophy, particle physics, quantum mechanics and religion. He was a self-professed skeptic and atheist, maintaining that all things in existence — including consciousness and the subjective illusion of libertarian free will — may be revealed and described by rational scientific inquiry without resorting to supernatural explanations, the meaning of which are empty, useless, unproductive and put a crippling end to intellectual progress.

    In order to champion these causes, Stenger pursued public speaking, debating prominent Christian apologists and participating in the 2008 “Origins Conference” hosted by the Skeptics Society. Stenger was a member of a number of skeptics and humanist organizations, including presidential stints with the Hawaiian Humanists from 1990-94 and the Colorado Citizens for Science from 2002-06.

    He was an honorary director of FFRF, a member of the Society of Humanist Philosophers and the Free Inquiry editorial board, and a fellow of the Center for Inquiry and the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. Among a number of visiting positions, Stenger was an adjunct professor of philosophy at the University of Colorado and an emeritus professor of physics at the University of Hawaii. Stenger lived with his wife Phylliss, whom he married in 1962. They had two children. (D. 2014)

    PHOTO: Licensed under CC BY 3.0.

    “Science flies you to the moon. Religion flies you into buildings.”

    —Stenger, who suggested this slogan post-9/11 after ideas for bus signs were solicited by the Richard Dawkins Foundation.
    Compiled by Noah Bunnell

    Jacques Monod

    Jacques Monod

    On this date in 1910, French biologist and Nobel Prize winner Jacques Lucien Monod was born in Paris to an American mother (Charlotte MacGregor Todd from Milwaukee) and a French Huguenot father, Lucien Monod, who was a painter and inspired him artistically and intellectually. In his doctoral work at the Sorbonne, Monod coined the term diauxie, meaning two growth phases, to describe different growth patterns he observed in bacteria. Monod is most famous for discovering, along with Francois Jacob and Andre Lwoff, the Lac operon feedback mechanism in living cells.

    Monod received the 1963 Legion d’honneur, the highest decoration in France, for the operon theory of genetic control. The 1965 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded jointly to Monod, Jacob and Lwoff “for their discoveries concerning genetic control of enzyme and virus synthesis,” according to the Nobel Foundation website. Monod was among the first to suggest the existence of messenger RNA molecules. He’s considered one of the founders of molecular biology.

    In addition to his scientific work, Monod was a talented musician and wrote on the philosophy of science. In his 1971 book, Chance and Necessity, he expounded on “an entirely non-providential view of the biological world as the mere product of chance and necessity, and proposed that the natural sciences reveal a purposeless world which entirely undercuts the tradition claims of religions.” (Cambridge University website, “Investigating Atheism.”)

    In 1938 Monod married Odette Bruhl, an archaeologist and curator of the Guimet Museum in Paris. Their twin sons became a geologist and a physicist. He died of leukemia at age 66 and is buried in Cannes on the French Riviera. (D. 1976)

    “As nontheists, we begin with humans not God, nature not deity.”

    —Humanist Manifesto II (1973), of which Monod was one of the signatories when he was at the Institut Pasteur.
    Compiled by Bonnie Gutsch

    Charles Darwin

    Charles Darwin

    On this date in 1809, Charles Robert Darwin was born in England. He prepared for the Church at Cambridge, but his passion was natural history. During his work as a naturalist on the sailing ship the Beagle, he began documenting and formulating his theory of evolution. At the time he wrote the monumental On the Origin of Species (1859), he still accepted the “First Cause” argument. Gradually he threw off his religious beliefs. In his Descent of Man (1871), Darwin wrote: “Many existing superstitions are the remnants of former false religious beliefs. The highest form of religion — the grand idea of God hating sin and loving righteousness — was unknown during primeval times.”

    He wrote the Rev. J. Fordyce on July 7, 1879, that “an agnostic would be the most correct description of my state of mind.” Darwin penned his memoirs between the ages of 67 and 73, finishing the main text in 1876. These memoirs were published posthumously in 1887 by his family under the title Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, with his hardest-hitting views on religion excised. Only in 1958 did Darwin’s granddaughter Nora Barlow publish his Autobiography with original omissions restored (see excerpt below). (D. 1882)

    “I can indeed hardly see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be true; for if so the plain language of the text seems to show that the men who do not believe, and this would include my Father, Brother, and almost all my best friends, will be everlastingly punished. And this is a damnable doctrine.”

    —"The Autobiography of Charles Darwin" (1887)

    Galileo Galilei

    Galileo Galilei

    On this date in 1564, Galileo Galilei was born in Pisa, Italy. Galileo was appointed professor of mathematics at the University of Padua, where he lectured for 18 years. Galileo pioneered the experimental scientific method, building a thermoscope, constructing a geometrical and military compass and building an improved telescope. His observations of the satellites of Jupiter, sunspots, mountains and valleys on the moon made him a celebrity, but his Copernican views were investigated and condemned by the Catholic Church.

    Diplomatically seeking church permission, he published “The Assayer,” (1623) describing his scientific method, which was tactfully dedicated to Pope Urban VIII. It took Galileo nearly two years to persuade the church to permit him to publish “Dialogue on the two Chief Systems of the World — Ptolemaic and Copernican” (1632), in which he wrote about impetus, momentum and gravity. The Holy Office banned the book, summoning the frail scientist to Rome for trial. Galileo was ordered to retract his theory and was condemned to house arrest for the rest of his life. Three hundred and fifty years after his death, the Catholic Church “forgave” Galileo. D. 1642.

    “I have been … suspected of heresy, that is, of having held and believed that the Sun is the center of the universe and immovable, and that the earth is not the center of the same, and that it does move. … I abjure with a sincere heart and unfeigned faith, I curse and detest the said errors and heresies, and generally all and every error and sect contrary to the Holy Catholic Church.”

    —Galilei's "Recantation" (June 22, 1633)

    Sir Francis Galton

    Sir Francis Galton

    On this date in 1822, Sir Francis Galton was born in Birmingham, England. The grandson of Erasmus Darwin and cousin of Charles, he was educated in mathematics at Cambridge. An inheritance in 1844 left him free to travel widely. He became a famous explorer, writing several books about his travels in Syria, Egypt and southwest Africa.

    In 1863 he became general secretary of the British Association and published a book on weather mapping. His Hereditary Genius was published in 1865. Galton coined the term “eugenics,” defining it very differently from its current meaning. Galton founded a eugenics research fellowship and chair at University College. He also coined the term “nature versus nurture.” His study “Statistical Inquiries into the Efficacy of Prayer” was published in the Aug. 1, 1872, issue of Fortnightly View.

    Galton charmingly showed how royalty, the most-prayed-for people in the world, “are literally the shortest lived” of the affluent. Galton observed: “It is a common week-day opinion of the world that praying people are not practical.” He made scholarly contributions to fields as diverse as fingerprinting and psychology. D. 1911.

    “Your book drove away the constraint of my old superstition, as if it had been a nightmare.”

    —Galton letter to Charles Darwin, recorded in "Life and Letters of F. Galton" (1914)

    Svante August Arrhenius

    Svante August Arrhenius

    On this date in 1859, physical chemist and Nobel Prize winner Svante August Arrhenius was born in Sweden. He studied at Upsala University, then under a professor in Stockholm. His 1884 thesis, on the galvanic conductivity of electrolyes, won him the first docentship at Uppsala in physical chemistry, a new branch of science. Arrhenius was also awarded a traveling fellowship and worked with scientists throughout Europe.

    He was appointed a physics lecturer in 1891 at Stockholm University College. Arrhenius in 1896 was the first to identify the relationship between the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and global temperatures, with a rise in the percentage of carbon dioxide tied to a rise in temperature. His work played an important role in the emergence of modern climate science.

    He won the Nobel Prize for chemical research in 1903 for originating the theory of electrolytic dissociation, or ionization. He also investigated osmosis, toxins and antitoxins. He was offered the position of chief of the Nobel Institute for Physical Chemistry, founded just for him.

    Arrhenius wrote classic textbooks in his field, which were translated into many languages, and popularized science for the general public with such books as The Destinies of the Stars (1919). His wide interests in science were exemplified by his contributions to the understanding of such phenomena as the Northern Lights. In 1914 he was awarded the Faraday Medal of the Chemical Society.

    During World War I he worked to get the release of many German and Austrian scientists who had been made prisoners of war. According to freethought historian Joseph McCabe, Arrhenius was a monist. However, Gordon Stein in The Encyclopedia of Unbelief (1988) said he was “a declared atheist.”

    He was married twice, first to his former pupil Sofia Rudbeck (1894-96), with whom he had a son, Olof, and then to Maria Johansson (1905-27), with whom he had two daughters and a son. (D. 1927)

    Compiled by Annie Laurie Gaylor

    Linus Pauling

    Linus Pauling

    On this date in 1901, scientist and peace activist Linus Carl Pauling was born in Portland, Ore, to Herman and Lucy (Darling) Pauling. His parents, of German Lutheran background, weren’t especially active in church affairs. His father died when Pauling was 9. He studied chemistry at Oregon Agricultural College, where he met his future wife, Ava Helen Miller, with whom he would have four children. In 1922 he enrolled at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), where he earned a Ph.D. in chemistry and then joined the faculty.

    He would go on to become the only person to receive two unshared Nobel Prizes: Chemistry (1954) and Peace (1962) and is considered a founding father of quantum chemistry and molecular biology. His crowning achievement was to explain the carbon bonding in molecules such as methane. He later taught at the University of California-San Diego and at Stanford University.

    The advent of the nuclear age turned the Paulings into peace activists who traveled and spoke widely. They eventually joined the Unitarian Church but Pauling was not interested in theology. On “The Phil Donahue Show” in 1967, Donahue asked him if he believed in God. Pauling replied, “No, I do not.”

    In accepting the Nobel Prize for Peace for 1962, he said, “The only sane policy for the world is that of abolishing war.” The award recognized his six-year campaign to persuade the U.S., Great Britain and the Soviet Union to sign a nuclear test ban. Minimizing suffering was the key to ethics, he believed. He was named Humanist of the Year by the American Humanist Association in 1961.

    He died of prostate cancer at age 93 at home in Big Sur, Calif. (D. 1994)

    “I am not, however, militant in my atheism. The great English theoretical physicist Paul Dirac is a militant atheist. I suppose he is interested in arguing about the existence of God. I am not.”

    —Pauling, quoted in "A Lifelong Quest for Peace: A Dialogue" by Daisaku Ikeda (1992)

    Gerald H.F. Gardner

    Gerald H.F. Gardner

    On this date in 1926, mathematician Gerald Henry Frazier Gardner was born in Tullamore, Ireland. He studied mathematics and theoretical physics at Dublin’s Trinity College. He earned a master’s in applied mathematics from Carnegie Institute of Technology (1949) and a doctorate in mathematical physics from Princeton (1953). Gardner worked in applied seismology for several decades and taught at Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University), Rice University and the University of Houston.

    Gardner actively pursued equal rights for women. Along with his wife, the former Jo Ann Evans, he was an early member of the Pittsburgh chapter of the National Organization for Women. Evans, a Ph.D. experimental psychologist, adopted the surname Evansgardner when they married in 1950.

    Gardner and the chapter in 1969 challenged sex-based employment ads in the Pittsburgh Press. Employment want ads used to list separate categories for “Male Wanted” and “Female Wanted,” which barred women from much professional work. Gardner specifically provided statistical analysis of the likelihood of women finding employment in such a structure. This led to a landmark women’s rights decision in 1973 by the U.S. Supreme Court, which upheld a Pittsburgh ordinance that prohibited sex-based employment advertisements.

    As a result, want ads were “desexregated” around the nation, a huge boon for women’s employment rights. Gardner contributed statistical analysis in other cases involving gender and race discrimination and considered this work the most important of his life (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, July 27, 2009.) He and his wife were Life Members who joined FFRF in the late 1970s and left a generous bequest. Gardner died of leukemia at age 83 in 2009. Jo Ann died in 2010.

    He “was an activist atheist, a proselytizing atheist. He thought that not saying you were an atheist hurt the cause of reality.”

    —Jo Ann Evansgardner, remembering her husband in his New York Times obituary (July 28, 2009)
    Compiled by Bonnie Gutsch

    Brian Cox

    Brian Cox

    On this date in 1968, Brian Edward Cox was born in Lancashire, England. After completing his secondary education, Cox joined the rock band Dare as a keyboardist. Following the band’s breakup, Cox enrolled at the University of Manchester to study physics. He continued his career in music, playing with the pop band D:Ream, while receiving his B.Sc. and M.Phil degrees. D:Ream had several hits on the UK charts, including “Things Can Only Get Better,” a No. 1 hit.

    As of this writing he works as a particle physicist at the University of Manchester and at the Large Hadron Collider near Geneva, Switzerland. He married Gia Milinovich in 2003 and they have one child. He was elected in 2016 as a Fellow of the Royal Society, the UK’s national academy of sciences. 

    Cox is best known for his science outreach to the general public and has appeared on numerous BBC television and radio programs. Cox also lectures widely, has given several TED talks, and has co-authored several books about physics, including 2009’s Why Does E=mc²? (And Why Should We Care?).

    Cox is a strong advocate for science education and government funding of scientific research. Asked by the Guardian (March 6, 2010) if he has “ever believed in God,” Cox replied, “No! I was sent to Sunday school for a few weeks but I didn’t like getting up on Sunday mornings. But some of my friends are religious. I don’t have a strong view on religion, other than illogical religion. Young earth creationism, for example: bollocks.”

    Cox says the label of atheist does not apply to him because there is so much that is unknowable. His story “The Large Hadron Collider: A Scientific Creation Story” was one of 42 included in “The Atheist’s Guide to Christmas” in 2009. From the essay: “When the pattern of atoms known as you ceases to be, the building blocks will return to the voids of space and in a billion years or more they may take their place in another structure so beautiful that a future mind may perceive it to be the work of a god.”

    PHOTO: The Royal Society

    “So for me, the idea I would be able to have an entertaining and enjoyable afternoon discussing with people with whom I suppose I have to say I disagree at the most fundamental level, because I don’t have a particular faith, or any faith in fact – however, I think that difference of opinion and view of the world is to be celebrated and explored.”

    —"Professor Brian Cox condemns 'toxic' rows between science and religion," Christian Today (Sept. 9, 2016)
    Compiled by Eleanor Wroblewski

    Carolyn Porco

    Carolyn Porco

    On this date in 1953, planetary scientist Carolyn C. Porco was born in Bronx, N.Y., where she was raised with four brothers, which she partly attributes to her career success in a field dominated by men. “I’m used to fighting and arguing with males,” she later quipped. Her father, an Italian immigrant, drove a bread truck, and her mother kept house while Carolyn attended Cardinal Spellman High School. (New York Times, Sept. 21, 2009)

    Porco was a serious child, she recalled, “kind of like a 13-year-old going on 80.” She sought to find the meaning of her life. “The desire to know, to come to grips with my existence, brought me to seek the answer in the study of the cosmos. For a period of about four or five months, I tried to be a devout Catholic because that was the religion I was born into.” She went to Mass during the week and not just on Sunday “to get in God’s good graces. But it just felt like putting on a jacket that was too small.” (Violet magazine interview with Sasha Sagan, Nov. 23, 2020)

    She earned an earth science B.S. from the State University of New York at Stony Brook in 1974 and a Ph.D. in geological and planetary sciences in 1983 from Caltech, where her dissertation was on discoveries in the rings of Saturn by the Voyager spacecraft. She joined the faculty of the Department of Planetary Sciences at the University of Arizona, where she would teach until 2001, and the Voyager Imaging Team.

    Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 launched in 1977 on what became an interstellar journey among the four giant planets — Uranus, Saturn, Neptune and Jupiter — and 48 of their moons. Still operational as of this writing in 2022, they were respectively over 14 and 12 billion miles from Earth.

    Porco co-originated the idea in 1990 to take a Voyager 1 “portrait of the planets,” including the famous “Pale Blue Dot” image of Earth, at the request of Voyager team member Carl Sagan, who coined the term. She was hired as a consultant for the movie “Contact” (1997), based on Sagan’s novel about a feisty astronomer played by Jodie Foster, and took strong exception to a plot wrinkle that the character should sleep with her adviser. (New York Times, Sept. 21, 2009)

    She led the imaging team for the Cassini–Huygens mission launched in 1997 by NASA and the European and Italian space agencies and was the first to describe the behavior of the ringlets within Saturn’s rings. She led “The Day the Earth Smiled” effort that culminated with an image of Earth from 898 million miles away on July 19, 2013, and was a member of the imaging team for the New Horizons probe, which flew by Pluto in 2015.

    Porco was a former student at Caltech of astrogeologist Eugene Shoemaker, who died in a car accident at age 69. He was also a Voyager Imaging Team member. As a tribute, she conceived a plan to “bury” a small amount of his cremains with a spacecraft that would impact the moon in 1999. She subsequently helped defend the plan from complaints by Navajo Nation president Albert Hale about defiling the “sacred” lunar landscape.

    “The last time I looked there is a separation of church and state in this country,” Porco said. “Exploration of the moon is a secular activity and religious notions should not be imposed on it. Other religions have been able to accommodate scientific progress, and I hope that somehow the Navajos will be able to modify their beliefs, too.” About 1 ounce of ashes, encased in a polycarbonate tube, ended up buried in a crater where the Lunar Prospector probe’s mission was intentionally ended. (New York Times, Aug. 17, 1999) 

    (The above story link also helps explain Porco’s decision to remain single and focus solely on her work. She was 46 at the time. “Porco, who lives alone in the Tucson foothills, said she had little time for outside activities. ‘There are absolutely no high-maintenance items in my house of any kind — plants, pets or husbands.’ “)

    She remains professionally active as a researcher, media contributor and public speaker, in addition to editing the Cassini Imaging Team’s website and as president of Diamond Sky Productions: “Our cause: Present science and its findings to the public.” Porco once said if you asked her if she believed in God, she would have two answers:

    “In my capacity as a professional scientist, I would have to — I would be required to — be agnostic on the subject since I couldn’t say with scientific certainty that there is a God and I couldn’t with scientific certainty say that there isn’t.” But as a nonscientist, she added, “… then I’m going to have to say that my very strong faith, my very, very strong belief is that there is no God.” (“Enlightenment Living” by Ryan Somma, 2012)

    In 2006, while working as a researcher at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colo., she spoke at a forum at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in San Diego. She suggested, perhaps half in jest, establishing an alternative church headed by Neil deGrasse Tyson. “Let’s teach our children from a very young age about the story of the universe and its incredible richness and beauty,” Porco said. “It is already so much more glorious and awesome — and even comforting — than anything offered by any scripture or God concept I know.” (New York Times, Nov. 21, 2006)

    Porco spoke at the Reason Rally in Washington in 2016. In response to a tweet saying “The pope is ashamed. Has he burned anyone at the stake yet?” (Aug. 19, 2018), she wrote: “The righteousness of the religious. I am ashamed to be of the same species.” She later deleted her tweet.

    “The social organizations of religion provide … a means for people to feel connected to other people. But I think that science certainly can replace the God concept. As the saying goes, there isn’t much left for God to do because science has explained so much of it.”

    —Porco interview, "Equal Time for Freethought," WBAI-NY Radio (Nov. 4, 2007)
    Compiled by Bill Dunn

    Luther Burbank

    Luther Burbank

    On this date in 1849, Luther Burbank was born in Lancaster, Mass. He found fame early when he single-handedly saved U.S. potato crops from the deadly blight by cultivating russet potatoes. The Burbank Russett is the most widely cultivated potato in the U.S. While running Burbank’s Experimental Farms in Santa Rosa, Calif., he produced more than 800 new varieties of fruits and plants.

    Shaken by the Scopes “monkey” trial, Burbank wrote, “And to think of this great country in danger of being dominated by people ignorant enough to take a few ancient Babylonian legends as the canons of modern culture. Our scientific men are paying for their failure to speak out earlier. There is no use now talking evolution to these people. Their ears are stuffed with Genesis.”

    In 1926, an interview about his freethought views appeared in the San Francisco Bulletin in which he declared “I am an infidel today,” adding,” I am a doubter, a questioner, a skeptic. When it can be proved to me that there is immortality, that there is resurrection beyond the gates of death, then will I believe. Until then, no.” He was inundated with mostly critical letters, which he felt he had to reply to personally. Friend and biographer Wilbur Hale attributed Burbank’s death in 1926 at age 77 after suffering a heart attack to the exertion of his replies: “He died, not a martyr to truth, but a victim of the fatuity of blasting dogged falsehood.”

    A crowd estimated at 100,000 came to his memorial and heard the openly atheistic tribute by Judge Lindsay of Denver. California still celebrates Burbank’s birthday as Arbor Day, planting trees in his memory. He married twice: to Helen Coleman in 1890, which ended in divorce in 1896, and to Elizabeth Waters in 1916. He had no children.

    “The idea that a good God would send people to a burning hell is utterly damnable to me. I don’t want to have anything to do with such a God.”
    “I am an infidel today.”

    —Burbank interview in the San Francisco Bulletin (Jan. 22, 1926)

    Alan Hale

    Alan Hale

    On this date in 1958, Alan Hale, the co-discoverer in 1995 of Comet Hale-Bopp, was born in Tachikawa, Japan, where his father was in the U.S. Air Force. He grew up in Alamogordo, N.M., and graduated with a B.S. in physics in 1980 from the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. He left the Navy in 1983 and began working at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., as an engineering contractor for the Deep Space Network.

    While at the JPL he worked on spacecraft projects, including the Voyager 2 encounter with the planet Uranus in 1986. He then returned to New Mexico and earned advanced astronomy degrees, including a doctorate, at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces. In 1993 he founded the Southwest Institute for Space Research (now called the Earthrise Institute, where he is president).

    Besides his research activities, Hale is an outspoken advocate for improved scientific literacy in our society and for better career opportunities for current and future scientists. He’s written for such publications as Astronomy, the International Comet Quarterly, the Skeptical Inquirer, Free Inquiry and the McGraw-Hill Yearbook of Science and Technology. He’s the author of Everybody’s Comet: A Layman’s Guide to Comet Hale-Bopp (High-Lonesome Books, 1996) and is a frequent public speaker on astronomy, space and other scientific issues. 

    Hale was a featured speaker at the FFRF’s 20th annual convention in Tampa, Fla., in 1997. The speech came in the aftermath that March of the suicides of 39 men and women who were part of the Heaven’s Gate UFO cult in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif. After claiming that a spaceship was trailing the Comet Hale-Bopp, cult leader Marshall Applewhite convinced his followers to kill themselves so their souls could board the spacecraft.

    The members killed themselves in an orderly and disciplined fashion, over several days, in three teams, by taking a strong barbiturate with vodka, followed by a plastic bag over the head. All wore black clothes and brand-new Nike running shoes. All had packed a suitcase and had ID cards, a $5 bill and three quarters.

    Hale called the death pact and other religion-fostered violence “another victory for ignorance and superstition.”

    PHOTO: Courtesy of Alan Hale

    “Oh, I have plenty of biases, all right. I’m quite biased toward depending upon what my senses and my intellect tell me about the world around me, and I’m quite biased against invoking mysterious mythical beings that other people want to claim exist but which they can offer no evidence for.”

    “By telling students that the beliefs of a superstitious tribe thousands of years ago should be treated on an equal basis with the evidence collected with our most advanced equipment today is to completely undermine the entire process of scientific inquiry.”

    “And one more thing: In your original message you identified yourself as an elementary school teacher. If you are going to insist on holding to a creationist viewpoint, then please stay away from my children. I want my kids to learn about ‘real’ science, and how the ‘real’ world operates, and not be fed the mythical goings-on in the fantasy-land of creationism.”

    —Series of e-mails starting Jan. 14, 1997, retrieved from https://infidels.org/kiosk/article/email-conversation-with-a-creationist/
    Compiled by Bill Dunn

    PZ Myers

    PZ Myers

    On this day in 1957, biologist Paul Zachary “PZ” Myers was born. Myers is a biology professor at the University of Minnesota-Morris. His specialty is developmental biology and he is a proud proponent of science, evolution and atheism. He graduated from the University of Washington with a degree in zoology in 1979 and went on to earn his Ph.D in biology from the University of Oregon.

    Before employment at UM-Morris, Myers worked at the University of Oregon, the University of Utah and Temple University. Myers studies zebrafish, spiders and cephalopods, an ink-squirting class of marine animals, most notably octopuses and squids.

    “Pharyngula,” his very popular science blog, is partnered with National Geographic and has won numerous awards, including a 2005 Koufax Award for Best Expert Blog and an award from Nature. Myers was named Humanist of the Year in 2009 by the American Humanist Association, and won the International Humanist Award in 2011.

    Myers makes his religious beliefs clear on Pharyngula: “If you’ve got a religious belief that withers in the face of observations of the natural world, you ought to rethink your beliefs — rethinking the world isn’t an option.” Commenting on his 2013 book The Happy Atheist, he said, “I’m an atheist swimming in a sea of superstition, surrounded by well-meaning, good people with whom I share a culture and similar concerns, and there’s only one thing I can do. I have to laugh.”

    Myers at Ken Ham’s Creation Museum in Kentucky in 2009; syslfrog photo under CC 2.0.

    “What I want to happen to religion in the future is this: I want it to be like bowling. It’s a hobby, something some people will enjoy, that has some virtues to it, that will have its own institutions and its traditions and its own television programming, and that families will enjoy together. It’s not something I want to ban or that should affect hiring and firing decisions, or that interferes with public policy. It will be perfectly harmless as long as we don’t elect our politicians on the basis of their bowling score, or go to war with people who play nine-pin instead of ten-pin, or use folklore about backspin to make decrees about how biology works.”

    —Myers, interviewed in the 2008 documentary "Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed"
    Compiled by Sarah Eucalano

    Joseph Priestley

    Joseph Priestley

    On this date (under the Old Style calendar) in 1733, chemist and discoverer of oxygen Joseph Priestley was born in Fairhead, England, near Leeds, the oldest of six children. Destined for the ministry, Priestley realized he rejected much of Calvinism and decided to attend a Dissenting seminary, Daventry Academy. He worked as a minister while conducting scientific experiments and then secured a position at the Dissenting Academy, Warrington. He was eventually ordained and became an early founder of Unitarianism in England, at a time when Dissenters could be deprived of their citizenship and Unitarianism was not lawful.

    He produced carbonated water and isolated eight gases in the air, including oxygen, and is considered to have laid the foundation for the science of chemistry. Priestley wrote The History and Present State of Electricity (1767) at the encouragement of his colleague Benjamin Franklin.

    Priestley’s History of the Corruptions of Christianity (1782) was burned and reviled for its rejection of the Trinity, predestination and divine revelation. In it he averred that a pure form of Christianity had been corrupted. This was followed by History of Early Opinions Concerning Jesus Christ (1786). A General History of the Christian Church to the Fall of the Western Empire was finished in four volumes by 1803.

    A defender of the French Revolution, Priestley lost his laboratory and home in Birmingham when they were stormed and burned down by mobs. His membership in the Royal Society was also withdrawn and he was burned in effigy. Priestley and his family emigrated to the U.S. in 1794 with hopes of setting up a model community but settled for building a house with a built-in lab in Northumberland, Pa., where he died at age 70 in 1804.

    After weathering so much personal criticism, Priestley was notorious among freethinkers for writing about Franklin: “It is much to be lamented that a man of Dr. Franklin’s general good character and great influence should have been an unbeliever in Christianity and also have done so much as he did to make others unbelievers.” Priestley helped found the first Unitarian church in the U.S. (D. 1804)

    What does Priestley mean, by an unbeliever, when he applies it to you? How much did he unbelieve himself? Gibbon had it right when he denominated his Creed, ‘scanty.’ “

    —John Adams, in a letter to Thomas Jefferson (18 July 1813), "The Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States, Vol.10" (1856)

    Albert Einstein

    Albert Einstein

    On this date in 1879, Albert Einstein was born in Ulm, Germany, to nonobservant Jewish parents. He attended a Catholic school from age 5 to 8. He completed his Ph.D. at the University of Zurich in 1909. His 1905 paper explaining the photo-electric effect — the basis of electronics — earned him the Nobel Prize in 1921. His first paper on Special Relativity Theory, also published in 1905, changed the world.

    Einstein split his time and academic appointments between various European universities. After the rise of the Nazi Party, Einstein made Princeton his permanent home, becoming a U.S. citizen in 1940 after moving there in 1933 with his second wife. A pacifist during World War I, he remained a firm proponent of social justice and responsibility. Einstein played a major role in the formation of what would become International Rescue Committee. He chaired the Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists, which organized to alert the public to the dangers of atomic warfare.

    Einstein wrote often about his views on religion and wonder at the cosmic mysteries. Confusion over his beliefs stemmed from such comments as his public statement, reported by United Press on April 25, 1929, that: “I believe in Spinoza’s God, who reveals himself in the orderly harmony in being, not in a God who deals with the facts and actions of men.” Einstein’s famous “God does not play dice with the Universe” metaphor — meaning nature conforms to mathematical law — fueled more confusion.

    At a symposium, he advised: “In their struggle for the ethical good, teachers of religion must have the stature to give up the doctrine of a personal God, that is, give up that source of fear and hope which in the past placed such vast power in the hands of priests. In their labors they will have to avail themselves of those forces which are capable of cultivating the Good, the True, and the Beautiful in humanity itself. This is, to be sure a more difficult but an incomparably more worthy task.” (“Science, Philosophy and Religion, A Symposium,” 1941)

    In a letter to philosopher Eric Gutkind dated Jan. 3, 1954, Einstein continued to reject the idea of a personal god. Although saying he was proud to be a Jew, he said he was not impressed with Judaism. “The word god is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of venerable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish.” In 2018 the “God letter” sold for almost $2.9 million following a four-minute bidding battle at Christie’s.

    He married Mileva Marić in 1903 and they had two sons. They had a daughter before marriage whose fate is unclear. She was either given up for adoption or died of scarlet fever. Their son Eduard was diagnosed with schizophrenia at age 20 and spent most of the rest of his life in asylums. After divorcing in 1919, Einstein married Elsa Löwenthal that same year after having a relationship with her since 1912. She was a first cousin maternally and a second cousin paternally. She was diagnosed with heart and kidney problems and died in December 1936. 

    He died of an abdominal aortic aneurysm in 1955. Pathologist Thomas Stolz Harvey removed his brain without the family’s permission and preserved it in formalin before Einstein was cremated. Harvey later cut the brain into 240 blocks, took tissue samples from each block, mounted them on microscope slides and distributed the slides to some of the world’s top neuropathologists for study.

    “Man would indeed be in a poor way if he had to be restrained by fear of punishment and hopes of reward after death. It is therefore easy to see why the churches have always fought science and persecuted its devotees.”

    —Einstein column headlined "Religion and Science" (New York Times Magazine, Nov. 9, 1930)

    William Smith

    William Smith

    On this date in 1769, William Smith, known as the “Father of English Geology,” was born in Oxfordshire. Smith, who trained as an apprentice surveyor, single-handedly produced the world’s first geological map in 1815 of England, Wales and part of Scotland, spending 15 years on the project.

    Smith, “whose agnosticism was well known,” according to biographer Simon Winchester, produced a “map that heralded the beginnings of a whole new science … a map that laid the foundations of a field of study that culminated in the work of Charles Darwin.”

    In “The Map That Changed the World: William Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology” (2001), Winchester wrote: “It is a map whose making signified the start of an era, not yet over, that has been marked ever since by the excitement and astonishment of scientific discoveries that allowed man at last to stagger out from the fogs of religious dogma, and to come to understand something certain about his own origins and those of the planet.”

    He also noted that “For the first time the earth had a provable history, a written record that paid no heed or obeisance to religious teaching and dogma, that declared its independence from the kind of faith that is no more than the blind acceptance of absurdity.”

    Smith went bankrupt in 1819, spending several weeks in a debtors’ prison, then worked as an itinerant surveyor for many years. The Geological Society of London recognized his achievements by awarding him in 1831 its inaugural Wollaston Medal, the society’s highest honor. It’s named after William Hyde Wollaston, who discovered the elements palladium and rhodium and developed a process to turn platinum ore into malleable ingots.

    Smith’s fossil collection is housed in the Natural History Museum, formerly part of the British Museum, in London. He died at age 70 in Northampton. (D. 1839)

    “In 1793 William Smith, a canal digger, made a startling discovery that was to turn the fledgling science of the history of the Earth — and a central plank of established Christian religion — on its head.”

    —Publisher's blurb, "The Map that Changed the World" (Harper, 2001)

    Richard Dawkins

    Richard Dawkins

    On this date in 1941, evolutionary biologist and freethought champion Clinton Richard Dawkins was born in Nairobi, Kenya. His father, Clinton John Dawkins, was an agricultural civil servant in the British Colonial Service and served with the King’s African Rifles in World War II. The family returned to England in 1949. Dawkins graduated from the University of Oxford in 1962, then earned a philosophy doctorate and became an assistant professor of zoology at the University of California-Berkeley in 1967-69 and a Fellow of New College-Oxford in 1970.

    Dawkins served as Charles Simonyi Chair of Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University from 1995-2008. In 2011 he joined the professoriate of the New College of the Humanities, founded by A.C. Grayling in London. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1997 and a Fellow of the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge in 2001.

    The Selfish Gene, his first book, published in 1976, became an international best-seller. It was followed by The Extended Phenotype (1982), The Blind Watchmaker (1986), River Out of Eden (1995), Climbing Mount Improbable (1996), Unweaving the Rainbow (1998), A Devil’s Chaplain (2003) and The Ancestor’s Tale (2004). His iconoclastic book, The God Delusion, which he wrote with the public hope of turning believing readers into atheists, was published in 2006 to much acclaim.

    He also produced several television documentaries decrying religion’s influence, including “Root of All Evil?” (2006) and “The Enemies of Reason” (2007). “The Genius of Charles Darwin” followed in 2008 and “The Meaning of Life” (2012) explored the implications of living without religious faith. In his memoir An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist (2013), Dawkins chronicled his life up to publication of The Selfish Gene. A second memoir, Brief Candle in the Dark: My Life in Science, was published in 2015.

    He founded the nonprofit Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science in 2006. It merged with the Center for Inquiry in 2016. The foundation finances research on the psychology of belief and religion, funds scientific education programs and supports secular charitable groups. Dawkins has advanced the concept of cultural inheritance or “memes,” also described as “viruses of the mind,” a category into which he places religious belief. He has also advanced the “replicator concept” of evolution.

    A passionate atheist, Dawkins coined the memorable term “faith-heads” to describe certain religionists. His remarks in The Guardian (Feb, 6, 1999), “I’m like a pit bull terrier being released into the ring, as a spectator sport, to attack religious people” led to the nickname “Darwin’s pit bull.” His column for The Observer (Dec. 30, 2001) pointed out, “We deliberately set up, and massively subsidise, segregated faith schools. As if it were not enough that we fasten belief labels on babies at birth, those badges of mental apartheid are now reinforced and refreshed. In their separate schools, children are separately taught mutually incompatible beliefs.”

    Dawkins was named the British Humanist Association’s 1999 Humanist of the Year in 1999 and received the International Cosmos Prize two years before that. In 2001 he was the recipient of an Emperor Has No Clothes Award from the Freedom From Religion Foundation but was unable to accept it in person because flights were grounded after 9/11. His written remarks accepting it are here. He accepted it in person in 2012 at the national convention in Portland, Ore.

    He has been married three times and has a daughter, Juliet, born in 1984. Dawkins and Lalla Ward, who illustrated several of his books and other works, announced an “entirely amicable” separation in 2016 after 24 years of marriage. That same year he suffered a minor hemorrhagic stroke but reported later in the year that he had almost completely recovered.

    PHOTO: By David Shinbone under CC 3.0.

    “My respect for the Abrahamic religions went up in the smoke and choking dust of September 11th. The last vestige of respect for the taboo disappeared as I watched the ‘Day of Prayer’ in Washington Cathedral, where people of mutually incompatible faiths united in homage to the very force that caused the problem in the first place: religion. It is time for people of intellect, as opposed to people of faith, to stand up and say ‘Enough!’ ”

    —"Time to Stand Up," written for the Freedom From Religion Foundation (September 2001)

    John Burroughs

    John Burroughs

    On this date in 1837, naturalist John Burroughs was born on a farm in the Catskills of New York state. After teaching and clerking in government, Burroughs returned to the Catskills and devoted his life to writing and gardening. He knew Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Theodore Roosevelt, John Muir and Walt Whitman, writing the first biography of Whitman. Most of his 22 books are collected essays on nature and philosophy.

    In his book “The Light of Day (1900), he illuminated his views on religion: “If we take science as our sole guide, if we accept and hold fast that alone which is verifiable, the old theology must go.” “When I look up at the starry heavens at night and reflect upon what is it that I really see there, I am constrained to say, ‘There is no God.’ “

    In his journal dated Feb. 18, 1910, he wrote: “Joy in the universe, and keen curiosity about it all — that has been my religion.” He died on his 83rd birthday. The John Burroughs Sanctuary can be found near West Park, N.Y., and his rustic cabin Slabsides has been preserved. (D. 1921)

    “The deeper our insight into the methods of nature … the more incredible the popular Christianity seems to us.”

    —Burroughs, "The Light of Day" (1900)

    Robert M. Sapolsky

    Robert M. Sapolsky

    On this date in 1957, biologist and neuroendocrinologist Robert Morris Sapolsky was born in Brooklyn, New York. Sapolsky, whose parents emigrated from the Soviet Union, was raised in an Orthodox Jewish family in the Bensonhurst neighborhood. His father was an architect. He was a precocious student, teaching himself Swahili and writing letters to primatologists as a student at John Dewey High School on Coney Island.

    He graduated from Harvard University in 1978 with a B.A. in biological anthropology and received his Ph.D. in neuroendocrinology from The Rockefeller University in New York City in 1984. He did post-doctoral work at the Salk Institute and was a research associate at the Institute of Primate Research, National Museums of Kenya. From 1978 until 1990 he spent three to four months a year living in a pup tent in Kenya to study the baboon population. 

    Sapolsky is a professor of biology, neurological sciences and neurosurgery at Stanford University. His work as a neuroendocrinologist has addressed the issues of stress and neuronal degeneration. Among the latest of his nearly 300 journal publications (as of this writing) is “This Is Your Brain on Nationalism: The Biology of Us and Them” (Foreign Affairs, 2019). 

    His books include Stress, the Aging Brain, and the Mechanisms of Neuron Death (1992), Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers (1994), Junk Food Monkeys (1997), The Trouble with Testosterone and Other Essays on the Biology of the Human Predicament (1998), the best-selling A Primate’s Memoir: A Neuroscientist’s Unconventional Life Among the Baboons (2001), Monkeyluv: And Other Essays on Our Lives as Animals (2005) and Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst (2017).

    Sapolsky has received numerous honors and awards, including the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship Genius Grant in 1987 and the 2008 Carl Sagan Prize for Science Popularization. In 2002 he was the recipient of FFRF’s Emperor Has No Clothes Award (“Belief and Biology” acceptance speech) and was named to FFRF’s Honorary Board in 2010. He is married to Lisa Sapolsky, a neuropsychologist. They have two children, Benjamin and Rachel. 

    PHOTO: Sapolsky in 2009; National Institutes of Health photo

    “I was raised in an Orthodox household, and I was raised devoutly religious up until around age 13 or so. In my adolescent years, one of the defining actions in my life was breaking away from all religious belief whatsoever.”

    —Robert Sapolsky, Emperor Has No Clothes Award acceptance speech (Nov. 23, 2003)
    Compiled by Bill Dunn

    Clémence Royer

    Clémence Royer

    On this date in 1830, Clémence-Auguste Royer (née Augustine-Clémence Audouard) was born in Nantes, France. Her parents were Catholic royalists and didn’t marry until seven years after her birth. Her early education was in a convent school. Royer became a republican following the Revolution of 1848 and started to question other commonly held views. She obtained a teaching certificate and taught at girls schools in Wales, where she mastered English, and in France.

    She read widely on science in these school libraries. In 1855, as a result of her inquiries, she rejected Catholicism thoroughly and devoted herself to science. She began to offer lectures on science and logic for women in Lausanne, Switzerland, in 1858.

    Royer translated Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species into French in 1863. She controversially added a 60-page preface which used Darwin’s mechanism for evolution as part of an anti-religious argument, which Darwin did not make. By this time the book was in its third English edition and contained several strong references to a creator. Royer had been an evolutionist before reading Darwin, having been strongly influenced by the writings of Jean Baptiste LaMarck.

    French scientists, especially atheists and anthropologists, were strongly influenced by evolution and natural selection as framed by Royer, who also discussed the implications of evolutionary theory for human beings and society in her introduction. It would be almost 10 years before Darwin himself grappled with these issues in The Descent of Man. Royer continued as Darwin’s official French translator until the third French edition of Origin was published in 1870.

    Royer, despite not being a research scientist, remained a popular interpreter of science as well as a philosopher of science. As a woman, she was denied access to many learned societies, as well as university teaching positions. It has been argued by Jennifer Michael Hecht and others that Royer opened doors to women within the freethinking movement. In 1866 she had a son, René, by her lover and life partner, Pascal Duprat, a married man, which sharpened her concern about the major legal obstacles then present to unwed mothers and their children.

    She published many books and articles and considered the pinnacle to be Natura rerum, her theory of nature. In 1900 she was named a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor for her contributions as “a woman of letters and a scientific writer.” Royer died in 1902 at age 71.  Her son died of liver failure six months later in Indochina. (D. 1902)

    “Yes, I believe in revelation, but a permanent revelation of man to himself and by himself, a rational revelation that is nothing but the result of the progress of science and of the contemporary conscience, a revelation that is always only partial and relative and that is effectuated by the acquisition of new truths and even more by the elimination of ancient errors.”

    —Royer, preface to Darwin's "L'origine des espèces," cited in Jennifer Michael Hecht's "The End of the Soul" (2003)
    Compiled by Eleanor Wroblewski

    Richard Feynman

    Richard Feynman

    On this date in 1918, Richard Phillips Feynman was born in New York City. His parents were Lithuanian Jews. Feynman, with two other scientists, won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1965 for his work in quantum electrodynamics. He received his undergrad degree from MIT in 1939 and his Ph.D. from Princeton in 1942. He worked at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico as part of the nuclear Manhattan Project, then became a professor at Cornell from 1945-50.

    He became professor of theoretical physics at California Institute of Technology in 1950. When Physics World polled scientists asking them to rank the greatest physicists, Feynman was rated seventh, behind Galileo. He was a writer and personality as well. His first popular book was Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!: Adventures of a Curious Character (1985). His academic classic was the three-volume Lectures on Physics.

    His sister Joan once said, “If you wanted to have a good party, you had Richard there.” (Los Angeles Times, Dec. 2, 2001.) In What Do You Care What Other People Think?: Further Adventures of a Curious Character (1988), Feynman said he gradually came to disbelieve the whole religion of Judaism as a teenager.

    Feynman was first treated for stomach cancer in 1978. He made headlines after being appointed to a commission investigating the 1986 Challenger shuttle disaster, when he figured out and demonstrated what went wrong with the O-rings. D. 1988.

    Nobel Foundation photo

    “One time, when I wasn’t there, somebody nominated me for president of the youth center. The elders began getting nervous, because I was an avowed atheist by that time.”

    —"What Do You Care What Other People Think?: Further Adventures of a Curious Character" (1988)

    Peter Higgs

    Peter Higgs

    On this date in 1929, Peter Ware Higgs was born in Newcastle upon Tyne, UK. He graduated with honors in physics in 1950 from King’s College, University of London. He earned his master of science the next year and his Ph.D. in 1954, both from King’s. In his early 30s, Higgs began his career as lecturer in mathematical physics at the University of Edinburgh. He became a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1974 and chair of theoretical physics in 1980. Higgs was elected Fellow of the Royal Society in 1983 and Fellow of the Institute of Physics in 1991. 

    In the 1960s he proposed the existence of a single particle responsible for imparting mass to all matter immediately following the Big Bang. (The Guardian, Nov. 16, 2007.) The Higgs boson, the scientific term for the particle, radically altered the field of physics, such that Higgs, according to Time magazine, ranks with physics giants like Albert Einstein, Isaac Newton and Democritus. Based on Higgs’ theory, scientists theorized a quantum field through which initially weightless particles move and acquire their mass. Higgs and François Englert were awarded the 2013 Nobel Prize in Physics for their work.

    For several decades, a multi-billion dollar effort, including the construction of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at the CERN laboratory in Geneva, Switzerland, sought to find the Higgs boson particle. The LHC , the most powerful particle accelerator ever constructed, cost $6 billion and took 25 years to plan. “Scientists … hope the [Large Hadron Collider] will produce clear signs of the boson, dubbed the ‘God particle’ by some, to the displeasure of Higgs, an atheist.” (Reuters, April 7, 2008.) Within two years of the original 2012 results at the LHC, the vast majority of particle physicists agreed that the Higgs particle discovery had been confirmed by multiple experiments and analyses.

    PHOTO: Higgs at the 2013 Nobel Laureates press conference at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences; photo by Bengt Nyman under CC 2.0.

    “I wish he hadn’t done it. I have to explain to people it was a joke. I’m an atheist.”

    —Higgs, on Leon Lederman, the scientist who nicknamed the Higgs boson the “God particle,” The Guardian (Nov. 16, 2007)
    Compiled by Bonnie Gutsch

    A. Stone Freedberg

    A. Stone Freedberg

    On this date in 1908, Abraham Stone Freedberg was born in Salem, Mass. Freedberg attended Harvard College and the University of Chicago Medical School (graduating in 1934). A professor at Harvard who taught medical students physical diagnosis techniques, Freedberg also became chairman of cardiology and internal medicine at the Harvard-affiliated Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. As a professor and member of the admissions committee, he set out to help disadvantaged students navigate the admissions process at the medical school.

    Until Freedberg invented a treatment in the late 1940s involving a radioactive iodine technique, patients with severe angina had no way to relieve their pain. In 1940 he was started studying ulcers, but his findings were not confirmed until 1983 by two Australian scientists, who would each win a Nobel Prize in 2005 for those findings. It has been confirmed by medical scientists that if Freedberg’s findings had been recognized earlier, treatments for ulcers would have been available decades sooner.

    Freedberg later became a critic of doctors relying too heavily on technologically advanced testing methods, preferring the less expensive and, to him, more reliable practice of physical diagnosis. He stopped practicing medicine in his mid-90s.

    Freedberg, who attended 100 classical music concerts in his 101st year, was an atheist. According to The New York Times, in Freedberg’s last days, he assessed his body and said there were no prospects “of a significant improvement in my basic status. … It is time to draw the curtain.” He died in his sleep at home in Boston at age 101. The Times obituary called him “an avowed atheist.” (D. 2009)

    “He always said that he just wanted to go to sleep and not wake up. He said to us, ‘It’s time,’ and he went to sleep.”

    —Freedberg's son Richard, quoted in "A. Stone Freedberg, 101, Harvard med school professor" (Boston Globe, Aug. 24, 2009)
    Compiled by Bonnie Gutsch

    James Hutton

    James Hutton

    On this date in 1726, James Hutton was born in Edinburgh, Scotland. He enrolled at Edinburgh University in 1740 to study law but switched to medicine, earning his M.D. in 1749 in Leiden, in what is now the Netherlands. Hutton never practiced medicine, instead devoting himself in turn to the manufacture of ammonium chloride, the study of new agricultural methods and the construction of canals. Hutton became interested in geology in the 1750s, journeying through England, Wales and Scotland to study rock formations. 

    One of Hutton’s major contributions to the field of geology was the discovery in 1785 that granite is an igneous, rather than sedimentary rock (formed from cooling magma, not from compacted sediments). Hutton is perhaps best known for the theory of Uniformitarianism, or the idea that the only processes that can have acted on the Earth’s surface are processes we see around us today — for example, erosion, deposition of sediments and volcanic activity.

    The prevailing 18th-century theory was Catastrophism: the idea that many great catastrophes, such as floods, caused relatively rapid rock formation and landform change. In England especially, geologists were eager to reconcile their theories with the biblical accounts of Genesis; theories that posited catastrophic floods remained popular because they fit well with the biblical story of Noah. Theories such as Hutton’s, which required vastly more time than the bible allowed, were seen as especially suspect.

    Hutton was a deist, who believed that the world had been created for humans’ eventual emergence; however, he did not believe that God interfered in the world, so that the miraculous-seeming events of Catastrophism seemed impossible to him. Hutton explained his geological theories in Theory of the Earth, the first two volumes of which were published in 1795. The third was published posthumously in 1899. He was a famously abstruse writer, whose works were not much read, but John Playfair, his biographer, published Illustrations of the Huttonian Theory of the Earth in 1802, which popularized Hutton’s difficult material.

    Hutton never married, living with his sisters for much of his adult life. He did, however, father a child, also named James Hutton, during his student years. D. 1797.

    “The past history of our globe must be explained by what can be seen to be happening now. No powers are to be employed that are not natural to the globe, no action to be admitted except those of which we know the principle.”

    —Hutton, “Theory of the Earth,” in Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh (1785)
    Compiled by Eleanor Wroblewski

    Francis Crick

    Francis Crick

    On this date in 1916, Francis Crick was born in Northampton, England. He studied physics at University College, London, earned a B.Sc. in 1937, and began research for a Ph.D., which was interrupted by the outbreak of World War II. He served as a scientist for the British Admiralty, which he left in 1947 to study biology. He joined the Medical Research Council Unit in Cavendish Laboratory Cambridge, and obtained a Ph.D. in 1954.

    He met James Watson in 1951 and together they proposed the double-helix structure for DNA by 1953. In 1962, he, Watson and Maurice Wilkins won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their long-awaited breakthrough in determining the structure and replication scheme of DNA. Rosalind Franklin, who died in 1958, is now often credited as a co-discoverer.

    Crick taught at various universities, including Harvard, Cambridge and University College, London, and became a non-resident Fellow of Salk Institute for Biological Studies in San Diego. In a book recapping his career, What a Mad Pursuit, Crick writes candidly of his rejection of religion. As a school boy, “I was a skeptic, an agnostic, with a strong inclination toward atheism.” D. 2004.

    Marc Lieberman photo.

    “I realized early on that it is detailed scientific knowledge which makes certain religious beliefs untenable. A knowledge of the true age of the earth and of the fossil record makes it impossible for any balanced intellect to believe in the literal truth of every part of the Bible in the way that fundamentalists do. And if some of the Bible is manifestly wrong, why should any of the rest of it be accepted automatically?”

    —Crick, "What Mad Pursuit: A Personal View of Scientific Discovery" (1988)

    E.O. Wilson

    E.O. Wilson

    On this date in 1929, biologist and author Edward Osborne Wilson was born in Birmingham, Ala. His father, Edward Osborne Wilson Sr., worked as an accountant. His mother, Inez Linnette Freeman, was a secretary. They divorced when he was 8. He had a nomadic childhood, mostly with his father, an alcoholic who would kill himself.

    Wilson earned his B.S. and M.S. in biology from the University of Alabama and a Ph.D. in 1955 from Harvard, the same year he married Irene Kelley. They had a daughter, Catherine. He joined the Harvard faculty in 1956, where he retired in 2002 at age 73, although he published more than a dozen books after that.

    Blinded in one eye by a fishing accident as a child, his research focus was in the field of myrmecology, the study of ants. He discovered the chemical means by which ants communicate. His books include The Insect Societies (1971) and The Ants (1990), co-written with Bert Holldobler, which won the 1991 Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction. Wilson’s On Human Nature won a Pulitzer in 1979.

    Wilson is perhaps best known for his intellectual syntheses, often connecting evolution and biology to other disciplines. His 1967 book, The Theory of Island Biogeography, which develops the mathematics of how species evolve in geographically small habitats, is influential in the fields of ecology and practical conservation. He worked out the importance of habitat size and position within the landscape in sustaining animal populations.

    In 1975 he published Sociobiology: A New Synthesis, which connected the evolution of social insects with other animals, including humans. At the time, the idea that human behavior is genetically influenced was very controversial and Wilson was criticized as racist and sympathetic to eugenics. During a 1978 lecture he had a pitcher of water poured on his head while the attacker exclaimed, “Wilson, you’re all wet.”

    More recently, Wilson was criticized by Monica McLemore, an associate professor at UC-San Francisco, for espousing “theories fraught with racist ideas about distributions of health and illness in populations without any attention to the context in which these distributions occur.” She added that “what works for ants and other nonhuman species is not always relevant for health and/or human outcomes. For example, the associations of Black people with poor health outcomes, economic disadvantage and reduced life expectancy can be explained by structural racism, yet Blackness or Black culture is frequently cited as the driver of those health disparities. Ant culture is hierarchal and matriarchal, based on human understandings of gender. And the descriptions and importance of ant societies existing as colonies is a component of Wilson’s work that should have been critiqued. Context matters.” (Scienfic American, Dec. 29, 2021) 

    Wilson expanded on the ideas propounded in Sociobiology in On Human Nature (1978), which spawned the discipline of evolutionary psychology. While initially widely accepted with some enthusiasm, some aspects of evolutionary psychology research became even more controversial than Sociobiology, with the line between the two fields becoming more blurred.

    Wilson’s parents were Southern Baptists though he was also raised by conservative Methodists. He abandoned Christianity before college, later describing himself as a “provisional deist” and agnostic. In On Human Nature, he argued that belief in God and rituals of religion are products of evolution. He disdained the tribalism of religion: “And every tribe, no matter how generous, benign, loving, and charitable, nonetheless looks down on all other tribes. What’s dragging us down is religious faith.”

    In Esquire magazine (Jan. 5, 2009), Wilson said: “If someone could actually prove scientifically that there is such a thing as a supernatural force, it would be one of the greatest discoveries in the history of science. So the notion that somehow scientists are resisting it is ludicrous.”

    He has been honored by the American Humanist Association twice, in 1982 with the Distinguished Humanist prize and again in 1999 as the Humanist of the Year. In 1990, he was awarded the Royal Swedish Academy of Science’s Crafoord Prize in ecology, considered the field’s highest honor. He died in Massachusetts at age 92. (D. 2021)

    PHOTO by Jim Harrison under CC 2.5.

    “So I would say that for the sake of human progress, the best thing we could possibly do would be to diminish, to the point of eliminating, religious faiths.”

    —Interview, New Scientist (Jan. 21, 2015)
    Compiled by Eleanor Wroblewski

    Julian Huxley

    Julian Huxley

    On this date in 1887, Julian Huxley, the brother of novelist Aldous Huxley and the grandson of agnostic biologist Thomas Henry Huxley, was born in Great Britain. Educated as a biologist at Oxford, he taught at Rice Institute, Houston (1912-16), Oxford (1919-25) and Kings College (1925-35). An ant specialist (he wrote a book called Ants in 1930), Huxley was secretary of the Zoological Society of London (1935-42) and UNESCO’s first general director (1946-48). A strong secular humanist, Huxley called himself “not merely agnostic. … I disbelieve in a personal God in any sense in which that phrase is ordinarily used.” (Religion Without Revelation, 1927, revised 1956)

    Huxley was an early evolutionary theorist with versatile academic interests. Some of his many other books include Essays of a Biologist (1923), Animal Biology (with J.B.S. Haldane, 1927), The Science of Life (with H.G. Wells, 1931), Thomas Huxley’s Diary of the Voyage of the HMS Rattlesnake (editor, 1935), The Living Thoughts of Darwin (1939), Heredity, East & West (1949), Biological Aspects of Cancer (1957), Towards a New Humanism (1957) and Memories, a two-volume autobiography in the early 1970s. Huxley was knighted in 1958 and was also a founder of the World Wildlife Fund. (D. 1975)

    PHOTO: Huxley in 1964. Dutch National Archives, The Hague, Creative Commons.

    “Operationally, God is beginning to resemble not a ruler, but the last fading smile of a cosmic Cheshire Cat.”

    Julian Huxley, "Religion Without Revelation" (1927)

    J.B.S. Haldane (Quote)

    J.B.S. Haldane (Quote)

    “I’ve never met a healthy person who worried much about his health, or a good person who worried much about his soul.”

    —J.B.S. Haldane, British scientist (1892-1964). "Dictionary of Humorous Quotations," edited by Evan Esar (1949)

    Harriet Hall

    Harriet Hall

    On this date in 1945, physician and science communicator Harriet Anne (Hoag) Hall was born in St. Louis to Edna (Barnes) and Albert Hoag. She grew up in Seattle with three siblings. “I began to question the existence of God in my early teens, because of the hypocrisy I observed among my fellow Methodists and because of things I read,” Hall wrote in “Women Aren’t Supposed to Fly: The Memoirs of a Female Flight Surgeon” (2008).

    “In looking back, it’s hard to retrace my path, but I remember being impressed by Frazer’s ‘The Golden Bough,’ a book about comparative religions. It made me realize those different religions couldn’t all be right, so maybe they were all wrong; and it explained some of the psychology that might have led humans to invent gods.”

    She earned a medical degree in 1970 from the University of Washington, where her father taught, then was commissioned as a first lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force and served for seven years as a general medical officer in Spain. In 1979 she earned her wings as a flight surgeon and was certified by the American Board of Family Practice.

    Hall met future husband Kirk Hall Jr. at Francis E. Warren AFB near Cheyenne, Wyo. They had two daughters, Kristin Ann and Kimberly Alexandra. She retired in 1989 as a full colonel at McChord AFB in Washington state after 20 years of service. Her daughters were 4 and 6 then and she wanted to devote more time to raising them.

    Hall started writing about science and medicine, including complementary and alternative medicine, in her mid-50s and contributed regularly to the Skeptical Inquirer and Quackwatch. She was dubious about acupuncture and alternative treatments in general: “If it were shown to be truly effective, it would be part of regular medicine.” (The Boston Globe, July 24, 2009)

    Her SkepDoc column in Skeptic magazine debuted in 2006 and eventually included over 700 articles. She co-founded the Science-Based Medicine website in 2008 and co-published the college textbook “Consumer Health: A Guide to Intelligent Decisions” in 2013. She started a column in 2018 in Skeptical Inquirer called “Reality Is the Best Medicine.” She published a whimsical children’s book titled “There’s No Such Thing as the Tooth Fairy!” in 2022, having previously coined the term “tooth fairy science” to refer to studying a phenomenon before establishing its existence.

    She died in her sleep at home at age 77 in Puyallup, Wash. (D. 2023)

    PHOTO: Hall at the Center for Inquiry’s CSICon 2016 in Las Vegas. 

    “Religion can impact health in good ways, but often it has a bad impact on the health of the believer and also on the health of others. I fully support the right of people to follow any religion or any belief system, but I don’t acknowledge their right to impose their beliefs on others. I draw the line when their beliefs cause harm or the deaths of innocent children or when they endanger public health.”

    —Hall, "My Journey Into Skepticism" (The Human Prospect, Vol. 6, No. 3, Autumn 2017)
    Compiled by Bill Dunn

    Ernst Mayr

    Ernst Mayr

    On this date in 1904, evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr was born in Kempten, Germany. From a young age, he showed an interest in a variety of bird species. Originally studying medical sciences, he changed his mind and received his Ph.D. in ornithology from the University of Berlin. Mayr spent much of his life studying the theory of evolution and eventually established himself as a leading neo-Darwinist. Mayr traveled to New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, where he was able to show that species can arise from isolated populations.

    While working in 1942 as a curator at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, he published Systematics and the Origin of Species. During his career, he identified 26 new species of bird and 38 species of orchid. Mayr became a professor at Harvard University in 1953 and led Harvard’s Comparative Zoology Museum from 1961-70. He transformed Darwin’s abstract theories into the science of evolutionary biology and wrote or edited over 600 journal articles and 20 books, well into his 90s, about his experimental and observational studies to support evolution.

    He married Margarete Simon in 1935. They had two children and lived together until her death in 1990. Mayr received a number of awards, including the Darwin-Wallace Medal (1958), National Medal of Science for Biological Studies (1969) and the International Prize for Biology (1994).  Harvard renamed its Museum of Comparative Zoology Library in his honor in 1995. He died at age 100 in 2005.

    “I have the honesty to say I’m an atheist. There is nothing that supports the idea of a personal God.”

    —Mayr, Skeptic magazine, Vol. 8 No. 1 (2000)
    Compiled by Tolulope Igun

    Oliver Sacks

    Oliver Sacks

    On this date in 1933, neurologist and author Oliver Sacks was born in London to a Jewish couple: Samuel Sacks, a medical general practitioner, and Muriel Elsie Landau, one of England’s first female surgeons. He earned his medical degree at Oxford University (Queen’s College) and did residencies and fellowship work at Mount Zion Hospital in San Francisco and at UCLA. He started practicing neurology in 1965 in New York, while maintaining his British citizenship. In July 2007 he was appointed professor of neurology and psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center.

    In 1966 he had started working as a consulting neurologist for Beth Abraham Hospital in the Bronx, a chronic care hospital where he encountered an extraordinary group of patients, many of whom had spent decades in strange, frozen states, like human statues, unable to initiate movement. He recognized these patients as survivors of the pandemic of sleeping sickness (encephalitis lethargica) that swept the world from 1916-27 and treated them with a then-experimental drug, L-dopa. They became the subjects of his book Awakenings, which later inspired a play by Harold Pinter (“A Kind of Alaska”) and the Oscar-nominated feature film (“Awakenings”) with Robert De Niro and Robin Williams.

    Sacks was perhaps best known for his collections of case histories from the far borderlands of neurological experience, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and An Anthropologist on Mars, in which he describes patients struggling with conditions ranging from Tourette’s syndrome to autism, parkinsonism, musical hallucination, epilepsy, phantom limb syndrome, schizophrenia, retardation and Alzheimer’s disease. He investigated the world of deaf people and sign language in Seeing Voices and a rare community of people in The Island of the Colorblind. He wrote about his experiences as a doctor in Migraine and as a patient in A Leg to Stand On. His autobiographical Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood was published in 2001, followed by Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain in 2007.

    Sacks’ work regularly appeared in the New Yorker, the New York Review of Books and various medical journals. The New York Times referred to Sacks as “the poet laureate of medicine” and in 2002 he was awarded the Lewis Thomas Prize by Rockefeller University, which recognizes the scientist as poet. He is an honorary fellow of both the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and holds honorary degrees from Oxford, the Karolinska Institute, Georgetown, Bard, Gallaudet, Tufts and the Catholic University of Peru.

    In 2005 he received FFRF’s Emperor Has No Clothes Award. His acceptance speech was titled “Invasion of Irrationalism.” He also began serving in 2009 on the Foundation’s Honorary Board. Not the least of his honors is 2-mile-wide Asteroid 84928 Oliversacks, discovered in 2003 and named for him. In a piece in The New York Times (“The Sabbath,”  Aug. 14, 2015, shortly before his death from cancer), Sacks revealed his mother’s response to learning that he, then a teen, was a (virginal) homosexual. His mother, one of 18 children in an Orthodox Jewish family, shrieked at him: “ ‘You are an abomination. I wish you had never been born.’ … The matter was never mentioned again, but her harsh words made me hate religion’s capacity for bigotry and cruelty.” (D. 2015)

    As I write, in New York in mid-December, the city is full of Christmas trees and menorahs. I would be inclined to say, as an old Jewish atheist, that these things mean nothing to me, but Hannukah songs are evoked in my mind whenever an image of a menorah impinges on my retina, even when I am not consciously aware of it.

    —Sacks, "Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain" (2007)
    Compiled by Bill Dunn; photo by Brent Nicastro

    Rosalind Franklin

    Rosalind Franklin

    On this date in 1920, chemist and freethinker Rosalind Elsie Franklin was born in London to Jewish parents Ellis and Muriel (Waley) Franklin. Before dying in her 30s of ovarian cancer, she made significant contributions to the understanding of DNA and RNA, contributions which were only recognized by the scientific community after her death. “We were a family which debated things,” her younger sister, Jenifer Glynn, said in an interview with BBC News. (Sept. 12, 2015) “So Rosalind grew up with a love of argument.  My mother said that when my sister was told something, even when she was very young, she wanted proof. It’s a scientific trait.”

    After earning advanced degrees in physical chemistry, she became a research associate at King’s College London in 1951 and worked on X-ray diffraction studies, which would eventually facilitate the double helix theory of DNA. It was her famous “Photograph 51” that finally revealed DNA’s helical structure to James Watson and Francis Crick in 1953. They, along with Franklin’s colleague Maurice Wilkins, shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1962, four years after her death.

    Crick and Watson failed to mention her in their acceptance speeches, even though Crick had written to Jacques Monod that “the data which really helped us to obtain the structure was mainly obtained by Rosalind Franklin,” according to a 2012 account by Glynn in The Lancet. Wilkins made a brief reference to her “very valuable” contribution.

    Franklin made respected contributions to the study of coal, carbon, graphite and viruses and published nearly 50 scientific papers, a remarkable achievement for a woman of her era who lived only 37 years. She is the namesake of Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science, a graduate school in North Chicago, Ill., and the British Royal Society’s Rosalind Franklin Award, presented annually for outstanding work in science, technology, engineering or mathematics.

    “Photograph 51” by American playwright Anna Ziegler opened in London in September 2015 and continues to be presented in theaters around the world. Nicole Kidman played Franklin in the London production. A Mars rover named the Rosalind Franklin is scheduled to be launched in 2020 by the European and Russian space agencies. The name was chosen by a British panel from almost 36,000 suggestions. (D. 1958)

    PHOTO: National Portrait Gallery, London

    “[As to] the question of a creator. A creator of what? … I see no reason to believe that a creator of protoplasm or primeval matter, if such there be, has any reason to be interested in our insignificant race in a tiny corner of the universe, and still less in us, as still more insignificant individuals.”

    —Franklin letter to her father in 1940 when she was 20. "Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA," by Brenda Maddox, p. 61 (2002)
    Compiled by Bill Dunn

    Paul D. Boyer

    Paul D. Boyer

    On this date in 1918, molecular biochemist Paul D. Boyer was born in Provo, Utah, the middle child in a family of six in a Mormon home. His mother’s death from Addison’s disease when he was 15 awakened his interest in studying biochemistry. He became a “deacon” in the Mormon church at age 12 and graduated from Brigham Young University, where he met his future wife Lyda Whicker (they would have three children). His pursuit of science during graduate studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison altered his religious perspective. He earned his doctorate in 1943.

    After moving to Stanford University to do postdoctoral research for a war project, he and Lyda stopped going to Mormon meetings. By the time he was 25 he had “slipped over from agnostic to atheist,” he told Freethought Radio in 2007, and Lyda also professed her atheism. In 1955 he went to Sweden on a Guggenheim Fellowship. Boyer spent 17 years as a faculty member at the University of Minnesota. He continued his work at UCLA in 1963 and became director of the newly created Molecular Biology Institute there in 1965. He would stay at UCLA for over half a century, studying enzymes, the proteins involved in biochemical processes in animal and plant cells.

    Boyer shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1997 with John Waller and Jens Skow “for their elucidation of the enzymatic mechanism underlying the synthesis of adenosine triphosphate.” As his New York Times obituary later put it, he shared the prize “for his contributions to understanding the way all organisms get energy from their environments and process it to sustain life and fuel their activities.”

    Boyer had pointed out that “belief in God and in a Hereafter dropped considerably as the level of scientific achievement increased.”  In his Nobel autobiography he called himself as a “devout atheist” and added, “I wonder if in the United States we will ever reach the day when the man-made concept of a God will not appear on our money, and for political survival must be invoked by those who seek to represent us in our democracy.”

    He became an advocate of death with dignity after the illness and death of his son Douglas in 2001. Boyer was an FFRF Life Member who spoke at the 2002 national convention in San Diego and outlined his “path to atheism” in a 2004 Freethought Today essay. He died less than two months shy of his 100th birthday. (D. 2018)

    PHOTO by Brent Nicastro.

    “My views have changed from a belief that my prayers were heard to clear atheism. … Over and over, expanding scientific knowledge has shown religious claims to be false.”

    “None of the beliefs in gods has any merit.”

    —Boyer, "A Path to Atheism," Freethought Today (March 2004)
    Compiled by Annie Laurie Gaylor

    Jean-Baptiste LaMarck

    Jean-Baptiste LaMarck

    On this date in 1744, botanist Jean-Baptiste LaMarck was born in Bazentin in northern France, the 11th child in an impoverished aristocratic family. He was an early proponent of the idea that biological evolution occurred and proceeded in accordance with natural laws. He was educated at the Jesuit College in Amiens but left the seminary to join the army and fight in Prussia. After five years of service he was injured and turned to the study of medicine, which he pursued for four years before turning to botany.

    LaMarck was appointed Royal Botanist in 1781 and became professor of invertebrate zoology at the Natural History Museum in 1793. He was the first to coin the word “invertebrate.” LaMarck wrote Philosophie Zoologique (1809), proposing an early theory of evolution.

    Darwin and others eventually hailed LaMarck, who died in obscurity and poverty, for doing the “eminent service of arousing attention to the probability of all changes in the organic, as well as in the inorganic world, being the result of law and not of miraculous interposition.” LaMarck was a Deist in the classical sense. (D. 1829)

    PHOTO: Lamarck c. 1802 in a portrait by Charles Thévenin.

    “All knowledge that is not the real product of observation, or of consequences deduced from observation, is entirely groundless and illusory.”

    —LaMarck, "Systeme analytique des connaissances positive de l'homme" (1830)

    John T. Scopes

    On this date in 1900, famed litigant John Thomas Scopes — defendant in the Scopes “monkey trial” — was born in Paducah, Ky., to Mary (Brown) and Thomas Scopes, the fifth of their five children and the largest at birth (12 pounds). He had four sisters: May, Ethel, Irene and Lela. Thomas Scopes was born in the slums of London and was nominally Anglican when he married his Presbyterian bride.

    In his 1967 memoir “Center of the Storm: Memoirs of John T. Scopes,” he said his father read him excerpts from several works by Charles Darwin, which he read in their entirety when he was older. He attended Sunday school and church services regularly until his senior year in high school when an argument with the minister led to him leaving the church. His favorite authors were Dickens, Twain and Jack London. Each, Scopes wrote, tried “to show that civilization is a veneer and to warn us against accepting, without question, the soothsayers of the past.”

    The elder Scopes, who embraced agnosticism later in life, also embraced trade unionism and Socialist icon Eugene V. Debs while working as a railroad machinist. His son followed in his footsteps in rejecting organized religion and its moralizing, believing that people’s well-being stemmed from economic justice. Scopes wrote, “Dad didn’t believe the products of poverty and ignorance could be improved by passing laws on morals or by running the whores out of town.”

    Little did Scopes imagine that the bible-toting politician William Jennings Bryan, the commencement speaker at his 1919 high school graduation in Salem, Ill., would play a key part in his life in a few years. After three years at the universities of Illinois and Kentucky, Scopes still had no major, then chose law and graduated with a B.A. He took a job in 1924 teaching public high school math, physics and chemistry and coaching football for $150 a month in Dayton, Tenn. He started attending church again to socialize despite the “Repent ye, sinner, or suffer the consequences” sermons that permeated Protestant services, Scopes later wrote.

    Bryan had surfaced in the area to attack the teaching of evolution theory and, in 1925, Tennessee passed the Butler Act that made it a crime “to teach any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man had descended from a lower order of animals.”

    When the regular biology teacher, who was also principal, declined to test the law in court because he was married with children and had family responsibilities, bachelor Scopes agreed to challenge it even though he had only filled in as biology teacher when the principal was gone. He wasn’t even sure he had covered evolution in class, having only assigned readings from a state-required textbook. Famed attorney Clarence Darrow led the defense team hired by the American Civil Liberties Union. Bryan agreed to represent the World’s Christian Fundamentals Association and was accepted by the state as a special prosecutor.

    Journalist H.L. Mencken brought the case to the nation’s attention by labeling it the “monkey trial.” He reported: “The rustic judge, a candidate for re-election, has postured the yokels like a clown in a ten-cent side show, and almost every word he has uttered has been an undisguised appeal to their prejudices and superstitions.” The circus-like atmosphere in sweltering Dayton evoked worldwide interest, with 22 Western Union operators transmitting copy from a nearby grocery store. The all-male jury had six Baptists, four Methodists, one Disciple of Christ member and one man who didn’t belong to a church.

    Scopes had been arrested on May 5. The trial opened on July 10. “Center of the Storm” covers the arguments in great, informative and often hilarious detail. On July 21, the jury brought in a guilty verdict after deliberating nine minutes. The judge imposed a fine of $100. Scopes told him the conviction and fine were unjust: “I will continue in the future, as I have in the past, to oppose this law in any way I can.” Bryan died in his sleep five days later.

    On appeal, the state Supreme Court upheld the law’s constitutionality but overturned the conviction on the grounds that the fine was excessive because it was over the $50 maximum that could be levied by judges. Only juries could exceed that limit. The state chose not to retry the case. Not until 1967 did Tennessee repeal its anti-evolution statute.

    Scopes was offered but declined to accept a new contract at the Dayton school due to the case’s notoriety. Instead he enrolled in a graduate geology program at the University of Chicago before joining Gulf Oil as a field engineer on Venezuela’s Lake Maracaibo. He later worked as an oil scout out of Beeville, Texas, then in the company’s Houston office and in Shreveport, La., where he stayed until retiring in 1964.

    In his memoir, Scopes wrote about courting Mildred Walker — whose father also worked in Venezuela — whom he married in 1930. “She was a Roman Catholic and to please her I agree to be married in her church. …. News stories subsequently made a point of my being a member of the Catholic Church; I emphasized to all who interviewed me that I had done this simply to please my bride.” He took Catholic instructions to prepare. “The priest in Maracaibo surely realized I couldn’t accept everything he told me I should believe. A good agnostic couldn’t give up his faith that easily. Nevertheless I politely listened to his instructions and I was baptized. I have not since been a communicant.” They remained married until Scopes’ death and had two sons, John Jr. (b. 1932) and William (b. 1936).

    In a 1961 letter to journalist and film critic Harold Salemson, he wrote about touring to promote the 1960 movie “Inherit the Wind,” a fictionalized version of the case. A stage production had debuted in 1955. A Shreveport Methodist congregation had invited him to speak, and to the standing-room-only gathering Scopes said, ” ‘I am an agnostic member of a Catholic family and would like to tell a Methodist group how to think —.’ They loved it.”

    According to John Scopes Jr., his aunts Lela and Ethel became the boys’ de facto parents for about three years (“pawned us off on my father’s sisters”) due to their parents’ alcoholism. (The American Biology Teacher, February 2020) Scopes died of cancer at age 70 in Shreveport, preceding his wife in death at age 85 in 1990. At Lela’s suggestion, “A Man of Courage” was engraved on Scopes’ tombstone. (D. 1970

    PHOTO: Scopes in 1925; Library of Congress photo

    “Of course, it was impossible to teach biology without teaching evolution. But to the fundamentalists, evolution symbolized all that was repugnant. It was a threat to religious belief, they thought. They equated evolution with agnosticism, which in turn they made synonymous with atheism.”

    —"Center of the Storm: Memoirs of John T. Scopes" (1967)
    Compiled by Bill Dunn

    Ellery Schempp

    Ellery Schempp

    On this date in 1940, Ellery Schempp was born in Philadelphia. He started protesting morning devotions as a 16-year-old junior in Abington Senior High in Pennsylvania in 1956. State law then required 10 bible verses to be read in every classroom at the beginning of each school day, followed by students standing to recite the Lord’s Prayer and flag salute. Twenty to 30 states had similar laws. He protested by bringing a copy of the Quran to school to show that the bible was not unique and read that silently instead of standing for the Lord’s Prayer. He ended up in the principal’s office.

    Schempp then wrote a letter to the ACLU asking for help. The ACLU filed a lawsuit. After he graduated in 1958 he was no longer a plaintiff, but his family, including his father Ed Schempp, his mother Sydney, and younger siblings, carried on the celebrated case, Abington School District v. Schempp, which resulted in a landmark 8-1 decision in 1963 declaring devotional bible reading and prayer rituals in schools unconstitutional.

    “We received about 5,000 letters, roughly a third supporting us, a third opposing in reasonable terms, a third hateful and vituperative,” Schempp said. The decision has stood as a bulwark against the coercive proselytization of  schoolchildren and has stood the test of time. Steven Solomon at New York University documented the landmark case in the book Ellery’s Protest, published by the University of Michigan Press (2007).

    Schempp attended Tufts University, where he graduated cum laude in physics and geology. He earned a Ph.D. at Brown in physics. He worked on fiber optics research, joined the staff of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in 1980 and worked on the development of MRI systems. A member of the American Physical Society, he has traveled widely, including to Greenland, the Canadian Arctic, Antarctica, the Alps, the Himalayas, the Sierras and New Zealand.  A Lifetime Member of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, he was named a Champion of the First Amendment in 2007.

    “The Supreme Court’s recent decisions are all about eclipsing the Etablishment Clause in favor of the Free Exercise Clause. I’ve gotten to the point where I say I don’t believe in freedom of religion anymore. It’s become so ridiculous. People today are saying, ‘I have a very sincere belief, I don’t believe in red lights, and where is my freedom?’ ” (Washington Post interview, June 23, 2023) Schempp added, “It’s getting worse because of Donald Trump and MAGA types, but it’s been brewing for a long time.”

    “Public prayer is not intended to promote religious values, but to enhance the authority of some churches and some political views over others. Similarly with the posting of the Ten Commandments. It is about power, not about religion. … And the Constitution clearly intends that there should be freedom from religion.”

    —Schempp, Champion of the First Amendment acceptance speech to FFRF (Oct. 13, 2007)
    Compiled by Annie Laurie Gaylor; photo by Brent Nicastro

    Stephen J. Gould

    Stephen J. Gould

    On this date in 1941, paleontologist and author Stephen Jay Gould was born in New York City. He graduated from Antioch College with a degree in geology in 1963 and earned his Ph.D. from Columbia University in 1967. The evolutionary biologist, a professor of geology and zoology at Harvard was named Alexander Agassiz Professor of Zoology in 1982.

    Gould was Discover magazine’s 1981 “Scientist of the Year” and was even cartoonized in “The Simpsons” TV show. His book The Mismeasure of Man (1982) won the National Book Critics’ Circle Award. He was known for his popular scientific essays in Natural History magazine, most of which were collected in book form, including Ever Since Darwin: Reflections in Natural History (1980), The Panda’s Thumb (1981), which won the 1981 American Book Award for Science, Hen’s Teeth and Horse’s Toes (1983) and Wonderful Life (1990). His last book, The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, was a 1,433-page opus that he began when he was first diagnosed with cancer in 1982.

    Gould advanced, with Niles Eldredge, the evolutionary theory of “punctuated equilibrium” (dubbed “evolution by jerks” by some), postulating long periods of evolutionary stability interrupted by spurts of evolutionary change. He was nicknamed “the bulldog of evolutionary biology” for his commitment to popularizing the understanding of evolution. His field of research was invertebrate paleontology specializing in land snails.

    Gould was a humanist laureate in the Council for Secular Humanism’s International Academy of Humanism. In his 1999 book Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life, Gould argued that science and religion do not need to be in conflict (“non-overlapping magisteria”), an argument that was controversial with some scientists and many freethinkers because it seemed to grant religion default authority over ethical questions. He died of metastasized lung cancer at age 60 in 2002.

    “We are here because one odd group of fishes had a peculiar fin anatomy that could transform into legs for terrestrial creatures; because the earth never froze entirely during an ice age; because a small and tenuous species, arising in Africa a quarter of a million years ago, has managed, so far, to survive by hook and by crook. We may yearn for a ‘higher answer’ — but none exists.”

    —Gould interview, Life magazine (December 1988)

    Herb Grosch

    Herb Grosch

    On this date in 1918, computer science pioneer Herbert Reuben John Grosch was born in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, to English emigrants Bessie (Adams) and Reuben Grosch. His father was a skilled cabinet maker who later supervised others in the craft. Grosch was their only child.

    His parents attended Anglican services, at least until Grosch at age 9 refused to attend anymore and they stopped going. “Mother later in life developed a reasonable amount of religiosity again and started going a few times a year,” Grosch later said. “I think Dad used to drive her there and leave her and pick her up again at the end of the service.” (Oral interview, Aug. 26, 1970, National Museum of American History)

    After his father started working in the U.S., Grosch went to school in Toledo, Ohio, and graduated from high school in the Detroit suburb of Royal Oak, Mich. Enrolling at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, he studied astronomy, astrophysics and celestial mechanics, eventually earning a Ph.D. in astronomy there in 1942. 

    He took a position at the U.S. Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C., in 1941, the year he married Dorothy Carlson in a Lutheran service. She was an astronomical assistant at the Mount Wilson Observatory in Pasadena, Calif. Six years his senior and suffering from depression, she died in 1956 from an overdose of sleeping pills when he was 38.

    Not long after her death, Grosch married a teacher, Elizabeth Yeager, whom he’d known while they were in junior high in Toledo. After divorcing, he married Joyce Winn, a divorcée with two young sons, in 1965. They divorced in 1972. Three years later, he married Nancy Hall, who died of cancer in 1996. “I only go to churches to get married,” Grosch later said. “But I always seem to marry people that want to go to church. Although they also turn out only to go to church to get married.” (Ibid.)

    Grosch has done pioneering computer work with IBM, General Electric, the federal government and other organizations in the U.S. and overseas. He worked on atomic bomb calculations as part of the 1940s Manhattan Project and was friends with Werner von Braun.

    In 1953 in the Journal of the Optical Society of America, he wrote: “I believe that there is a fundamental rule, which I modestly call Grosch’s law, giving added economy only as the square root of the increase in speed — that is, to do a calculation ten times as cheaply you must do it a hundred times as fast.” It became the basis for the aphorism, “Economy is the square root of speed.”

    He held a Columbia University professorship from 1946-51 and various others of shorter duration at Arizona State, Boston University, New Mexico State, the University of Nevada-Las Vegas and the University of Toronto. He was editor of the journal Computerworld (1973-76) and president of the American Rocket Society (later the Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics).

    Brian Hayes, American Scientist columnist and editor-in-chief, wrote in 2010 that Grosch cultivated the role of an outsider who saw himself as a lone wolf. “Even when he was an insider he was an outsider. Grosch was elected president of the Association for Computing Machinery — but as a dissident candidate, opposing the slate anointed by the nominating committee.”  He died at age 91. (D. 2010)

    “I made them quit, essentially. When I was nine years old I decided that I was an atheist. So I told them, ‘Well you shouldn’t go to church anymore, it’s silly.’ Well, apparently they’d been going to church primarily for my benefit. So after I refused to go, they quit going too.”

    —Grosch, answering if his parents attended church regularly. Interview, National Museum of American History (July 15, 1970)
    Compiled by Bill Dunn

    Alexander von Humboldt

    Alexander von Humboldt

    On this date in 1769, Friedrich Wilhelm Heinrich Alexander von Humboldt, who came to be known as one of the greatest explorers of his time, was born in Berlin to a prominent Pomeranian family. Baptized Lutheran, he and his older brother, Karl Wilhelm, were educated by private tutors in the classics, French, mathematics, philosophy, politics and law. Botany quickly became Humboldt’s favorite subject and, even at an early age, he collected and classified insects and plants at his family’s estate in Tegel.

    At age 16 he attended physics lectures at a physician’s home, learned of Benjamin Franklin and installed a lightning rod on Castle Tegel, which the local clergy deemed “blasphemous.” At 22 he completed his studies in geology, a new science at the time, and became a mine inspector who would later advocate for the welfare of miners. Humboldt was introduced to Goethe in 1794 and they became close friends and intellectual comrades. Goethe reportedly said that he could learn more in an hour of conversation with Humboldt than in a week of reading books. 

    Restless and curious about the world, Humboldt resigned from the mining business, traveled around Europe (developing revolutionary theories on the geological structure of Spain), and in 1799 embarked on an expedition of scientific discovery. He traveled for five years, visiting and exploring the Americas, where he was horrified by the practice of slavery. On this voyage, in addition to establishing the foundations of geography and meteorology, Humboldt met Thomas Jefferson and was deeply impressed by his enlightened political views but could not reconcile that he owned slaves.

    He contracted malaria in South America and was nursed back to health by cannibals. He wrote with dismay about their treatment by the Jesuits and remarked at their deep sense of humanity. Upon his return to Europe, Humboldt published writings of his travels and scientific discoveries, which brought him fame throughout Europe. He became an active voice in politics, supporting the 1848 revolutions, universal political rights, the emancipation of the Jews and championing the rights of impoverished artists and scientists who faced persecution. 

    In 1845, at 77, Humboldt wrote Kosmos: Entwurf einer physischen Weltbeschreibung (Draft of a Physical Description of the World), hailed as one of the century’s most extraordinary scientific works. Kosmos attempted to explain the unity of the universe with naturalistic (rather than spiritual) laws, easily understandable to the public. It was never finished but it was an encyclopedic treasure of all that was known of the physical sciences in the mid-nineteenth century.

    Among his other achievements: He was the first to raise anthropologists’ awareness of the neglected Incan, Mayan and Aztec civilizations; the first in astronomy to observe a meteor shower with scientific instruments; he collected over 60,000 plants and identified 3,500 new species; his maps of Central and South America were the first for geographers; he was the first to accurately understand volcanic activity.

    Humboldt died at age 89 in the same year Darwin‘s On the Origin of Species was published. A state funeral was held for him with more than 600 people, including many students, attending. He was buried in Tegel next to his brother. D. 1859.

    “One of the most encyclopedic scientists of the time, Humboldt was a Pantheist like his friend Goethe, and a contemptuous anti-clerical like his friend F. Arago. … His letters use very strong language about the Churches to the end of his life. He calls Luther ‘that diabolical reformer.’ ”

    —"A Biographical Dictionary of Modern Rationalists" by Joseph McCabe (1998)
    Compiled by Annie Laurie Gaylor

    Sean B. Carroll

    Sean B. Carroll

    On this date in 1960, Sean B. Carroll was born in Toledo, Ohio (not to be confused with cosmologist Sean M. Carroll). He earned a B.A. in biology from Washington University after only two years and graduated with a Ph.D. in immunology from Tufts Medical School in 1983 when he was 22. Carroll worked as a professor of genetics and molecular biology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an investigator at the University of Wisconsin’s Howard Hughes Medical Institute. He primarily studied evolutionary developmental biology, a relatively new field that focuses on the evolution of the development of organisms. Carroll, now an emeritus professor, has two sons with his wife Jamie.

    Carroll is a strong advocate for evolution. When he was interviewed by Freethought Radio in 2008, Carroll stated that he often works with teachers who want to incorporate evolution into their curriculum and helps to develop high school lesson plans that include evolution. He has published three books about evolution: Endless Forms Most Beautiful: The New Science of Evo Devo (2005), The Making of the Fittest: DNA Evidence for Evolution (2006) and Remarkable Creatures: Epic Adventures in the Search for the Origins of Species (2009). He writes the “Remarkable Creatures” science column for The New York Times and was awarded the 2010 Stephen Jay Gould Prize for raising public awareness about the importance of evolution.

    In 2007, Carroll wrote the article “God as Genetic Engineer,” which debunked author Michael Behe’s book about intelligent design, The Edge of Evolution (2007). When asked in a 2003 interview by Nature magazine what he wished the public understood better about science, Carroll responded, “The depth and breadth of evidence supporting scientific ideas: compared with, say, the absence of evidence in areas like astrology, UFOs and ghosts.”

    PHOTO: By Jane Kitschier under CC 2.5.

    “If a designer was designing us, either they’re a terrible designer or they’ve got a great sense of humor, because we’re carrying around all sorts of genes that don’t work.”

    —Carroll, Freethought Radio interview (May 24, 2008)
    Compiled by Sabrina Gaylor

    Steven Pinker

    Steven Pinker

    On this date in 1954, Steven Pinker, who, according to The Guardian, has “the looks of a rock star, a fondness for early Woody Allen movies, and a world-class reputation as a scientist and writer,” was born in Montreal’s Anglophone Jewish community. Pinker earned a bachelor’s with first-class honors in experimental psychology from McGill University (1976) and a Ph.D. in experimental psychology from Harvard in 1979. Pinker, published extensively in the fields of linguistics and experimental psychology, taught at MIT for 21 years and now is Johnstone Professor of Psychology at Harvard.

    Among his numerous books are The Language Instinct (1994), How the Mind Works (1997), The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (2002), The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature (2007), The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (2011), Language, Cognition, and Human Nature: Selected Articles (2013), The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century (2014), and Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress (2018). His writings have frequently appeared in Time, The New Republic, The New York Times and many other magazines and newspapers.

    Pinker has won numerous writing awards, was named by Time magazine as one of the most influential people in the world in 2004 and was added by Foreign Policy in 2011 to its list of top global thinkers. He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 2016. In addition to receiving six honorary doctorates, Pinker is a Humanist Laureate, 2006 Humanist of the Year and honorary president of the Canadian Psychological Association.

    A longtime critic of creationism, Pinker wrote in a 2009 Boston Globe op-ed, “Virtually no scientist takes ‘intelligent design’ seriously, and in the famous Dover, Pennsylvania trial in 2005, a federal court ruled that it is religion in disguise.” In a 2007 Salon.com interview, Pinker and his wife, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, said they were proud atheists. Pinker continued, “Atheists are the most reviled minority in the United States, so it’s no small matter to come out and say it. … I would put faith in the same category [as alchemy] because faith is believing something without a good reason to believe it.”

    He fought and won against a proposal at Harvard to require a course on “Reason and Faith.” About that he wrote, “[U]niversities are about reason, pure and simple. Faith — believing something without good reasons to do so — has no place in anything but a religious institution, and our society has no shortage of these. Imagine if we had a requirement for ‘Astronomy and Astrology’ or ‘Psychology and Parapsychology.’ ” (The Harvard Crimson, Oct. 27, 2006.)

    Pinker, who has been a guest on Freethought Radio, was awarded FFRF’s 2004 Emperor Has No Clothes Award for his plain speaking on religion and in appreciation of his forthright espousal of his rational views. He is also a member of FFRF’s honorary board.

    “I was never religious in the theological sense. I never outgrew my conversion to atheist at 13.”

    —Pinker, quoted in "Steven Pinker: the mind reader," the UK Guardian (Nov. 6, 1999)
    Compiled by Bonnie Gutsch; photo by Ingrid Laas

    Jean Baptiste Delambre

    Jean Baptiste Delambre

    On this date in 1749, Jean Baptiste Delambre was born in France. Delambre made huge contributions to astronomy despite losing most of his vision to smallpox as a toddler. He was educated at a Jesuit school in Amiens until the Jesuits were expelled from France in 1764. Although contemplating life as a priest, Delambre became a rationalist and atheist. He tutored, then studied in Paris under the eminent atheist and astronomer Joseph Jérôme Lalande, becoming his assistant.

    In 1789 Delambre recorded the transit of Mercury across the sun and corrected the existing tables. In 1789 he won the Grand Prix from the Academy of Sciences for calculating the precise orbit of Uranus. He was given his own observatory in 1789. In 1792 he published tables on the sun, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and the satellites of Jupiter. Delambre wrote the first of three volumes containing the measurement of Earth in 1806. In 1809, Napoleon, his admirer, asked the academy to award a “best scientific publication of the decade,” which went to Delambre.

    Delambre’s multi-volume History of Modern Astronomy (1821) became a science classic. Mathematician Jean Fourier, in his obituary of Delambre, said the scientific world was indebted to him for the geodetic operation. The United States was indebted to Delambre for his role in freeing a Mr. M. Smithson, a political prisoner of war. In 1809, Delambre wrote the French Ministry of War requesting his release. Smithson later bequeathed his extensive estate to the United States to found the establishment that became the Smithsonian Institution. D. 1822.

    “The historian owes the dead nothing but the truth.” 

    —Delambre, "Histoire de l'astronomie moderne" (1821)

    Ivan Pavlov

    Ivan Pavlov

    On this date in 1849, Ivan Petrovich Pavlov was born in Ryazan, Russia. He enrolled in Ryazan Ecclesiastical Seminary in the 1860s. In 1870 he dropped out in order to study natural sciences at the University of St. Petersburg. He graduated in 1875 and went on to attend the Academy of Medical Surgery. Pavlov became a professor of pharmacology at the Military Medical Academy in 1890 and director of the department of physiology at the Institute of Experimental Medicine in 1891, where he studied the physiology of the digestive system, often using dogs as research subjects.

    He wrote books about his research, including Work of the Digestive Glands (1897). In 1904 he earned the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine for his work with digestive organs. Pavlov married his wife, Serafima, in 1881.

    Despite Pavlov’s influential research on the digestive system, he is most famous for his discovery of classical conditioning: teaching an animal to associate a reflex with an unrelated stimulus. Pavlov made the discovery while researching the salivary glands of dogs, after he noticed that dogs salivated when they anticipated food in addition to when they began eating. This led him to condition the dogs to begin salivating when they saw or heard a variety of stimuli, most famously, bells. He accomplished this by ringing a bell every time he fed the dogs, making them associate bells with food.

    Pavlov described himself as an atheist who lost his faith when he was a seminary student. “In regard to my religiosity, my belief in God, my church attendance, there is no truth in it; it is sheer fantasy,” Pavlov told his student Evgenii Mikhailovich Kreps in the 1920s, according to the article “Pavlov’s Religious Orientation” by George Windholz (1986). Windholz also quoted Pavlov as saying, “There are weak people over whom religion has power. The strong ones — yes, the strong ones — can become thorough rationalists, relying only upon knowledge, but the weak ones are unable to do this.” D. 1936.

    “Humans saved themselves by creating religion, which enabled them to maintain themselves somehow, to survive in the midst of an uncompromising, all-powerful nature. It is a very basic instinct that is thoroughly rooted in human nature.”

    —Pavlov, quoted in “Pavlov’s Religious Orientation,” Vol. 25 of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 1986
    Compiled by Sabrina Gaylor

    Robert Phillips

    Robert Phillips

    On this date in 1929, scientist and inventor Robert Matthews Phillips was born in Arcadia, Calif., the fourth of five children born to Annette (Matthews) and Edward Ashley Phillips. One month later, stocks started their deep decline, ushering in the Great Depression.

    His father was an economics professor at the University of Southern California, where he met Phillips’ mother, who was majoring in language and later taught high school Spanish before becoming a stay-at-home mom. Just as the Depression loomed, his father was terminated at the insistence of the alumni association for giving deservedly low grades to academically underperforming athletes, threatening their football eligibility.

    The family subsisted on the proceeds from a chicken/egg ranch and an acre of land devoted to growing fruits and vegetables. “My mother was a devout Methodist and my father was a lukewarm Presbyterian,” Phillips recalled. “She would read passages from the bible to us before we went to sleep. By the tender age of 7, I was convinced that these bible passages were based on fiction.” But overall, despite the economic challenges, his childhood was quite happy.

    The family’s prospects turned positive after his father went to work for the Internal Revenue Service and Phillips was able to enroll after high school at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. He graduated from Caltech in 1952 with a B.S. in electrical engineering and joined General Electric’s advanced engineering program in Schenectady, N.Y., where he met Helen Cascio. They married in 1957 and have three daughters: Laura, Carol and Roben. They celebrated their 65th anniversary in 2022.

    Phillips had transferred to GE’s microwave lab division in Palo Alto, Calif., in 1956. He invented the ubitron a year later, a vacuum tube that was the most powerful microwave amplifier of its time. In recognition of his pioneering work, he received the Free-Electron Laser Prize in 1992. 

    Today’s free-electron lasers employ the same basic principle as the ubitron. They produce powerful electromagnetic radiation used to explore the dynamics of chemical bonds, understand photosynthesis, analyze how drugs bind with targets and create warm, dense matter to study how gas planets form.

    His career continued with research and management positions at GE, Varian and Eimac. He started a solar products company called Solartronics in 1975 and helped develop Star Microwave in 1991. In the mid-1990s, he joined the Stanford Linear Accelerator operated by Stanford University in Menlo Park, Calif., as a researcher. He retired there in 2005.

    “I love the beauty and purity of mathematics and science and marvel at the inventions and understanding that unfold as we delve into scientific research,” Phillips said.

    PHOTO: Phillips in the mid-2000s; photo courtesy of the Phillips family.

    “There is so much yet to discover, and I am perplexed and frustrated by religion, which holds humanity back from its potential to evolve and to discover by clinging to improbable stories that deny evolution and so many observable and verifiable truths.”

    —Phillips email to FFRF at age 92 (July 16, 2022)
    Compiled by Bill Dunn

    Christian de Duve

    Christian de Duve

    On this date in 1917, Nobel Prize-winning scientist Christian de Duve was born to Belgian parents in Surrey, England. He later moved to Belgium and during World War II served as a medic in the Belgian Army. He received his Ph.D. in chemistry in 1945 from the Catholic University of Leuven. His thesis focused on insulin, the chemical that regulates blood sugar and when not produced causes diabetes. He married Janine Herman in 1943. They had had two sons, Thierry and Alain, and two daughters, Anne and Françoise.

    De Duve became a professor at the Catholic University of Leuven in 1947 and in 1962 also became associated with Rockefeller Foundation laboratories in New York City. His work focused on subcellular biochemistry, cell biology and the origin of life.

    He discovered two types of cell organelles: peroxisomes and lysosomes. His research furthered understanding of genetic disorders such as Tay-Sachs disease. De Duve shared the 1974 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine with Albert Claude and George Palade for their work on cell structure. The three are recognized as the fathers of the field of modern cell biology. 

    While raised Catholic, de Duve tended toward agnosticism if not outright atheism. He strongly supported biological evolution and dismissed creation science and intelligent design, as explicitly stated in his last book, Genetics of Original Sin: The Impact of Natural Selection on the Future of Humanity (2010). In declining health at age 95, he chose to end his life in 2013 with the aid of two doctors. Euthanasia is legal in Belgium.

    “It would be an exaggeration to say I’m not afraid of death, but I’m not afraid of what comes after, because I’m not a believer.”

    —Christian de Duve, explaining his choice to die using euthanasia, The New York Times (May 6, 2013)
    Compiled by Sarah Eucalano

    Sean M. Carroll

    Sean M. Carroll

    On this date in 1966, Sean Michael Carroll was born into an Episcopalian family in Philadelphia (not to be confused with biologist Sean B. Carroll). He graduated from Harvard University with a Ph.D. in astronomy and astrophysics in 1993. Carroll is a cosmologist and physicist who works as a research professor in physics at the California Institute of Technology. He has been a postdoctoral researcher at the Center for Theoretical Physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and at the Institute for Theoretical Physics at the University of California-Santa Barbara. He is married to science writer Jennifer Ouellette.

    His books include Spacetime and Geometry: An Introduction to General Relativity (2003), From Eternity To Here: The Quest for the Ultimate Theory of Time (2010), The Particle at the End of the Universe: How the Hunt for the Higgs Boson Leads Us to the Edge of a New World (2012), The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself (2016) and Something Deeply Hidden: Quantum Worlds and the Emergence of Spacetime (2019).

    Carroll writes for the physics blog Cosmic Variance. In 2005, in a paper titled “Why (Almost All) Cosmologists are Atheists,” he wrote, “I wish to argue that religious belief necessarily entails certain statements about how the universe works, that these statements can be judged as scientific hypotheses, and that as such they should be rejected in favor of alternative ways of understanding the universe.”

    Carroll has debated Christian apologists Dinesh D’Souza, William Lane Craig and others. In 2014 he received FFRF’s Emperor Has No Clothes Award for speaking the truth about religion. His speech was titled “Atoms and Eve Incompatible.”

    PHOTO: Carroll at the LogiCal-LA 2017 Conference for Scientific Skeptics and Critical Thinkers; Sgerbic photo under CC 4.0

    “We are looking for a complete, coherent, and simple understanding of reality. Given what we know about the universe, there seems to be no reason to invoke God as part of this description.”

    —Carroll, “Why (Almost All) Cosmologists are Atheists” (2005)
    Compiled by Sabrina Gaylor

    Neil deGrasse Tyson

    Neil deGrasse Tyson

    On this date in 1958, Neil deGrasse Tyson was born in the Bronx, N.Y. His mother was a gerontologist for the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare and  his father was a sociologist and human resource commissioner for New York City Mayor John Lindsay. He earned his bachelor’s in physics from Harvard University in 1980, his master’s in astronomy from the University of Texas in 1983 and his Ph.D. in astrophysics from Columbia in 1991.

    After graduation he worked as a research associate at Princeton University (1991–94) and a staff scientist for the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History (1994–95). Tyson has served on NASA’s advisory council (2005-08) and founded the American Museum of Natural History’s astrophysics department in 2007, where he heads the Hayden Planetarium. He married Alice Young in 1988 and they have two children.

    He wrote “The Universe” essays for Natural History (1995–2005) and hosted PBS’ “NOVA scienceNOW” from 2006-11. In 2014 he hosted the television series “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey,” a successor to Carl Sagan’s 1980 series. His nine books include Origins: Fourteen Billion Years of Cosmic Evolution (2005), Death by Black Hole: And Other Cosmic Quandaries (2007) and his memoir, The Sky is Not The Limit: Adventure of an Urban Astrophysicist (2000). In 2009 he wrote The Pluto Files: The Rise and Fall of America’s Favorite Planet

    In his essay “Holy Wars,” published in Natural History magazine in October 1999, Tyson wrote, “Let there be no doubt that as they are currently practiced, there is no common ground between science and religion.” On their intersection he added, “I have yet to see a successful prediction about the physical world that was inferred or extrapolated from the content of any religion’s document.” He is also a strong opponent of intelligent design, calling it in 2005 “a philosophy of ignorance. You cannot build a program of discovery on the assumption that nobody is smart enough to figure out the answer to a problem.”

    In a September/October 2008 essay in The Humanist, Tyson wrote, “I think, based on all the folks who are agnostic historically, I come closer to the behavior of an agnostic than the behavior of an atheist.”

    He was awarded the NASA Distinguished Public Service Medal in 2004 and NASA’s Exceptional Public Service Medal in 2007. He was the recipient of the American Humanist Association’s Isaac Asimov Science Award in 2009. On a lighter note, he was People magazine’s Sexiest Astrophysicist Alive in 2000.

    PHOTO: Tyson at the 2017 Starmus IV in Trondheim, Norway, where he received a Stephen Hawking Medal for Science Communication; photo by Thor Nielsen/NTNU under CC 2.0.

    “People cited violation of the First Amendment when a New Jersey schoolteacher asserted that evolution and the Big Bang are not scientific and that Noah’s ark carried dinosaurs. This case is not about the need to separate church and state; it’s about the need to separate ignorant, scientifically illiterate people from the ranks of teachers.”

    —Tyson letter to the editor, New York Times (Dec. 21, 2006)
    Compiled by Sabrina Gaylor

    Alfred Naquet

    Alfred Naquet

    On this date in 1834, physician and politician Alfred Joseph Naquet was born in France. After obtaining a medical degree, he studied chemistry and was a professor of chemistry at Palermo from 1863 to 1866. He was sentenced to 15 months in prison upon his return to Paris when he propounded radical Garibaldian views. After Naquet’s book Religion, Propriete, Famille (Religion, Property, Family) was published in 1869, he was returned to prison for four months and fined 500 francs.

    Naquet sought refuge in Spain but after the Revolution of 1870 returned to France. He served in the Chambre from 1871-82, championing the cause of divorce reform (divorce had been abolished in France in 1816). He ultimately saw passage of his bill for a rational divorce law as a senator, the achievement for which he is largely remembered. D. 1915.

    Harry Kroto

    Harry Kroto

    On this date in 1939, chemist Harold Walter “Harry” Kroto (né Krotoschiner) was born in Wisbech, Cambridgeshire, England. His parents were both German but had to leave Berlin in 1937 because his father was Jewish. Kroto attended Sheffield University to study chemistry, graduating with honors in 1961 and receiving his Ph.D. in 1964. He did postdoctoral research at the National Research Council in Canada and Bell Laboratories in the U.S.

    He returned to England in 1967 to teach at the University of Sussex and research carbon chains in interstellar space. Aware of the laser spectroscopy work being done by Richard Smalley and Robert Curl at Rice University in Texas, Kroto contacted them and suggested they use the Rice apparatus to simulate the carbon chemistry that occurs in the atmosphere of a carbon star. The experiment supported their theory and revealed an unexpected result, the existence of a new molecule, the C60 species, aka buckminsterfullerene (buckyballs). The discovery earned Curl, Kroto and Smalley the shared Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1996. “Sir” soon preceded his name when he was knighted that year.

    In 2004 he joined the faculty at Florida State University as a professor of chemistry, where he continued his work on carbon and spearheaded the development of GEOSET (Global Educational Outreach for Science, Engineering and Technology). GEOSET is a growing online cache of video teaching modules that are available for free.

    In 1963 he married Margaret Henrietta Hunter, also a student of the University of Sheffield. They had two sons, Stephen and David. A humanist and professed atheist, he once joked, “The only mistake Bernie Madoff made was to promise returns in this life.” (According to A.C. Grayling in The Guardian, July 1, 2009.)

    He died at age 76 in Lewes, East Sussex, from complications of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. (D. 2016)

    Photo by Pd1000 under CC 3.0.

    “I am a devout atheist — nothing else makes any sense to me and I must admit to being bewildered by those, who in the face of what appears so obvious, still believe in a mystical creator.”

    —From Kroto's Nobel Prize autobiography (1996)
    Compiled by Jane Esbensen

    Henry Cavendish

    Henry Cavendish

    On this date in 1731, chemist and physicist Henry Cavendish was born in Nice, France, to a wealthy family of English aristocrats. Educated at Cambridge, he devoted his life to the study of chemistry. Among his contributions: discerning the composition of water and of the atmosphere, taking the first accurate measurement of the density of Earth and isolating hydrogen. Considered morbidly shy, especially around women, he left his female servant his meal orders in writing. Oliver Sacks speculated that he had Asperger’s syndrome.

    He was one of England’s wealthiest men by the age of 40 due to inheritances. His one social outlet was the Royal Society Club. Although he conducted numerous experiments, Cavendish did not publish articles frequently. A century after his experiments with electricity, James Clerk Maxwell discovered Cavendish’s work and published it for the first time. Cavendish did not attend church and was an agnostic, although he was buried along with his ancestors in the church which is now Derby Cathedral. D. 1810.

    “As to Cavendish’s religion, he was nothing at all. The only subjects in which he appeared to take any interest were science.”

    Biographer George Wilson, "Life of the Hon. H. Cavendish" (1851)

    Fridtjof Nansen

    Fridtjof Nansen

    On this date in 1861, explorer Fridtjof Nansen was born in Kristiania (now Oslo), Norway, and was educated at Kristiania University. Nansen took his first voyage in 1882 to the Greenland Sea, then was appointed curator of the Bergen Natural History Museum, where he met leading scientists and became a Darwinist. He made headlines in Norway when he skied across the mountains from Bergen to Kristiania to take part in sports competitions.

    While working on his doctorate in zoology, Nansen became the first person to cross Greenland on skis. From 1893-96 he led a famous expedition to the Arctic. Although not quite reaching the North Pole, he became an international celebrity. Nansen helped negotiate the peaceful split between Norway and Sweden in 1905, then became Norway’s first ambassador to Great Britain.

    A professor of zoology at Kristiania University for several years after his voyage, he returned to the university as rector magnificus responsible for the scientific vision of the institution. Nansen wrote up his exploits in The Norwegian North Polar Expedition and Northern Mists (1911). In the early 1920s when famine struck the Soviet Union, Nansen overcame diplomatic difficulties to engineer a successful prisoner swap between Russia and Germany and Austria-Hungary, involving more than 400,000 prisoners. For this humanitarian feat he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1922.

    He worked with the League of Nations and International Red Cross, which used Nansen’s name on a special passport for refugees deprived by Lenin of their nationality during the Russian civil war. Refugees such as Stravinsky, Rachmaninoff and Chagall came to the West bearing the Nansen passport. After the award, Nansen brokered an “ethnic separation” between fighting Turks and Greeks, arranging a population exchange.

    Nansen married twice and had five children. He was an atheist and was given a nonreligious state funeral featuring classical music but no elegies after dying in 1930 of a heart attack at age 68.

    “[T]he religion of one age is, as a rule, the literary entertainment of the next.”

    —Nansen speech titled "Science and the Purpose of Life," published by the Rationalist Press Association (1909)

    Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar

    Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar

    On this date in 1910, Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar was born in Lahore, now in Pakistan but at the time a part of British India. He earned a B.S. with honors in physics from Presidency College in India in 1930 and a Ph.D. in physics from Cambridge University in England in 1933. After his graduation, Chandrasekhar was awarded a Prize Fellowship at Trinity College from 1933 to 1937. He worked as a research associate and professor at the University of Chicago from 1937 to 1995, and became an American citizen in 1953. He married Lalitha Doraiswamy in 1936.

    Chandrasekhar was an astrophysicist who made influential discoveries about white dwarf stars in 1930 when he was only 20. He is known for discovering the Chandrasekhar limit. He found that stars with masses below the Chandrasekhar limit form white dwarfs after they collapse, but stars with masses above the limit continue collapsing. His studies of stellar evolution were influential in the discovery of black holes.

    He won the 1983 Nobel Prize in Physics with William Fowler for their work with stellar structure and evolution. He published 10 books, including Introduction to the Study of Stellar Structure (1939), Principles of Stellar Dynamics (1942) and The Mathematical Theory of Black Holes (1983).

    Chandrasekhar was the nephew of C. V. Raman, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1930. He became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1953. He died of a heart attack at the University of Chicago Hospital in 1995, 20 years after his first heart attack. His wife died at age 102 in 2013.

    “I am not religious in any sense; in fact, I consider myself an atheist.”

    —Chandrasekhar, quoted in "Chandra: A Biography of S. Chandrasekhar" by Kameshwar Wali (1991)
    Compiled by Sabrina Gaylor

    Michael Servetus (Executed)

    Michael Servetus (Executed)

    On this date in 1553, Spanish physician Michael Servetus, né Miguel Serveto, was executed for heresy in Geneva, Switzerland. Born in 1511, Servetus grew up near Aragon and studied law at the University of Toulouse in France, where he first read the bible, only newly available in printed form. Struck by the absence of mention of the trinity in the bible and repelled by the excesses of the Catholic Church, he turned to Protestantism. Its proponents also cast him out for his views.

    In Paris he met a young student, John Calvin, who at one time was forced himself to go into hiding for heresy. Servetus studied medicine at the University of Paris, where he published the first work accurately describing pulmonary circulation. He practiced medicine for 12 years in Vienne, France. In 1546 he started a fateful, heated correspondence on the trinity with Calvin, who wrote a colleague that if Servetus should ever visit Geneva, “if my authority is of any avail I will not suffer him to get out alive.”

    Servetus published Christianismi Restitutio (The Restoration of Christianity) under a pseudonym in 1553, including 30 of his letters to Calvin. In it he rejected original sin and salvation, vicarious atonement and Christ’s dual nature. When he sent Calvin a copy, Calvin exposed Servetus’ identity to the Catholic Inquisition in Vienne. Arrested and interrogated, he escaped from prison but was arrested in Geneva while traveling to Italy.

    The Protestant Council of Geneva convicted him of anti-trinitarianism and opposition to child baptism. Calvin lobbied for a beheading but the council sentenced him to be burned at the stake, where he was burned alive at age 42 atop a pyre of his own books on Oct. 27, 1553.

    “In the Bible, there is no mention of the Trinity.”

    —Servetus, "On the Errors of the Trinity" (1531)

    William Maclure

    William Maclure

    On this date in 1763, William Maclure, now known as the “Father of American Geology,” was born to a wealthy family in Ayr, Scotland. He visited the United States as a teenager, made a fortune in the import-export business in London and became a U.S. citizen in 1796, where he conducted studies that eventually became the U.S Geological Survey. Maclure’s map, the first widely available geologic map, was published in 1809 as part of the paper Observations on the Geology of the United States. He was president of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia (1817–37).

    In 1824, along with social reformer Robert Owen, Maclure established a short-lived utopian community in New Harmony, Indiana. In 1838 he founded the first free public library in Indiana, the New Harmony Workingmen’s Institute. Maclure lived in Mexico from 1827 until his death in 1840.

    He became critical of formal religion early in life due to his experience with the Calvinist Church of Scotland, which taught that everyone was inherently sinful. He called religion a “delusion” and said there was “nothing beyond the grave.” (Maclure of New Harmony: Scientist, Progressive Educator, Radical Philanthropist by Leonard Warren.) He was disdainful of the clergy: “The priests have retained their consideration and labor hard in their calling for the propagation of ignorance, superstition, and hypocracy [sic],” Maclure wrote in his journal while visiting France in 1807.

    “We shall be astonished at the long continuance of the delusion that has led the human intellect astray, through the mysterious wilderness of deception, by the cunning intrigues of church and State.”

    —William Maclure, quoted in "Opinions on various subjects: dedicated to the industrious producers, Vol. 1" (1831)
    Compiled by Elsa Kramer and Sabrina Gaylor

    Hermann Bondi

    Hermann Bondi

    On this date in 1919, Sir Hermann Bondi (knighted in 1973) was born in Vienna, Austria. He graduated from Trinity College with a degree in mathematics in 1940. Bondi worked as a university lecturer at Cambridge University from 1945-48, a professor of mathematics at King’s College from 1954-71 and a master of Churchill College in Cambridge from 1983-90.

    Bondi was an astronomer, mathematician and cosmologist renowned for his studies of relativity and black holes. He was one of the developers of the steady-state theory of the universe, which proposed that matter is constantly being created and that the universe had no beginning in time. (The steady-state theory has since been replaced with the big-bang theory.) Bondi discovered the Bondi Accretion, the Bondi Radius and Bondi mass. His books include Cosmology (1952), The Universe at Large (1961) and his autobiography Science, Churchill and Me (1990).

    He was also the director of the European Space Research Organisation from 1967-71 and chief scientific adviser for England’s Ministry of Defence from 1971-77. He married Christine Stockman, a fellow physicist and humanist, in 1947 and had two sons and three daughters.

    Although his family was Jewish, Bondi was a strong humanist who never “felt the need for religion,” according to a UK Telegraph article (Sept. 13, 2005). Bondi co-founded the British Humanist Association and served as its president from 1982-99 and was president of the Rationalist Press Association from 1982 until 2005. Bondi donated half of the money from a large award he received to the Atheist Centre in Andra Pradesh, India. (D. 2005)

    “Our humanist attitude should therefore throughout be to stress what we all have in common with each other and relegate quarrelsome religion to the private domain where it can do [less] harm.”

    —Bondi, April 1995 speech titled “Ethics, Science and Humanism” (quoted on the International Humanist and Ethical Union website, June 1, 1995).

    Compiled by Sabrina Gaylor

    Greg Graffin

    Greg Graffin

    On this date in 1964, Gregory Walter Graffin was born in Racine, Wis. Graffin says he was raised in “an absolute vacuum of religion.” His father was a University of Wisconsin English professor. His parents divorced and he moved with his mother to Los Angeles when he was 11.

    Graffin co-founded the punk rock band Bad Religion in 1980. The band released “Age of Unreason” in 2019, its 17th studio album. It was among the headliners at the 2012 Reason Rally in Washington, D.C., where Graffin sang the national anthem. He earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from UCLA and a Ph.D. in zoology in 2003 from Cornell University. His thesis examined religion’s effect on humanity and included asking evolutionary biologists if they believed in God; almost 90% of those surveyed did not.

    His books include Is Belief in God Good, Bad or Irrelevant? A Professor and Punk Rocker Discuss Science, Religion, Naturalism & Christianity (with Preston Jones), Evolution and Religion, Anarchy Evolution: Faith, Science, and Bad Religion in a World Without God (with Steve Olson) and Population Wars: A New Perspective on Competition and Coexistence. As of this writing he teaches a course on evolution for non-majors at Cornell between band tours. 

    Graffin calls himself a naturalist and says while he doesn’t believe in God, he’d rather not be called an atheist because “it’s not really saying much about how you came to that conclusion.” He received the Outstanding Lifetime Achievement Award in Cultural Humanism from Harvard University’s Humanist Chaplaincy in 2008.

    He married Greta Maurer in 1988. After divorcing in 1996, he married Allison Kleinheinz in 2008. He has a daughter, Ella, and a son, Graham, with Greta.

    Graffin in Germany with Bad Religion at the Taubertal Festival 2013; photo by Antje Naumann under CC 3.0.

    “If you can believe in God, then you can believe in anything. It’s a gang mentality.”

    —Graffin, wired.com interview (November 2006)
    Compiled by Sabrina Gaylor

    Marie Curie

    Marie Curie

    On this date in 1867, two-time Nobel Prize winner Maria Salomea Curie, née Sklodowska, was born in Warsaw, Poland. Her father was an atheist and her mother was Catholic. The deaths of her mother and sister caused her to abandon Catholicism and become agnostic as a teen. (Marie Curie by Robert Reid, 1978.) Curie moved to Paris to study at the Sorbonne in 1891, got her degree in math and married Pierre Curie in a civil ceremony. The couple had two daughters, Irène and Ève. Curie broke many barriers for her sex, becoming the first European woman to earn a science doctorate and the first to be awarded a Nobel Prize. 

    She and Pierre and physicist Henri Becquerel were jointly awarded the 1903 Nobel Prize in Physics “for their joint researches on the radiation phenomena discovered by Professor Henri Becquerel.” She coined the very word “radioactive.” She won the 1911 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for “the discovery of the elements radium and polonium, by the isolation of radium and the study of the nature and compounds of this remarkable element.”

    Pierre died tragically in 1906 at age 46 when he slipped in the street and a horse-drawn cart ran over his head. Curie took over his professorship of general physics at the University of Paris, winning another first for women. She was also the first person and only woman to win a Nobel Prize twice and the only person to win a Nobel in two different scientific fields. Yet in 1911 the French Academy of Sciences failed in a close vote to elect her as a member. Before the election, she was vilified by the right-wing press as a foreigner and atheist. Not until 1962 would a woman, ironically a doctoral student of Curie’s, be elected.

    She became director of the Curie Laboratory in the Radium Institute of the University of Paris in 1914 and spent much of the rest of her life pursuing the goal of “easing human suffering.” Her daughter Irène and her husband Frédéric Joliot-Curie were jointly awarded the 1935 Nobel Prize for Physics for synthesizing new elements.

    Her daughter Ève in her memoir “Mme. Curie” (1937) described all family members as rationalists. Curie wrote in 1923 that Eugène Curie, her physician father-in-law, was “a free thinker and an anticlerical, he did not have his sons baptized, nor did he have them practice any form of religion.”

    Curie died in 1934 at age 66 of aplastic anemia attributed to radiation exposure. In 1995 she became the first woman to be entombed on her own merits in the Panthéon in Paris.

    “Pierre belonged to no religion and I did not practice any.”

    Marie Curie, "Pierre Curie" (1923)

    Edmund Halley

    Edmund Halley

    On this date in 1656, astronomer Edmund Halley was born in England. His father was a wealthy London soapmaker.  The Royal Society published a scientific paper by Halley when he was only 19. He cut short his college career to travel to St. Helena, the southernmost point of the British Empire, where he catalogued 341 stars, discovered a star cluster and made the first complete observation of a transit of Mercury.

    King Charles II conferred a degree from Oxford upon Halley without requiring an exam. At 22 he became one of the youngest members admitted to the Royal Society. He had worked with Royal Astronomer John Flamsteed at Oxford and Greenwich. Flamsteed became Halley’s enemy and blocked his appointment to Oxford on account of Halley’s rationalist views in 1691. He married Mary Tooke in 1682 and they had three children.

    Halley urged Newton to write his Principia Mathematica and published it for him. Halley remains famous for being the first to predict the return of the comet named for him, appearing every 75-76 years. After several posts, Halley finally secured a professorship at Oxford in 1703. When Flamsteed died, Halley became King George I’s astronomer in 1720. He was known during his day as “the infidel mathematician.” The Royal Society censured him for suggesting in 1694 that the story of Noah’s flood might be an account of a cometary impact.

    While not all his theories proved correct, Halley made many important discoveries, innovations and inventions, such as the diving bell. He died in 1741 at age 85.

    “That he was an infidel in religious matters seems as generally allowed as it appears unaccountable.”

    "Chalmers' Biographical Dictionary," cited by Joseph McCabe, "A Dictionary of Modern Rationalists" (1920)

    Carl Sagan

    Carl Sagan

    On this date in 1934, scientist Carl Edward Sagan was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., to Samuel and Rachel (Gruber) Sagan. Samuel was born in what is now Ukraine and Rachel in New York City. Sagan had his bar mitzvah at age 13 in a Reform synagogue. After earning bachelor and master’s degrees at Cornell University, he earned a Ph.D. at the University of Chicago in 1960. After teaching and being denied tenure at Harvard, he became a professor of astronomy and space science and director of the Laboratory for Planetary Studies at Cornell, where he worked until his death.

    A great popularizer of science, Sagan produced the PBS series “Cosmos,” which won Emmy and Peabody awards and was watched by 500 million people in 60 countries. A book of the same title came out in 1980. Sagan was author, co-author or editor of 20 books, including The Dragons of Eden (1977), which won a Pulitzer, Pale Blue Dot (1995) and The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (1995), his hardest-hitting on religion. With his third wife, Ann Druyan, he was co-producer of the popular motion picture “Contact” (1997), which featured a feminist, atheist protagonist played by Jodie Foster. He played a leading role in NASA’s Mariner, Viking, Voyager and Galileo expeditions to other planets.

    Druyan, in the epilogue to Sagan’s last book, Billions and Billions: Thoughts on Life and Death at the Brink of the Millennium (published posthumously in 1997), gives a moving account of his last days: “Contrary to the fantasies of the fundamentalists, there was no deathbed conversion, no last-minute refuge taken in a comforting vision of a heaven or an afterlife. For Carl, what mattered most was what was true, not merely what would make us feel better. Even at this moment when anyone would be forgiven for turning away from the reality of our situation, Carl was unflinching.”

    After suffering from bone marrow cancer and receiving three marrow transplants from his sister Carol, his sole sibling, he died from pneumonia at age 62. (D.1996)

    PHOTO: Sagan in 1951 as a high school senior in Rahway, N.J.

    “If some good evidence for life after death were announced, I’d be eager to examine it; but it would have to be real scientific data, not mere anecdote. As with the face on Mars and alien abductions, better the hard truth, I say, than the comforting fantasy. And in the final tolling it often turns out that the facts are more comforting than the fantasy.”

    —Sagan, "The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark" (1995)
    Compiled by Annie Laurie Gaylor

    Hugh Everett III

    Hugh Everett III

    On this date in 1930, Hugh Everett III was born in Washington, D.C. He graduated in 1953 from the Catholic University of America in Washington with a degree in chemical engineering. Everett then attended Princeton University and earned his Ph.D. in physics in 1956. He was a co-founder of the Institute for Defense Analyses in 1956. Everett founded Lambda Corp., a defense analysis organization that assisted the Pentagon, in 1964. He married Nancy Gore in 1956 and they had two children, Elizabeth Everett and Mark Oliver Everett (lead singer of the band Eels).

    Everett was a physicist interested in theoretical and quantum physics who is known for developing the influential theory, “The Many-Worlds Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics.” His theory, part of his Ph.D. thesis, postulated that our universe is part of a multiverse, a vast system of universes. He hypothesized that every universe is constantly splitting into alternate universes that encompass every possible event. Everett’s theory, along with his book, The Many-Worlds Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics (1973), is widely studied by quantum physicists.

    Everett was a “lifelong atheist,” according to The Many Worlds of Hugh Everett III (2010) by Peter Byrne. During his time at the Catholic university, Everett “drove devout Jesuits to distraction with scientific questioning” and even caused one of his professors to lose his faith after presenting a logical proof against the existence of God (quoted in The Many Worlds of Hugh Everett III).

    He died in 1982 at age 51 of a heart attack and had been in poor health from smoking, drinking and obesity. In Mark Oliver Everett’s memoir, Things the Grandchildren Should Know (2008), he wrote, “My dad, who was a devout atheist, had once told my mom that he wanted his remains to be thrown out in the trash.” His wife kept his ashes in an urn for a few years before allegedly complying with his wishes. D. 1982.

    Photo: Everett at age 34.

    “Because of his loudly avowed atheism, he was labeled ‘the heretic’ by devout classmates.”

    Peter Byrne, writing about Everett in "The Many Worlds of Hugh Everett III" (2010)

    Compiled by Sabrina Gaylor; public domain photo

    Bill Nye

    Bill Nye

    On this date in 1955, William Sanford “Bill” Nye was born in Washington, D.C., where he was also raised. Nye, “America’s stand-up scientist,” says on his website that his parents fostered his interest in science. His father was a prisoner of war during World War II and his mother was a Navy codebreaker who excelled in math and science. In 1977 Nye earned a degree in mechanical engineering from Cornell University, where one of his professors was Carl Sagan. He then moved to Seattle to work as an engineer at Boeing. 

    Nye invented a special sundial used during the Mars Exploration Rover mission and engineered a hydraulic device for Boeing still used on the 747. During this time, Nye cultivated his comedy style, working nights as a stand-up comic and eventually quitting Boeing to work as a comedy writer and performer. He founded the educational television series “Bill Nye the Science Guy” (1993-98). The show won 18 Emmys in its five-year run.

    Nye has written two best-selling books on science: Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation in 2014 and Unstoppable: Harnessing Science to Change the World in 2015. Nye has appeared on “Dancing With the Stars,” “The Big Bang Theory,” “Inside Amy Schumer” and in a documentary about his life and science advocacy titled “Bill Nye: Science Guy,” which premiered at the South by Southwest Film Festival in March 2017 in Austin, TX. In 2017 he debuted the Netflix series “Bill Nye Saves the World.”

    Nye was married in 2006 by Saddleback Church pastor Rick Warren to classical musician Blair Tindall but the union was annulled after less than a year. Nye in 2017 revealed his family’s history of ataxia, a neurological condition affecting coordination, saying he chose not to have children to avoid passing on the genetic condition.

    PHOTO: Nye speaking at Politicon in 2016 in Pasadena, Calif. Gage Skidmore photo. CC 3.0.

    “[I]t’s fine if you as an adult want to run around pretending or claiming that you don’t believe in evolution, but if we educate a generation of people who don’t believe in science, that’s a recipe for disaster. … The main idea in all of biology is evolution. To not teach it to our young people is wrong.”

    —"Science Guy Bill Nye Explains Why Evolution Belongs in Science Education," Popular Mechanics (Feb. 4, 2011)
    Compiled by Bonnie Gutsch

    Frances Hamerstrom

    Frances Hamerstrom

    On this date in 1907, biologist Frances “Fran” Hamerstrom, née Frances Carnes Flint, was born into a wealthy family in Needham, Mass. After her tutoring, horseback-riding and lacemaking lessons, she sought refuge with wild animals, usually injured animals neighborhood kids brought her. Rebellious and a bit of a tomboy, she dropped out of Smith College and embarked on a short career as a fashion model in the late 1920s. After meeting Frederick Hamerstrom at a Dartmouth prom and marrying him, she returned to college. Frederick, known as “Hammy,” was a nephew of Clarence Darrow.

    Hamerstrom earned a biology degree from Iowa State College in 1935. Then she and her husband worked on advanced degrees under Aldo Leopold in Wisconsin. She was the only woman to earn a graduate degree under Leopold and the first woman to train a golden eagle. The state of Montana offered the pair a job as biologists but told her she would be called a secretary — “and they’d pay me like a secretary,” she said. Instead they accepted an offer to research the near-extinct prairie chicken in Wisconsin.

    While raising two children, they developed a management system of land patterning. To reach out to the public, she wrote Strictly for the Chickens. Her other books included An Eagle to the Sky and the children’s books Walk When the Moon Is Full and Adventure of the Stone Man. She also wrote Birding With a Purpose and My Double Life: Memoirs of a Naturalist (1994).

    As parents, they had two rules: “No chewing gum, and no church.” Speaking of their 55-year marriage, she quipped, “You’ll notice that our ‘pair bond’ has lasted fairly well and I think it’s because we’re both remarkably tolerant people. He’s an agnostic and I’m an atheist, and we’ve put up with each other all this time!”

    Hamerstrom was critical of “the Christian mentality … that one isn’t supposed to learn from animals. One is more or less supposed to look down on them, manage them, use them, but not learn from them.”

    Following Frederick’s death in 1990, she visited Saudi Arabia, Africa and South America. On an expedition in Peru at age 86, she broke her hip and was evacuated by helicopter. She  died in 1998 at a nursing home in Port Edwards, Wis. Both the Hamerstroms were inducted into the Wisconsin Conservation Hall of Fame in 1996. 

    “When I was 8 years old, I tried prayer. And it didn’t work!”

    —Hamerstrom comment during her address to FFRF's 1986 national convention

    Richard Leakey

    Richard Leakey

    On this date in 1944, Richard Erskine Frere Leakey was born in Nairobi, Kenya, to the famous archaeologists Louis and Mary Leakey. As a child, Leakey accompanied his family on archaeological expeditions and discovered his first fossil when he was 5. After dropping out of high school when he was 16, Leakey entertained various careers such as leading safaris, but ultimately chose to follow in his parents’ footsteps, becoming an accomplished paleoanthropologist.

    His achievements included finding the full skeleton of a 1.6 million-year-old Homo erectus known as “Turkana Boy” and co-discovering in 1972 the “Black Skull” (also known as “1470”), the earliest australopithecine fossil discovered to date. He also wrote numerous books, including Origins, co-written with Roger Lewin (1977), The Making of Mankind (1981), Origins Reconsidered (with Lewin, 1992), The Sixth Extinction (with Lewin, 1995) and Wildlife Wars: My Fight to Save Africa’s Natural Treasures (with Virginia Morell, 2001).

    Caned in school as a child for missing chapel, he vowed to never become Christian. “I didn’t ever have religion,” Leakey said during an interview with the Academy of Achievement on June 21, 2017. Since his uncle was the Anglican archbishop of East Africa, Leakey’s professed atheism didn’t sit well with some of his family, friends and teachers.

    In the early 1960s he started a trapping and skeleton supply business with Kamoya Kimeu, soon expanding it into photographic safaris. He made his first forays into paleoanthropology and met archaeologist Margaret Cropper. In 1965 they married but divorced in 1969 after having a daughter, Anna. He married zoologist Meave Epps in 1970 and they had two  daughters: Louise, also a paleoanthropologist, and Samira.

    He worked with his father at the Centre for Prehistory and Palaeontology but differences led Leakey in a different direction. With others he started working to “Kenyanise” the National Museum. Over the next decade he took part in expeditions that made a number of stunning archaeological discoveries. In 1990 he was appointed the first chairman of the Kenya Wildlife Service and spearheaded efforts to stop elephant poaching. A plane he was piloting crashed in 1993 and both his legs had to be amputated. He told President Daniel Arap Moi, a religious man, not to pray for him. (Interview in The Humanist, June 29, 2012.)

    Leakey left Kenya in 2002 to teach anthropology at Stony Brook University in New York and chair the Turkana Basin Institute. He was appointed in 2007 as interim chairman of Transparency International’s Kenya branch and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. In 2013 he received the Isaac Asimov Science Award from the American Humanist Association. President Uhuru Kenyatta appointed Leakey chairman of the board of the Kenya Wildlife Service in 2015.

    In a 2010 interview with Richard Dawkins for the 2008 documentary “The Genius of Charles Darwin,” Leakey said, “Surely, [evolution] should be the pride and joy of African leaders. But the faith brigade, whether they’re evangelical Christians, whether they’re conservative Catholics, whether they’re Islamic fundamentalists, are quite worried about this concept and are trying desperately to persuade ongoing future generations to have nothing to do with it.”

    He died in Kenya of undisclosed causes 14 days after his 77th birthday. (D. 2022)

    PHOTO: Leakey in 1986. Rob Bogaerts/Anefo photo. CC 4.0

    “I myself do not believe in a god who has or had a human form and to whom I owe my existence. I believe it is man who created God in his image and not the other way round.”

    —Leakey, "One Life: An Autobiography" (1983)
    Compiled by Sabrina Gaylor and Bill Dunn

    Maarten Schmidt

    Maarten Schmidt

    On this date in 1929, Maarten Schmidt was born in Groningen, the Netherlands. Schmidt grew up in a fairly nonreligious family and never attended church as a child. He became interested in astronomy at age 12 when he began building telescopes with help from an uncle. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Groningen University in 1949 and graduated from Leiden Observatory with a Ph.D. in 1956. After graduation he began working as an associate professor of astronomy at the California Institute of Technology and worked there until his retirement in 1996.

    Schmidt’s most influential achievement was discovering in 1963 the first known quasar, a type of extremely massive and distant black hole. Quasars, which harbor clues to early conditions of the universe, provided strong evidence to support the then-controversial “big bang” theory of the origin of the universe. Schmidt continued researching quasars, along with X-ray and gamma ray astronomy. Schmidt also worked as director of the Hale Observatories (1978-80).

    He was on the cover of Time magazine on March 11, 1966. His numerous awards include the Rumford Prize in 1968, the Bruce Medal in 1992 and the inaugural Kavli Prize for Astrophysics in 2008, with Donald Lynden-Bell. Schmidt served as president of the American Astronomical Society (1984-86). He and his wife Corrie were married in 1955 and had two daughters.

    “I don’t. No, no, no.”

    —Schmidt, when asked if he believed in God, Los Angeles Times interview (May 31, 2008)
    Compiled by Sabrina Gaylor

    Jerry Coyne

    Jerry Coyne

    On this date in 1949, Jerry Allen Coyne was born. He received his B.S. in biology from the College of William and Mary in 1971 and his Ph.D. in evolutionary biology from Harvard University in 1978. He completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of California-Davis, then became an assistant professor at the University of Maryland. Since 1996 to 2015, when he retired, he was a professor in the department of evolution and ecology at the University of Chicago.

    Coyne taught classes on evolution, including the evidence for it. Coyne has written over 100 scholarly papers and a 2004 book, Speciation (with H. Allen Orr). His 2009 book Why Evolution is True was widely praised as a clear, concise and convincing explanation of the theory of evolution. His book Faith vs. Fact: Why Science and Religion are Incompatible was published in 2015.

    Coyne also regularly writes for popular periodicals, including The New Republic. His blog Why Evolution is True is frequently updated with posts on science, daily life and freethought issues. He was the 2011 recipient of FFRF’s Emperor Has No Clothes Award. Coyne has been a guest on Freethought Radio several times and in 2013 worked with FFRF to stop a Ball State University professor from teaching creationism.

    “As the years went on I gradually transmogrified from being an evolutionary biologist to an evolutionary biologist atheist and now I’m more of an atheist than an evolutionary biologist. I realized that creationism, the opposition to evolution, is the least of our worries that religion promulgates, compared to someone throwing acid in the face of a schoolgirl in Afghanistan.”

    —Coyne, Emperor Has No Clothes Award acceptance speech (October 2011)
    Compiled by Eleanor Wroblewski; photo courtesy of Jerry Coyne

Freedom From Religion Foundation