James Joule was born on Christmas Eve; that is, December 24, 1818 in Manchester, England. As a child Joule had a spinal disorder and that likely led him to be rather shy and withdrawn. Rather than devote his time to games and the playground, he devoted his time to study. Before long Joule became a serious student of the sciences—chemistry and physic. He had tutors, and he was very interested. But his father became seriously ill, and Joule needed to devote himself to the family business. But he wasn’t quite ready to give up his science. So he set up a lab in his home. In the early hours before dawn he would engage in his business—he would be doing experiments. And, long into the late hours of the evening you could find Joule at his lab doing his experiments. He loved to experiment and work on heat, electricity, and mechanical work, and all of this resulted in several papers being presented before England’s scientific societies. All of this work would eventually earn James Joule his place in the history of science.
Joule was the first to demonstrate the validity of what has come to be called the First Law of Thermodynamics. Now for some of you, you might be in school, and you might know this quite well. For others of you, this might be bringing back good memories (hopefully) of days in high school. The First Law of Thermodynamics says that energy can neither be created nor destroyed, but it can be changed from one form to another. In other words, the total amount of energy in the universe is a constant. This is the First Law of Thermodynamics. It was given to us not by a trained scientist or one of the great scientific research universities, but by James Joule, who was by and large an amateur scientist. We also use the term joule which is a measure of energy. This was James Joule’s contribution to the history of science.
But we need to learn a little bit more about who James Joule was. Early on, one of his tutors was a devout Christian. That teacher by whom he was inspired was considered one of the fathers of modern science. This of course was Isaac Newton. Isaac Newton saw science not in any way contrary to the pursuit of seeking the knowledge of God, but rather he thought that through science, we expand our understanding of God’s world—and consequently we expand our understanding of God. Newton believed that this gave us even more reason to praise God’s name. This is precisely why Joule entered into science and carried on those experiments over the years.
In 1864, a large group of scientists signed a declaration that rejected Darwin’s theory on origins. These scientists together along with this declaration affirmed their confidence in the scientific validity and integrity of the Bible. James Joule’s signature was on that declaration. At one point Joule said, “After the knowledge of and obedience to the will of God, the next aim must be to know something of His attributes, of His wisdom and power and goodness as evidenced by His handiwork.” And at another point James Joule said, “It is evident that an acquaintance with natural laws means no less an acquaintance with the mind of God therein expressed. To engage in science, far from being contrary, is compatible with our seeking after God.”
James Joule died on October 11, 1889, and yet here he lives on through this First Law of Thermodynamics and the joule. So as you celebrate this New Year’s Eve, let’s remember James Joule, and let’s remember his Christian commitment.