Monday, May 7, 2012

Church & Science: Fr. Faura, Fr. Algue, & cyclones

Earlier this year, I heard a radio interview involving skeptics who took as gospel the idea that religion is simply an impediment to "progress" (a term not clearly defined by said skeptics). Following is another review of Catholic contributions to science.

One of the greatest scientists in the study of tropical cyclones was Father Jose P. Algue, a Jesuit priest (1856-1930). The Philippine Encyclopedia states:
A momentous meeting with the great Jesuit scientist Fr. Federico Faura [1840-1897] in 1889 changed the young Algue's life. He accompanied Father Faura to Italy and France to acquire scientific equipment for the famed Manila Observatory. It seemed that Father Algue was destined for a life of science in the tropics. To this end, his superiors sent him in 1891 to Georgetown university in Washington DC, for advanced studies in meteorology, seismology, and astronomy.
The priest is perhaps best known for his studies on tropical cyclones. Some of his works on the science of cyclones are available online. One of his books, The Cyclones of the Far East, offers detailed hour by hour accounts of various tropical cyclones, the cloud and barometer patterns that precede and accompany them, and includes methods for sailors to identify weather threats. For instance, he wrote:
In a general way, we may say that when the monsoon increases considerably above the sixth parallel of north latitude, or when the winds from east to north tend to freshen, without any increase of pressure, but with a steady or falling barometer, we may be certain that some atmospheric perturbation is passing or will pass by very low parallels. When this happens the currents in the Surigao Strait are very strong, and navigation is very dangerous for small boats close to the eastern coasts of Mindanao and even more so in the Jolo Sea, and the south of the China Sea. (Algue, The Cyclones of the Far East, p. 240)
After perusing Fr. Algue's book, I chose this excerpt because it contributes to dispelling the myth that the Church and science are conflicting enterprises. Fr. Algue's contribution to sea-faring safety incorporated the importance of empirical observation, the hallmark of scientific study.

The historical author Augstin Udías Vallina wrote in his book Searching the Heavens and the Earth: The History of Jesuit Observatories of how Fr. Algue's work was taken and utilized in the world of science, perhaps even by way of plagiarism:
Algué identified the zones of origin and average trajectories of typhoons. He discovered two basic types: trajectories of parabolic shape that moved around the annual center of high pressure in the North Pacific in a clockwise direction, and a second type of storm moving in a linear path westward from the Philippines to decay over southern China. In 1900 Paul Bergholz, director of Bremen Observatory, Germany, published under his own name what was really a German translation of Algué's book. This was recognized in 1903 in the journal Nature by R.H. Scott who made the revision of the English version of Bergholz' book. Bergholz was not satisfied with his appropriation of Algué's book, but in England also constructed an instrument under his name which was an exact copy of Algué's barocyclonometer. Bergholz's book and instruments were extensively used in German ships. (Vallina, Searching the Heavens, p. 152)
The history of the barocyclometer has a trail involving other priests. As accounted in the Manila Bulletin:
In 1869, the Spanish government put [Father] Faura in charge of the observatory in response to the need for advance warnings against typhoons. The Jesuit missionaries, who operated the observatory, later acquired the Universal Meteorograph, a device used for weather forecasting. The device was an innovation of Fr. Angelo Seechi [1818-1878] who headed the Vatican Observatory in Rome during that time. On July 7, 1879, Father Faura warned of a typhoon crossing northern Luzon. In November of the same year, he predicted a strong typhoon crossing over Manila. The accuracy of his warnings boosted the reputation of the observatory. ... With the success of the Manila Observatory, the Spanish government designated it as an official institution. Secondary stations were set up throughout Luzon. Faura designed the aneroid barometer and the most accurate weather gauge in the country.
According to a 1910 entry in the Catholic Encyclopedia, many lives were saved as a result of Fr. Faura's November 1879 warning:
At other ports, to which warning of the approaching storm could not be sent for lack of telegraphic communication, the destruction was enormous. Forty-two vessels were wrecked in Southern Luzon alone, and may lives were lost. (Finegan, P. (1910). Manila Observatory. In The Catholic Encyclopedia.)

Fr. Faura also founded the Manila Observatory, for which Fr. Algue would later serve as director. In his work, Fr. Faura invented what is now known as the 1886 "'Faura barometer'" [which] was offered to the public, and it passed immediately into general use among the navigators of the Philippine waters and the China Sea." The Catholic Encyclopedia article concludes:
[Fr. Algue] gave the public his 'barocyclonometer', an improvement on Father Faura's invention, by which storms may be foretold, not only in the Philippines, but throughout the entire Orient.
So that's just a light biography of these two Catholic priests, along with the above mentioned Fr. Seechi, who contributed immensely to the world of science.


  1. And as someone that holds a Merchant Marine Captain license, I am thankful. Science is absolutely wonderful to behold but not without its' author.

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