David Brewster

British astronomer and mathematician (1781–1868)

Sir David Brewster FRS (December 11, 1781February 10, 1868) was a Scottish physicist, inventor and writer, and one of the founders of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. He was particularly remarkable for his contributions to the field of optics.

"It is a more rational belief that man may become a brute than that a brute may become a man"


  • I would advise you not to expect too much happiness, even from the fulfillment of all your wishes. The moment you have distinguished yourself you become an object of envy and malice ; men whom you believed to be lovers of knowledge you will then find to be lovers only of fame, and haters of all knowledge that has not come from themselves. You will find that a life of science has in it no superiority to any other, unless it is pursued from a higher principle than the mere ambition of notoriety, and that demagogue or a philosopher differ only in the objects of their selfishness. As you will now have experienced how unsatisfying even the pursuit of knowledge is when insulated from higher objects, I hope, if you have not been fortunate enough to begin the study earlier, that you will devote yourself to the most extraordinary of all subjects, one which infinitely surpasses the mechanism of the heavens or the chemistry of the material world, the revelation of your duty and the destiny of man as contained in The Bible — a book which occupied the best hours of the manhood of Newton, of Locke, and of Euler.
    • In a 1830 letter to James David Forbes, as found in Life and letters of James David Forbes, p. 40.
  • The cultivation of science is a luxury of no common kind amid the bustle and vexation of life, and is quite compatible with the most active professional duties. Your education and the example you have had to copy will, I am sure, guard you against those presumptuous and skeptical opinions which scientific knowledge too often engenders. In the ardour of pursuit and under the intoxication of success scientific men are apt to forget that they are the instrument by which Providence is gradually revealing the wonders of creation, and that they ought to exercise their functions with the same humility as those who are engaged in unfolding the mysteries of His revealed will.
    • In a letter to James David Forbes, as found in Life and letters of James David Forbes, p. 39.
  • Truth has no greater enemy than its unwise defenders, and no warmer friends than those who, receiving it in a meek and tolerant spirit, respect the conscientious convictions of others, and seek, in study and in prayer, for the best solution of mysterious and incomprehensible revelations.
    • In his Memoirs of the Life, Writings, and Discoveries of Sir Isaac Newton, vol. 2 (Edinburgh: 1855)
  • It is not easy to devise a cure for such a state of things (the declining taste for science). The most obvious remedy is to provide the educated classes with a series of works on popular and practical science, freed from mathematical symbols and technical terms, written in simple and perspicuous language, and illustrated by facts and experiments which are level to the capacity of ordinary minds.
  • The human voice may be denominated the music of the mind; language, a figurative mode of expressing our ideas and sentiments. The effects of flowing from this beneficent endowment are overwhelming in contemplation and almost infinite in extent. It is principally instrumental to all the moral and physical improvements of man, and enables him to pour forth his otherwise invisible, inaudible, unfathomable thoughts, to his fellow-man and to his God.
    • Philosophical Magazine and Journal Of Science (July-December 1836), p. 346
  • Truths physical have an- origin as divine as truths religious, In the time of Galileo they triumphed over the casuistry and secular power of the Church ; and in our own day the incontrovertible truths of primeval life have won as noble a victory over the errors of a speculative theology, and a false interpretation of the word of God. Science ever has been, and ever must be the safeguard of religion. The grandeur of her truths may transcend our failing reason, but those who cherish and lean upon truths equally grand, but certainly more incomprehensible, ought to see in the marvels of the material world the best defence and illustration of the mysteries of their faith.
    • More Worlds Than One: The Creed of the Philosopher and the Hope of the Christian (1856), p. 132
  • Man, made after God's image, was a nobler creation than twinkling sparks in the sky, or than the larger and more useful lamp of the moon.
    • More Worlds Than One: The Creed of the Philosopher and the Hope of the Christian (1856), p. 207
  • Amid the destructive convulsions of the physical world, even pious minds may have for an instant questioned the superintending providence of God. In the midst of famine, or pestilence, or war, they may have stood horror- struck at the scene. In the triumphs of fraud, oppression, and injustice, over honesty, and liberty, and law. Faith may have wavered, and Hope despaired; but in no condition, either of the physical or the moral world, does the mind question the POWER of its Maker. The omnipotence of the Creator, and the exertion of it in every corner of space, — His care over the falling sparrow, and His guidance of the gigantic planet, are the earliest of our acquired truths, and the very first that observation and experience confirm. When Reason gives wisdom to our perceptions, omnipotence is the grand truth which they inculcate. Whatever the eye sees, or the ear hears, or the fingers touch, — every motion of our body, every function it performs, every structure in its fabric, impresses on the mind, and fixes in the heart the conviction, that the Creator is all-powerful as well as all-wise. Omnipotence, in short, is the only attribute of God which is universally appreciated, which skepticism never unsettles, and which we believe as firmly when under the influence of our corrupt passions, as when we are looking devoutly to heaven. All the other attributes of God are inferences. His omnipresence, His omniscience, His justice, mercy, and truth, are the deductions of reason, and, however true and demonstrable, they exercise little influence over the mind; but the attribute of omnipotence predominates over them all, and no mind responsive to its power will ever be disturbed by the ideas which it suggests of infinity of time, infinity of space, and infinity of life.
    • More Worlds Than One: The Creed of the Philosopher and the Hope of the Christian (1856), "Religious Difficulties", p. 152-153
  • The history of the human species is the history of a variety of races in every stage of civilization and barbarism, and the great majority of which have neither an intellectual, nor a moral, nor a religious progressive history. Progression has not been the character of the history of man. Without alluding to his primeval fall from his high estate, we have only to cast our eyes over the globe, and look at the intellectual, moral, and religious catastrophes which it presents to us, — at ages of light and darkness, — at alternations of progress and decline, — at the highest civilization sinking into the lowest barbarism. Mark those eastern lands, now involved in darkness, from which the beams of knowledge first radiated on mankind. Study the extinction of morality in many regions of the earth where its great lessons were first taught by our Saviour and His apostles; and above all, mark the total suppression of the Christian faith in European communities, where it has been displaced by a religion whose doctrines were preached by conquest, and whose decalogue was dictated by the sword.
    • More Worlds Than One: The Creed of the Philosopher and the Hope of the Christian (1856), "Religious Difficulties", p. 157-158
  • Although every part of the human frame has been fashioned by the same Divine hand and exhibits the most marvellous and beneficent adaptions for the use of men, the human eye stands pre-eminent above them all as the light of the body and the organ by which we become acquainted with the minutest and the nearest, the largest and most remote of the Creator’s work
    • As quoted in Good Words (1862), Volume 3. p. 170.
    • Also quoted in Martyr of science, Royal Scottish Museum (1984), p. 80.
  • Jesus will take me safe trough... I shall see Jesus, who created all things, Jesus, who made the worlds; I shall see Him as He is;... Yes; I have had the Light for many years, and Oh! how bright it is! I feel SO SAFE, SO SATISFIED.
    • His last words, as quoted in The Home Life of Sir David Brewster (2010), by his daughter, Margaret Maria Gordon. Cambridge University Press. Chapter XXI.

Review of Vestiges (1845)

A Review written by Brewster about the anonymous evolutionary work Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (4th edition). In the North British Review, Volume 3 (August 1845), pp. 470-515.
  • If it has been revealed to man that the Almighty made him out of the dust of the earth, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, it is in vain to tell a Christian that man was originally a speck of albumen, and passed through the stages of monads and monkeys, before he attained his present intellectual preeminence. If it be a received truth that the Creator has repeatedly interposed in the government of the universe and displayed his immediate agency in miraculous interpositions, it is an insult to any reader to tell him that the being slumbers on his throne and rules under a "primal arrangement in his counsels," and "by a code of laws of unbending operation."
  • It is God alone that can pronounce upon the real condition of the heart and soul, out of which are the issues of life. A true phrenological fact, therefore, which we can force a sound mind to believe must involve, in one of its aspects, a species of knowledge which ist is not in the power of man, and still less within his province, to attain; and in the other, a physical fact, which can be seen only in the brain itself, and which cannot be interfered from any external sign.
  • The only sure mode of acquiring sound ideas of our relation to the Creator is to begin with the study of ourselves, and to view God as a Father and Friend, dealing with us in precisely the same way as we would deal with others over whom we exercise authority. Conscience, that infallible Mentor "that sticketh closer than a brother," tells us that we are responsible beings; and in the domestic, as well as the social circle, we speedily feel the discipline and learn the lesson of rewards and punishments. The law written in man's heart points to the past as pregnant with events which may affect the future; and in the earnestness of his aspirations, and the activity of his search, he is gradually led to the mysterious history of his race. He learns that on tables of stone have been engraven the same law to which his heart responded; -that when all were dead, one died for all; and in the contemplation of the great sacrifice, he obtains a solution of the interesting problem of his individual destiny. The Sacred record which is now his guide, speaks to him of fore-knowledge and predestination, while, in perfect consistency, it records the ministration of descending spirits, and the holier communings of God with man. The Divine decrees no longer perplex him. They transcend, indeed, his Reason - but that Reason, the faithful interpreter of Conscience, does not falter in proclaiming the Freedom of his Will, and the Responsibility of his Actions.
  • It is not within our province to inquire by what process, and in what condition the Almighty brought matter into existence-what the space was which it occupied, or what the forms were which it assumed. Of such things we know nothing. In the depths of primeval time, the globe we inhabit may have a planetary existence, wheeling along its ethereal railway without a breathing passenger to count its periods, and without a living plant to measure the day by its opening and closing blossoms, or to mark the rolling seasons by the yearly increments of its stem. Or it may have been the theatre on which vast cycles of animal and vegetable life have been run- now its birthplace, and now its grave: But we have no data to guide us in our conjectures, and even imagination fails us if we call it to our aid. Whatever may have been, had ceased to be at the commencement of our history, when the primary rocks, forming the moten nucleus of the globe, were first exposed to the action of the elements.

The facts and fancies of Mr. Darwin (1862)

Article available at Wikisource, first published in Good Words (1862).
  • It is a more rational belief that man may become a brute than that a brute may become a man; and it is an easier faith that plants and animals may dwindle down into an elemental atom, than that this atom should embrace in its organization, and evolve, all the noble forms of vegetable, animal, and intellectual life.
  • Trained in a less severe school than that of geometry and physics, his reasonings are almost always loose and inconclusive. His generalizations seem to have been reached before he had obtained the materials upon which he rests them: His facts, though frequently new and interesting, are often little more than conjectures; and the grand phenomena of the world of life, and instinct, and reason, which other minds have woven into noble and elevating truths, have thus become in Mr. Darwin's hands the basis of a dangerous and degrading speculation.
  • Though the large runt pigeon, with its massive beak and its huge feet, differs from its blue and barred progenitor the rock, it is a pigeon still. Though the slender Italian greyhound has a strange contrast with the short-legged bull-dog, they are both dogs in their teeth and in their skull. The mouse, even, has not been transmuted into the cat, nor the hen into the turkey, nor the duck into the goose, nor the hawk into the eagle, and still less the monkey into the man.
  • Had Mr. Darwin written a work on the change of species, as determined by observation and experiment, without any other object but that of advancing natural science, he would have obtained a high place among philosophical naturalists. But after reading his work in which the name of the Creator is never distinctly mentioned, we can hardly believe that scientific truth was the only object the author had in view. Researches, conducted under the influence of other motives, are not likely to stand the test of a rigorous scrutiny; and some of Mr. Darwin's not unfriendly critics have produced ample evidence that the idol of speculation has been occasionally worshipped at the expense of truth.

Quotes about David Brewster

  • The immense number and variety of the beautiful optical discoveries which we owe to Sir David Brewster makes the comparison in his case a very imperfect representation of his triumphs over nature; and that, besides his place in the history of the Theory of Optics, he must hold a most eminent position in the history of Optical Crystallography, whenever the discovery of a True Optical Theory of Crystals supplies us with the Epoch to which his labors in this field form so rich.
    • William Whewell (1859). History of the Inductive Sciences, D. Appleto. p. 133
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