Why I Dedicated a Charles Lindbergh Biography to Dick Peterson

Last week I shared the acknowledgments section from my biography of Charles Lindbergh. Today, a few words about the dedication:

In honor of another descendant of Swedish immigrants:
Dick Peterson—for whom physics is an act of worship,
whose career confirms Anne Lindbergh’s instinct that
“the true scientist [is] akin to the artist and the saint,”
whose life demonstrates that “The heavens declare the
glory of God; and the firmament showeth his handiwork.”
(Psalm 19:1)

Professor emeritus of physics at Bethel, Dick quickly came to mind for the dedication — for the handful of reasons he reminds me of Charles Lindbergh, and the more significant dissimilarities.

Dick, I hasten to add, is family: as one of my mom’s cousins, he shares the same Swedish American heritage that is in the background of this book. “If autobiography was never text,” I’ve written elsewhere, “it surely remained subtext,” as I couldn’t think of the Lindberghs without thinking of the Petersons.

While Charles Lindbergh flunked out of the University of Wisconsin, Dick went on from his upbringing in that state to earn his doctorate at Michigan State. He then worked at Los Alamos National Laboratory before coming to Bethel. Not just a gifted researcher, Dick is also an acclaimed physics teacher who helped build Bethel’s remarkable undergraduate program in that field.

Dick’s face is one of the first things you see as you enter the Physics department at Bethel. I think there’s also a lab named for him…

I would say that Dick is physics for me… except that I’d embarrass the colleague who wrote (in his contribution to our book on Pietism and Christian higher education) that “The practice of science at its best builds on and reinforces a modest and humble demeanor….” Indeed, when I came across Anne Lindbergh’s story of meeting Enrico Fermi at the University of Chicago in 1948, I thought of Dick and emailed him her diary entry:

This quiet little unassuming man—with kind, observant eyes—not wise exactly but observant—& a kind of humility—like a monk—gentle & quiet & unassuming. Is humility an attribute of all greatness?… I should like to think so.

Is the scientist—the true scientist—akin to the artist & the saint? In his humility before something greater than himself—in his looking on himself as a tool—a vessel—a road? In his childlikeness—in his simplicity? I had not thought so before, but Fermi makes me think of it.

Dick used to teach a popular course on the history of the terrible weapons that Fermi helped to invent. (I was always glad to have alumni of his “bombs” class show up on my Cold War roster.) Later on in the essay quoted above, he described how Fermi’s colleagues Albert Einstein and J. Robert Oppenheimer learned “that scientists have special responsibilities that follow from their own gifts, abilities and positions of power.” While Charles Lindbergh found the nuclear researchers in Fermi’s lab “frustrated and helpless in the light of their knowledge of the monster they have created… caught in an ammoral [sic] force,” Dick concluded that “Scientists and engineers simply cannot function as amoral advisors in a technical world that impacts us all.”

Einstein and Oppenheimer in 1947, the year before Lindbergh’s book about science and religion, Of Flight and Life, came out – Smithsonian Institution

Dick’s career as a physics professor at a Christian college also made me think of Charles Lindbergh’s attempts to bridge the divide between the spiritual and the scientific. Writing in the mid-Fifties, Lindbergh worried that “the gods retire as commerce and science advance,” but I note that his own experience “followed the opposite trajectory: the more he learned about science, the closer God appeared.” Or, as Dick put it in his essay on Pietism and science teaching (prefaced by the opening words of Psalm 19), the experience of research can bring the scientist

closer to the Creator… To be the first person to observe or really understand a certain phenomenon is fundamentally an occasion for personal delight, wonder and thanksgiving. Never does a person of faith feel closer to their source of strength and sustenance.

Dick’s faith is more traditional than the idiosyncratic one of Charles Lindbergh. But there’s a more important difference separating the subject of my book from the object of its dedication:

A key theme of my Lindbergh biography is that his spiritual quest only deepened his conviction that human equality was a kind of false idol, while racial competition was a divine imperative. But Dick’s Christian faith has deepened his conviction that “scientists and teachers should keep their minds and hands busy in the mix of human struggles and help carry the load of the disenfranchised—lest they become what Einstein called ‘a curse to mankind.'” I know of no member of our faculty more dedicated to justice, equity, and anti-racism than Dick, whose gentle voice has often spoken prophetically on behalf of those oppressed and neglected within his own communities — religious, scientific, or national.

While I could only conclude that Charles Lindbergh “saw no image of God in people who didn’t resemble him,” Dick has helped teach me that all humans — like the Earth they inhabit — are God’s handiwork, that all God’s children — like the heavens themselves — reflect his glory.