James Jeans and religion: A universe in the mind of God

James Jeans and religion: A universe in the mind of God

“I obtain incredible peace and joy from my prayer. Compared to others, I receive a thousand times more fulfilment from my prayer” James Jeans, quoted in M.W. Khan

One May evening in 1935 the 62-year-old physicist James Jeans sat in a hotel bar in the mountain resort of Solda in Italy with his publisher and friend Sydney Castle Roberts. By now Jeans' reputation as an author of popularising work addressing the interface of science and religion was unsurpassed globally, having captivated a generation with his poetic and moving descriptions of the universe, and the mathematical nature of the divine creator in which he believed.

The evening was about to take an unexpected turn. In Roberts’ words, “suddenly a most elegant and individual figure approached – a tall girl in a white climbing suit”. The girl was Susi Hock, a 24-year-old Viennese organist and harpsichordist of international note, who Jeans had met and talked with once before at a party in England a few months earlier. As conversation progressed over the course of the evening the three ended up out on the hotel balcony. “It was a brilliant starlit night,” continues Roberts, “and Susi asked many questions about the stars, which Jeans was only too ready to answer. Feigning weariness after a long day I announced I was going to bed. There was no protest. The situation was becoming quite clear to me.”

The English cosmologist and Austrian musician married in September of that year after a week-long engagement. The announcement caused much curiosity in European society, not only due to the shortness of acquaintance and 38-year age gap, but also the seeming incompatibility of the musician and amateur mountaineer (who had twice climbed the Matterhorn) and the somewhat portly professor who by now found it hard to walk more than a few hundred meters due to a failing knee. Yet the marriage brought, by all accounts, lasting happiness to the couple as well as three children before Jeans passed in 1946.

The incident is notable for various reasons. Not least because it involved Roberts, the Cambridge University Press secretary who had persuaded Jeans to enter the field of popularisation over a bottle of claret in his office some years earlier, but also because it signalled the end of Jeans’ religious writing phase. While married to Hock, Jeans turned his attention to music, converting the house to encompass two organ rooms, and writing a volume entitled Science and Music as well as two works on philosophy. So Roberts had been there, sharing a drink with Jeans, at the moments which proved pivotal to both the beginning and end of his illustrious writing career.

It was, in fact, on reading the end of one of Jeans' technical writings, Astronomy and Cosmology, published in 1929, that Roberts realised the potential of Jeans to appeal to the public. Jeans had always had a reputation for entertaining writing, even in academic physics. E.A. Milne once commented that Jeans simply could not write a boring page. So when he started expressing ideas such as these in his academic tomes, Roberts immediately new Jeans would appeal to a broader audience:

“What, if any, is our relation to the remote nebulae, for surely there must be some more direct contact than that light can travel between them and us in a hundred million years? Do their colossal incomprehending masses come nearer to representing the main ultimate reality of the universe, or do we? Are we merely part of the same picture as they, or is it possible that we are part of the artist?”

And so Jean’s debuted in the field of popularisation with The Universe Around Us in 1929. The book was launched with a huge publicity drive as Cambridge University Press sort to emulate the success that McMillan had seen with Arthur Eddington’s religious writing a year earlier.

The Universe Around US sold over 10,000 copies in the first year, and competed with Eddington for popularity. The book focussed on science rather than religion. It contains strikingly beautiful prose, on a par in places to that of the literary masters of that period. It is worth resurrecting a little to give a taste of Jeans’ artistic quality:

“Most of the 10,000 or so generations of men who connect us up with our ape-like ancestry must have lived lives which did not differ greatly from those of their animal predecessors. Hunting, fishing and warfare filled their lives, leaving but little time or opportunity for intellectual contemplation. Then, at last, man began to awake from his long intellectual slumber, and, as civilisation slowly dawned, to feel the need for occupations other than feeding and clothing his body. He began to discover revelations of infinite beauty in the grace of the human form or the play of light on the myriad-smiling sea, which he tried to perpetuate in carefully chiselled marble or exquisitely chosen words. He began to experiment with metals and herbs, and with the effects of fire and water. He began to notice, and try to understand, the motions of the heavenly bodies, for to those who could read the writing of the sky, the nightly rising and settling of planets provided evidence that beyond the confines of the earth lay an unknown universe on a far grander scale.”

Buoyed by this success, the University Press doubled down on publicity. Jeans’ next book, The Mysterious Universe, sold a thousand copies a day for the first month and 70,000 copies by the end of the year as swathes of the general population fell in love with his story telling – much as would the young musician one night in the Solda mountains a few years later.

Jeans’ God

Jeans was a deist who also expressed a strong connection with the personal God. He suggested in numerous places that mathematical forms controlled the structure of the material world, and that these mathematical forms originated in the mind of God. The material world, for Jeans, was not actually material at all, it had a mental nature and was better considered as solidified or condensed thought. The objects of the physical world existed independently of our own minds but were still made of mind itself. Much as for the eighteenth-century philosopher and bishop George Berkeley, who Jeans often referenced, the physical world existed as ideas in the mind of God. The following (along with the other quotations in the remainder of the article) is from The Mysterious Universe:

"the universe can be best pictured, although still very imperfectly and inadequately, as consisting of pure thought, the thought of what, for want of a wider word, we must describe as a mathematical thinker... Considerations such as these lead Berkeley to postulate an Eternal Being in whose mind all objects existed."

Although, as we shall see later in the article, Jeans was a church-goer – and according to his pupil and future mathematician I.K. Mashriqi a rather passionate one – Jeans rarely referred to Christianity explicitly in his written work. Nonetheless the notion that mankind is formed in the image of God is prominent. For Jeans, we share the mathematical nature of God’s mind. We think mathematically (as we can perform mathematics). The mathematical forms in God’s mind devolve downwards into our own mind, such that mathematics can provide counterintuitive systems which are nonetheless found to be successful in describing the physical world. As Jeans put it, “mathematics enters the universe from above instead of from below." Hence: “We discover that the universe shows evidence of a designing or controlling power that has something in common with our own individual minds.”

Above: James Jeans in New York in 1907

Jeans argued that because mathematicians have independently discovered mathematical systems which fit together with each other, there must be an objective mathematical order. The more advanced mathematical systems cannot be derived from observation of the world and so must in some sense be derived from a mind that is external to us, which we are in touch with, or were seeded from. Mathematics has thrown up mathematical systems which do not appear to be deducible from anything we experience at all – and these systems not only fit together, but have predicted things about the physical world that reveal it to be different to how we can even perceive.

The non-Euclidean nature of physical reality is a prime example. Apparently a priori concepts like parallel lines have been superseded by non-Euclidean mathematical schemes that transcend naïve a priori reflections. What is more, we find that these counter intuitive mathematical schemes do in fact describe the physical world – but we need advanced experimental equipment for this to become clear. So forms of mathematics which we cannot derive from physical reality due to our perceptual limitations are nonetheless found to describe our physical reality. And this Jeans took as evidence that our own minds are made in the image of the creator of the physical world, which is why it is possible for us to discover these systems at all:

"This very controversial possibility is one which cannot be entirely dismissed, but it is exceedingly hard to believe that such intricate concepts as a finite curved space and an expanding space can have entered into pure mathematics through any sort of unconscious or subconscious experience of the workings of the actual universe. In any event, it can hardly be disputed that nature and our conscious mathematical minds work according to the same laws. She does not model her behaviour, so to speak, on that forced on us by our whims and passions, or on that of our muscles and joints, but on that of our thinking minds. This remains true whether our minds impress their laws on nature, or she impresses her laws on us, and provides a sufficient justification for thinking of the universe as being of mathematical design. Lapsing back again into the crudely anthropomorphic language we have already used, we may say that we have already considered with disfavour the possibility of the universe having been planned by a biologist or an engineer; from the intrinsic evidence of his creation, the Great Architect of the Universe now begins to appear as a pure mathematician."

The universe is created by thought, and therefore by a thinking being. The creator does not work to build the universe within time and space, but rather time and space are part of what is created:

“If the universe is a universe of thought then its creation must have been an act of thought. Indeed the finiteness of time and space almost compel us, of themselves, to picture the creation as an act of thought; the determination of the constants such as the radius of the universe and the number of electrons it contained imply thought, whose richness is measured by the immensity of these quantities. Time and space, which form the setting for the thought, must have come into being as part of this act. Primitive cosmologies pictured a creator working in space and time, forging sun, moon and stars out of already existent raw material. Modern scientific theory compels us to think of the creator as working outside time and space, which are part of his creation, just as the artist is outside his canvas.”

The act of creation is continuous. The creator did not create the world in the beginning and then step away, but actively holds the universe in place moment to moment. Hence for Jeans the suggestion is that “we ought to compare the whole of time to the act of creation.” The creator spans both the transcendent and immanent roles of the Judaeo-Christian God.

All is mind

Jeans was an idealist meaning that he believed that mind and not matter was the ultimate reality. He predicted that the distinction that is drawn between mind and matter will become a thing of the past:

“The new knowledge compels us to revise our hasty first impressions that we had stumbled into a universe which either did not concern itself with life or was actively hostile to life. The old dualism of mind and matter, which was mainly responsible for the supposed hostility, seems likely to disappear, not through matter becoming in any way more shadowy or insubstantial than heretofore, or through mind becoming resolved into a function of the working of matter, but through substantial matter resolving itself into a creation and manifestation of mind.”

There are suggestions throughout the final chapter of The Mysterious Universe that the reason that mathematics has proven such a powerful explanatory force is that mathematics is purely mental (mathematical expressions exist nowhere except in a mind) and so it is the closest tool we have to the nature of the “universal mind” in which all things are created and arise. Light for example, has been shown to be neither a wave nor a particle (the two competing nineteenth century hypotheses), and instead is a purely mathematical entity which can therefore behave as either waves or particles and at times as both simultaneously.

Above: A US advertisement for some of Jeans’ books from the 1940s

Neuroscience is often taken to suggest a purely material universe, but in fact exactly the same evidence can be interpreted as proof of a purely mental universe. The neuroscientists tends to conclude that as material processes can causatively influence mental states, mental states can be reduced to physical. But, as Jeans points out, it is of course just as logical to conclude from this that material states can be reduced to mental.

The Mysterious Universe concludes by dismissing the pessimism and alienation that was conjured in the first chapter in which human lives are dwarfed in comparison to the vastness of space, stars, and nebulae: “Those inert atoms in the primaeval slime which first began to foreshadow the attributes of life were putting themselves more, and not less, in accord with the fundamental nature of the universe.” Life contains an inherent drive towards knowledge, and ultimately knowledge of science and mathematics puts us in touch with the Creator, fulfilling life’s purpose.

Encounters with the personal God

Jeans spoke little of the personal God in his writing. According to E.A. Milne he apparently paid more attention to science than religion while in church as a child, developing ideas for perpetual motion machines during services. Things had changed in this regard by adulthood. Inayatullah Khan Mashriqi, a student of Jeans at Cambridge and future Nobel prize nominee, related the following revealing anecdote about Jeans’ adult attitude towards church and prayer:

“It was Sunday,” he writes, “the year 1909. It was raining hard. I had gone out on some errand when I saw the famous Cambridge University astronomer, Sir James Jeans, with a Bible clutched under his arm, on his way to Church. Coming closer I greeted him, but he did not reply. When I greeted him again, he looked at me and asked, ‘What do you want? ‘Two things, I replied. ‘Firstly, the rain is pouring down, but you have not opened your umbrella. ‘Sir James smiled at his own absent-mindedness and opened his umbrella. ‘Secondly’, I continued, ‘I would like to know that a man of universal fame such as yourself is doing—going to pray in Church?’ Sir James paused for a while, then, looking at me, he said, ‘Come and have tea with me this evening.’ So I went along to his house that afternoon. At exactly 4 o’clock, Lady James appeared. ‘Sir James is waiting for you’, she said. I went inside, where tea was ready on the table. Sir James was lost in thought. ‘What was your question again?’ he asked, and without waiting for an answer, he went off into an inspiring description of the creation of the celestial bodies and the astonishing order to which they adhere, the incredible distances over which they travel and the unfailing regularity which they maintain, their intricate journeys through space in their orbits, their mutual attraction and their never wavering from the path chosen for them, no matter how complicated it might be. His vivid account of the Power and Majesty of God made my heart begin to tremble. As for him, the hair on his head was standing up straight. He eyes were shining with awe and wonder. Trepidation at the thought of God’s all-knowing and all-powerful nature made his hands tremble and his voice falter. ‘You know, Inayatullah Khan’, he said, ‘when I behold God’s marvellous feats of creation, my whole being trembles in awe at His majesty. When I go to Church I bow my head and say, “Lord, how great you are,” and not only my lips, but every particle of my body joins in uttering these words. I obtain incredible peace and joy from my prayer. Compared to others, I receive a thousand times more fulfilment from my prayer. So tell me, Inayatullah Khan, now do you understand why I go to Church?”

This passage, which can be located in the book God Arises by M.W. Khan, is one of a number of versions of this story, but they all confirm the same event happening and that Jeans expressed words to the same effect.*


Jeans had always been fascinated with numbers. By age seven he was factorising the cab numbers he saw around his Clapham home, and also set about memorising seven figure logarithm tables from one of his father’s books. He had a habit of memorising any number he encountered. On one occasion he saved his mother from a fine by reeling off the number of a train ticket she had lost which he had memorised.

Jeans attended Merchant Taylor’s School and won a mathematical scholarship to Trinity College, Cambridge. At Cambridge he achieved distinction by sitting the tripos exam a year early, and finishing in joint second place. (A few years later Arthur Eddington was to go one better, sitting the tripos a year early and finishing in first place.) After graduation Jeans became a Fellow at Cambridge and then a professor at Princeton, returning to Cambridge in 1910. His reputation was built with a series of technical monographs, including The Dynamical Theory of Gases (1904), Theoretical Mechanics (1906), and Mathematical Theory of Electricity and Magnetism (1908). In 1917 he was awarded the Adams Prize for his essay Problems of Cosmogony and Stellar Dynamics that was published as a book in 1919. This was a classic work which cemented his reputation as one of the world’s greatest mathematicians and physical scientists and is Jeans’ most lasting contribution to technical writing. In 1922 he was awarded the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society for his contributions to cosmology.

Above: James and Susi Jeans (née Hock) in 1936

As Secretary of the Royal Society from 1919 to 1929, he had great effect on Proceedings of the Royal Society publication, which became the premier English journal for scientific publishing under his stewardship. But he may well be best remembered as secretary for the colourful talks he gave. The addresses at the presentation of the Royal Society Gold Medal to Dyson, Einstein, and Schlesinger were all noteworthy. In these he compared physicists variously to children chasing rainbows and magicians lifting illusions, and reminded the Society of the tiny time that human beings had existed in comparison to the age of the phenomena they studied, and the far smaller time that scientific astronomy had existed, and therefore of the tininess of their knowledge in comparison to future knowledge, and the subsequent need for humility.

A somewhat reticent and at times even caustic figure, Jeans was also capable of passionate discourse on religious and scientific subjects, in public and with his friends. He is regarded, alongside Arthur Eddington, as the founder of modern British cosmology.

In summary, Jeans was a great scientist, great populariser of science, and great exponent of the affirmative relationship between science and religion. His literary ability, which won him a place in the Oxford Book of English prose, stands equal with his mathematical ability.

* Another version of the story with different wording is given here https://explore-islam.com/why-do-people-go-to-church/:

That was on one of 1909’s Sundays. It was raining heavily and I went outside for some reason. That’s when I saw the famous astronomer Sir James Jeans – the professor at Cambridge University – heading towards the church, carrying the Bible and the umbrella under his arms. So I went closer to him and saluted him but he did not answer me! I saluted him one more time “What do you want from me?” he responded. I said, “Two things actually sir. The first one is that your umbrella is under your arms although it rains heavily!” He smiled at me and opened his umbrella at once. “The second thing,” I said, “What makes someone with such outstanding position like you go to church?” Sir James stopped for a moment and then replied with “You have to come for tea at my house this evening.” When I arrived on this evening, at 4:00 Pm exactly, Lady James went outside to tell me that Sir James is waiting for me in his room. When I entered his room, I found him in front of a small table where the tea things are on. And when he felt my existence he said, “What was your question?” and before my answer, he started lecturing about how amazing are the spiral stars, and they are amazingly organized and their flooding stunning light. Until I felt my heart is shaking out of God’s majesty. As for Sir James, tears were running on his cheeks and his hand was shaking out of his fear from God. He stopped suddenly and said “Inayatullah, when I look at masterpieces of God’s creation my structure starts to shake from divine majesty! When I Kneel down before God and say, ” God, you are Great” I feel everything in my structure is supporting me in such prayer and I feel both happiness and beautiful calmness; and I feel a thousand times more happy than others, did you understand now; why I go to church?”