Nobel Laureate John Goodenough: A Witness to Grace

on December 5, 2019

Every fall, the worldwide scientific community waits with anticipation for the announcement of the year’s crop of Nobel prize-winners. This year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry went to John B. Goodenough, Stanley Whittingham, and Akira Yoshino for their work on lithium-ion batteries. The practical importance of this work cannot be underestimated. In lithium-ion batteries, as the battery discharges lithium ions move from the negative electrode (that’s the anode, if you’re dusting off your high-school chemistry) to the positive electrode (the cathode) through a solution of an electrolyte, then back again as the battery is recharged. Lithium-ion batteries have allowed the worldwide spread of the handheld devices so essential to modern life. The work of this trio made it possible to do what we take for granted today: the simple act of placing our devices in a charger or plugging them into a wall receptacle to recharge them.

I’m sure each Nobel recipient is interesting in his own right, but to me Goodenough is the most fascinating of the three. His quirky humor comes through in interviews, and he has the distinction of the being the oldest recipient of a Nobel prize in the long history of the program. Goodenough is doubly significant for me because he is a Christian, as his fascinating autobiography, Witness to Grace makes clear.


John Goodenough portrait

Science teaches why things are the way they are and how to use this knowledge to achieve a specified goal; but it does not distinguish between the moral qualities of the human goals this knowledge serves.

John B. Goodenough

Goodenough points to many formative events in his spiritual journey. His account of stealing a candy bar as a five-year old (Witness to Grace, p. 12) is reminiscent of Augustine’s pear-stealing episode. Later, at a boarding school in Groton, CT, Goodenough picked up four key ideas: ” (1) the beauty of holiness; (2) the art of metaphor; (3) the sacredness of dialogue, and (4) the meaningfulness of service. Implicit in these ideas was the assumption that there is a moral law that governs human behavior just as there are laws of nature that govern the physical universe.” (p. 24) This sense of moral order in the universe is very similar to what drew fellow scientist Francis Collins to Christian faith. At this point, however, Goodenough somehow knew he was still outside the faith: “I realized that holiness is not a word that can be defined; it must be experienced.” (p. 19)

Goodenough’s parents by all accounts had an unhappy marriage that ended in divorce. Goodenough’s father was a Methodist minister trained at Harvard Divinity School who later abandoned traditional Christian faith for psychological interpretations of religious phenomena along Freudian lines. He taught religious studies at Yale (p. 28), where John enrolled as an undergraduate. Ironically, despite his father’s views, Goodenough himself remained unconvinced by Freud’s approach (p. 24).

Goodenough eventually decided to pursue physics as a career. After serving in the meteorological corps during World War II, he was one of a group of officers chosen to do graduate work, which he pursued at the University of Chicago. There he was exposed to physics greats including Enrico Fermi, but ultimately decided to work with Clarence Zener. Perhaps more importantly, at the International House he met Irene Wiseman, daughter of a Methodist minister and professor. Irene convened an investigative Bible study, and it was there that Goodenough became fully convinced about the truth of the Christian message and that he must embrace it, despite the disappointment and opposition of his family. As a scientist at a public university I couldn’t help but smile at Goodenough’s description of the response he received at Chicago: “When I made my public witness to friends in the International House it was met with either a condescending indifference to an intellectual causality or an embarrassed defense of conformity to the intellectually respectable position of agnosticism.” (p. 43)

John and Irene were eventually married. Goodenough made his career in what we now call solid-state physics, moving to MIT’s Lincoln Institute, where he would work on an early implementation of random-access memory (RAM) for computers. His work on electronic orbitals in crystals led to fundamental insights into magnetic materials. The years at MIT were good ones for the Goodenoughs, who purchased property in New Hampshire, where their neighbor was Charles Townes, MIT Provost, Christian physicist, and Nobel laureate for his work on lasers.

In 1976 the Goodenoughs moved to Oxford, where Goodenough joined the Chemistry faculty. There his group worked on lithium-ion battery technology, in part using the theoretical foundation laid by Stanley Whittingham, to develop a cathode material that would be the key to Goodenough’s Nobel prize-winning work. Akiro Yoshino would later develop a complementary anode and commercialize the technology through Sony Corporation. After ten years at Oxford the Goodenoughs returned to the US, settling at the University of Texas-Austin, where he has remained to this day.

John Goodenough has led a remarkable life of intellectual curiosity fused with a desire to make a difference in the world. As a scientist who is a Christian, Goodenough has inspired me to do the same. We may not agree on everything to be sure. For example, his notions regarding whether God as Creator ever suspends natural laws to intervene in human history (pp. 44, 83) might raise eyebrows for some readers. But I resonate strongly with Goodenough when he challenges scientists to look beyond science for meaning:

“Scientific knowledge is a means to power, power to extend the limits of our existence, to challenge fate; but it also provides the means to subdue, to terrorize, to destroy. Science teaches why things are the way they are and how to use this knowledge to achieve a specified goal; but it does not distinguish between the moral qualities of the human goals this knowledge serves. For that, another discipline is needed!…For the religious person, what gives meaning to life is our walk with that which is eternal; the beauty of holiness inspires the choice of our service to the humanity in all people; dialogue with the Spirit of Love as well as with nature is sacred…” (pp. 80, 83)

Goodenough’s boldness in proclaiming the limits of science is something other scientists like me should be challenged by.

Goodenough concludes with a prayer: “I pray the reader may have ears to hear and eyes to see whatever is true in this witness to Grace.” (p. 85) Amen! Let’s join him in praying this prayer over our own lives, especially those of us blessed to be Christians in science.


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Jeff Hardin
About the Author

Jeff Hardin

Jeff Hardin is chair of the Department of Integrative Biology at the University of Wisconsin. In addition to numerous scientific research articles relating to embryonic development, Hardin is senior author of World of the Cell. He received a Master of Divinity degree at the International School of Theology in Southern California, where he met his wife, Susie, who worked in campus ministry with Cru (Campus Crusade for Christ). He is on the national advisory board for Intervarsity Christian Fellowship’s Faculty Ministry and serves as faculty advisor for the Navigators and InterVarsity Graduate Christian Fellowship on the UW-Madison campus.
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