Oluf Julius Olsen: A Quiet Man Of Science And Faith

Dean Julius Olsen


The heavens declare the glory of God,
the vault of heaven proclaims his handiwork,
day discourses of it to day,
night to night hands on the knowledge.

No utterance at all, no speech,
not a sound to be heard,
but from the entire earth the design stands out,
this message reaches the whole world.

Psalm 19: 1-4a


How little we know each other.  I have completed my fortieth year at Hardin-Simmons University. If it weren’t for the reality that so many friends who were young with me in 1977 have died, I could easily believe I have just arrived on campus. I have been taking that backward look we all come to. It’s not a summing up. After all, aren’t I still thirty-one, with my new, rolled up Ph.D.; my beautiful wife and two-year-old twin sons; our first house—one hundred years old, friendly-ghost haunted, a warren of cozy rooms with ten-foot ceilings, French doors, thirty-four almost-floor-to-ceiling windows?  It is a house filled with light.

During the years 1926-1929, Dr. Oluf Julius Olsen, Hardin-Simmons Professor (1902-1942) of physics, chemistry, and astronomy, and Dean of Liberal Arts, constructed at the north end of the Hardin-Simmons campus, on Vogel Street, a two-story house of brick for his wife Clara, his three daughters Regina, Claudine, and Ollie Lena, and his son Julian.  His first son and namesake Julius Nelson Olsen had died in 1913 shortly after contracting measles complicated by pneumonia.  He was five years old.

Until about eight years ago, all I knew about Dr. Olsen was his house, a recently renovated landmark on the HSU campus, and the Julius Nelson Olsen Medal established in 1914 by Dr. and Mrs. Julius Olsen in memory of their son. The Undergraduate Catalogue of Hardin-Simmons University states that the medal is perpetuated through a bequest by Dean Julius Olsen and is “awarded annually at spring commencement to the graduate who has the highest grade average, has exemplified the highest scholarly achievement, and has completed at least 90 semester hours of residence credit at Hardin-Simmons University including international study work taken through HSU.” Dr. Olsen stipulated in the Catalogue of [Hardin-] Simmons College, 1913-1914 that the recipient would have “incurred no demerits” and “shown promptness and punctuality.” For twenty years, Dr. Olsen awarded the medal himself.


When I began looking for information about Dr. Olsen, I found a few biographical facts in the HSU Richardson Library.  He was born May 5, 1873.  He received a Bachelor of Science degree from Bethany College, Lindsberg, Kansas, in 1898.  Spring, 1902, he received his Ph.D. from Yale University.  In the fall of 1902, he came to Simmons College / Hardin-Simmons University, Abilene, Texas.  In 1905, he did postdoctoral study at the University of Berlin and at Cambridge University, London. He founded, 1925, the local chapter of the Scholarship Society of the South (Alpha Chi). He died September 15, 1942.

I learned that Reverend James Teel planned to write a biography of Dr. Olsen and had gathered some original source material in his duplex office on Hickory St., Abilene, TX.  I contacted Reverend Teel, and he permitted me to look through the boxes labeled “Julius Olsen.”  I was hoping to find personal material about the man.  I made copies of particularly interesting documents:

(1) A handwritten rough draft, with handwritten revisions, by Dr. Julius Olsen, for a speech—“Some Observations on Science”— he was preparing for delivery at Abilene Christian College, Monday, February 22, 1932, as the “speech of the occasion” at the banquet of the Scholarship Chapters of the South (Alpha Chi) annual meeting co-hosted by Abilene Christian College, Simmons College, and McMurry College, Abilene, Texas, February 22-23, 1932.  Dr. Olsen was president of the Scholarship Chapters of the South, made up of thirty member organizations.

(2) The nineteen-page typescript of Dr. Olsen’s Memorial Service, recorded in shorthand and then typed by Harvey C. Brown, Official Shorthand Reporter, 42nd Judicial District of Texas, Abilene, Texas.

(3) Two fortieth birthday notes to their father from Regina and Claudine Olsen.

(4) A Poem—“Thinking of Julius”—by Dr. Julius Olsen, handwritten on the back of a legal-size envelope, February 12, 1928

Julius Nelson Olsen, five-year-old son of Dr. Olsen died Wednesday, February 12, 1913.

Handwritten Birthday Note From Dr. Olsen’s Daughter Regina May Olsen, May 5, 1913

My Dear Papa:

I wish you a happy birthday and many more happy birthdays. And may May 5, 1913 be the happiest birthday that you ever had.  May many good things happen to you.  And many more happy returns of the day.  And may this be the happiest birthday that God ever sent you.  Though Julius is gone to heaven and we are all very lonely.

Handwritten Birthday Note From Dr. Olsen’s Daughter Claudine Olsen, May 5, 1913

Dear Papa:

I wish you a happy birthday.  And many happy returns of the day. Just to think you are 40 years old.

Do you feel happy when your birthday comes when Julius Nelson Olsen is gone to heaven?  When my birthday came, I was happy, but the day before I felt so bad that I did not have little darling Julius to say Happy birthday.

On February 12, 1928, fifteen years after the death of Julius Nelson Olsen, his father wrote a poem, “Thinking of Julius,” on the back of a legal-sized envelope. Fifteen, the total number of years between Wednesday, February 12, 1913, and Sunday, February 12, 1928.  Not counting the end date, total number of days between Wednesday, February 12, 1913, and Sunday, February 12, 1928: 5,478. Total hours: 131,472. Total minutes: 7,888, 320. Total seconds: 473,299,200.

Thinking of Julius

The sun is slowly sinking
On this quiet Sabbath day,
And I am sorrowing but thinking
Of Julius, our “sonny boy”
Who brought us love and joy.
Then left us, oh! so soon
Causing a deep, deep wound.

Just fifteen years ago
We knew our greatest sorrow
Because he went to lands unknown
And we were left alone.
But someday, we shall see him
In that blessed far-off land.
Then we may grasp his little hand
And kiss his golden hair—
Then we will be happy.

Selected tribute comments of Dr. E. B. Atwood, Professor of Bible,
Hardin-Simmons University, former President of Wayland Baptist College,
and a close friend of Dr. Olsen, paid to Dr. Olsen at his Memorial Service,
September 17, 1942, 5:00 p.m., Hardin-Simmons Auditorium, Abilene, Texas

Dr. Olsen Portrait
Dr. Julius Olsen Portrait

Doctor Olsen in appearance was princely.  I have often observed him in the chapel, his erect figure, his noble head and fine face.  He impressed everyone who looked upon him.  I have often felt that he would have deserved a place among King Arthur‟s Knights of the Round Table. He moved among us as some Sir Galahad or some Sir Lancelot in quest of the Holy Grail.

Selected Comments of Dr. W. R. White, President of Hardin-Simmons University, 1940-1943, Memorial Service for Dr. Julius Olsen

They tell me that in the classroom without the blare of trumpets and pious pretense but with an uncanny simplicity of faith, he could change the research laboratory and the classroom in science into the sanctuary of God, and the students could look into the very Holy of Holies of God, as revealed in the realm of truth and of science as presented by this devout soul and this great mind.

Selected Tribute Comments of Dr. Rupert N. Richardson,
Professor of History, Hardin-Simmons University,
Memorial Service for Dr. Julius Olsen

Julius Olsen circle photoThe passing of any great and useful man must bring sorrow to many, but the passing of a man who has served so well and even with distinction a College for forty years must bring grief and a great sense of loss to thousands of people. No student ever sat in Doctor Olsen’s class for long without being deeply impressed by his mastery of subject matter, his sympathy with the student and the student’s problems, his zeal for promoting sound learning, his humor, his kindliness, cleanliness of personal habits, and all the qualities that I might name that he exemplified so forcefully.  It must be said that those men and women who knew him as his students have long since forgotten perhaps the mathematics, physics, chemistry and astronomy that they learned in his classes, but they have not forgotten the teacher.  His memory endures.  It is a living thing, and it will continue and become a tradition that will be passed on to student generations yet to come.  It will become a part of the heritage of Hardin-Simmons University.

In Doctor Olsen, the scholar, the teacher, the administrator were marvelously well blended.  As a teacher he always attended to his work and did it well.  As an administrator, he was efficient, always working the general interest of the school. And as a scholar, he wrought with distinction.  He was a pioneer in the work and in the experiments associated with the Ion, and on his discoveries other scientists have also made important discoveries.  He is recognized throughout the scientific world.

In respect to moral and spiritual qualities, Doctor Olsen always reminded me of a monolith, without seam or flaw into which the elements could enter to work their destruction. There was no seamy side to his life. He hated sham and pretense worse, I think, than any man I ever knew.  I have often heard him say, admonishing and advising students, “Do not flatter a person, for it is not well to tell a lie in order to make someone feel good.  If you make a statement that is not true in one connection the next time you make a statement it may be true, but someone will be tempted not to believe you.”  He hated flattery, sham and pretense, yet he never wounded the feelings of anyone intentionally.  I never knew a man who had a greater love for truth, a greater veneration for truth than Doctor Olsen.  His faith was as simple as that of a little child but as rugged as a mountain of granite.

Selections from Some Observations on Science

By study we find that we feed on sunbeams, that we are made of the same stuff as the flowers and the stars—that one of our greatest gifts is the urge to know, and that one of the most important things in our lives is the belief in the reality of moral and spiritual values.

I believe that one of the best tests of intelligence is that a person wants to know the reason why and demands an explanation.  Next, I believe that the greatest desire that a thinking intelligent person has, is that he wants to know the unknowable.  It is man’s urge to know— man’s ceaseless quest after eternal truth, that always beckons us on, even to the sacrifice of life itself.  A person who takes everything for granted because it is common belief and is satisfied with what we know today, will never give the world much new knowledge.

Most people believe that what is said about things outside our little earth and the laws that govern the universe, are unknowable.  Of course this is not true, but the idea that it is unknowable adds to its fascination.  The more one knows about this wonderful universe in which we are privileged to live, the more fascinating becomes the enlarging apparent unknowable.

Selected Comments of Dr. E. B. Atwood

I first heard of Doctor Olsen through his former students.  At Wayland College, the members of the faculty who were graduates of Simmons evinced great astonishment when I admitted I did not know Doctor Olsen.  They seemed to think that the whole world should know Doctor Olsen.  According to them he was a great scholar, a wonderful teacher and one of the grandest and noblest men that God had ever made.  I believe that that is practically the universal sentiment of the thousands upon thousands of students who passed through his lecture room. To them he is the ideal Christian gentleman, scholar, teacher, friend.

44I met Doctor Olsen first when my two boys entered Simmons College in 1924.  I found him to be a quiet, modest, unassuming Christian man, going diligently and enthusiastically about his work, as Doctor Richardson has said, entirely devoid of ostentation or pretense.  There was certainly nothing in his life of that professional technique known as “How to Win Friends and Influence People.” He hated sham and artificiality.  Perhaps the key to his life may be seen in the first speech which he delivered in the chapel of Simmons College. One who was present on that occasion has told me that the opening that year was made memorable by the presence of the young Ph.D. from Yale.  Everybody expected when he was introduced that he would make a long and learned discourse. On the contrary, Doctor Olsen spoke briefly, and the gist of what he said was this: “I shall endeavor to teach my pupils to think straight and to tell the truth.” That was Doctor Olsen.  He felt that a college education was to introduce a student to the truth and to develop within that student loyalty and love of truth. So he spent his life in dispelling the shadows of ignorance and superstition from the minds of the young and opening up to them the great world of truth. Truth was his idol, but next to truth he laid emphasis upon hard work.  On the panel above the blackboard in his lecture room he had inscribed in large letters these words, visible to everybody in the room:  “No mental or material wealth can be stored up if ease is preferable to effort.” That motto brought letters of appreciation from parents and friends hundreds of miles away.

Some Observations on Science

Our lives were wound up once and will never be rewound.  We can run down our lives as fast as we choose, but we can never rewind—we can only conserve them. Until a few years ago a similar idea was held about our universe, namely, that it was wound up once and is now running down.  Let us consider this a little later.

Let us first notice that there are only two things in the physical universe and that is matter and energy. That there are only two things that we can do to find out anything about matter and energy and that is to measure and to count. That there is only one thing in the universe that is exact and that is to count. Not another solitary thing is exact.

We used to teach that matter and energy were each separately invariable, thus these two entities could not be destroyed or created.  Now we know that matter plus energy is constant. Matter is changing into energy; that we know, and it is believed that energy is changing into matter, and that this is an unending cycle.  It is known for instance that our sun is losing about four million tons in weight every second; this amount of matter is changing into heat and light.

Everyone knows that any two bodies of different temperatures will the one lose and the other gain until both are of the same temperature.  Push this far enough and all bodies in the universe will have the same temperature unless something interferes to prevent it. There are at least thirty billion stars in our Milky Way alone, each comparable in size to our sun and moving with an average velocity of thirty times the velocity of our fastest cannonballs.  In the course of millions of years they will get somewhere, and yet space is so vast that it has been calculated that there is only one chance in eighteen million that any star would come within a billion miles of another particular star once in 100,000 years. At intervals of time much greater than this, two stars will collide; an enormous amount of heat will be generated, and at this point, the universe would be rewound, and it would probably take billions of years before the temperature would drop to what it was before collision, but there is one star less—push this far enough and there would be only one star left of the thirty billion stars in our galaxy. What then!  Is that all?  Is that the end! No—our Milky Way is only one of thousands of island universes, and the same thing would have to come true in each one of these; then finally these stars would collide—but probably long before this could come true, the matter of which the stars are made would have changed to energy.  If this is our universe—how great is our God its creator!

Selected Comments of Dr. E. B. Atwood

Doctor Olsen‟s religious life was deep and real, although he talked little about it. These matters were too sacred for idle chatter.  It would have been repugnant to his nature and distasteful to his sincere and honest heart to have used religious faith as a political asset or propaganda.  Doctor Olsen knew little and cared less about denominational differences and shibboleths.  He had a profound faith in God as the Creator and Father of mankind and in the Lord Jesus Christ as the Redeemer and Savior of the world. His religion was a practical kind of religion.  It was the religion like that of Him who wrought the creed of creeds, with human hands.  Doctor Olsen wrought his creed with daily living before his family, his friends, his neighbors, his students.

Some Observations on Science

I am not saying that our sun is a hot body cooling off, but I am saying that the sun loses more energy in one second than it gains from outside sources in a million years, and therefore will some day have lost its energy in the form of heat.  Everyone knows that the reason life continues is because one heavenly body is warmer than another, and the cooler gets energy from the warmer. When they reach anywhere near the same temperature, life will be impossible.

Life that, to us, seems so important is conditioned upon so many things that it has been estimated that less than 1/1,000 million-millionth part of space could possibly be inhabited, and the chances are that not over 1/100,000 of this is sufficiently favorable for the continuance of life as we know it.

Astronomers are probably not in error in this matter, and yet our reasoning as well as our senses may deceive us.  Let us test out our hearing for instance and notice if it does not deceive us, sometimes.  Imagine a clock without a face, but one that ticks seconds loud enough so that it may be heard a long distance.  Let us now move away from this clock while we listen to its ticks. As it takes time for sound to travel from the clock to us, therefore as we move away from the clock while we listen we will find that the ticks come slower and slower the faster we move away, and when we move away with the velocity of sound, the clock has stopped as far as we and our sense of hearing is concerned, but of course it has not really done so.  Our hearing has deceived us.

Let us test out our sense of sight in a similar way.  Imagine now that the clock has a second hand that can be seen for a long distance.  Let us move away from it, and the faster we move, the slower the clock apparently runs until if we could move away with the velocity of light, it would have stopped.  If we imagine that we moved away faster than the velocity of light, the clock would actually run backward. Our senses deceive us at least in these cases, very probable in many others.  Our reasoning may also be false, but it is our highest tribunal—our supreme court of judgment.

I have often pointed out to students a star and asked, “Do you see that star now,” and the answer comes, “Of course I do.”  But they are mistaken.  They see the star by the light it sent out probably a million years ago.  It may be so distant that it took light a million years to reach the earth. It may have ceased to shine a million years ago, and still we see it. There is really no now.  It is only seen now.

Selected Comments of Dr. E. B. Atwood

I loved Doctor Olsen as a brother, and he took me into his heart with a warmth of affection, which is rare among men and of which I feel increasingly unworthy. He was near the age of my only brother, and I often said to him: “Since my brother is so far away, I am going to adopt you as my Texas brother.” He responded that he had never had a brother, and he would adopt me as his brother. As time went on he treated this fiction as a fact. No brother could have been kinder, more thoughtful, more considerate, more generous. He visited me and wanted me to visit him. When illness came, he desired me to be at his side, just as much as my duties and my reserve strength  would  permit. His soul seemed to cleave to mine, as the soul of Jonathan to the soul of David, and my heart responded as much as my coarser and harder nature is capable of responding to this love, this brotherly love.

Last Saturday evening I made my last call at his home. He greeted me cordially and then inquired anxiously about my eyes. I explained to him the doctor’s plan and hope for restoring my vision, that I might go on with my work. Then I added, “If it should turn out differently from our plans and hopes, I think I will come over, Doctor Olsen, and sit with you under the shade of these trees, and we will have long hours to talk about books, and lands, and men and heroes and of the long ago.” His face lighted up with pleasure and he responded with something like these words: “Gee, that would be fine.” But now he is gone, and I can only fulfill that dream and promise when I, too, have passed over the river to rest under the shade of the trees.

Some Observations on Science

Practically all the energy on the earth comes from the sun.  Water power, wind, coal, gas and oil are all forms of solar energy. These electric lights come indirectly from the sunshine that formed the coal, gas or oil thousands of years ago.  It took sunshine, water and carbon dioxide to form them, and now they, together with oxygen, give back the sunshine, water and carbon dioxide again—One of the infinite number of cycles in nature through which the elements go. These electric lights are simply sunshine that fell upon the earth thousands of years ago and was stored in the bosom of mother earth.

Animals depend upon plants and sunshine—plants depend upon sunshine.  Here is another evidence of the correctness of our Bible—plants before animals according to Genesis. The opposite we know would be impossible.  Scholars should be open to new truths, yet retaining the eternal truths.  Let us not fear for our religion as far as science is concerned, for as Dr. Robert Andrews Millikan, Nobel Laureate in Physics, 1923, has said, “The foundations of our religion is not laid where scientific discoveries of any kind can disturb them.”

Space between stars is great compared with the stars, themselves.  Space between planets is great compared with the planets themselves.  Space between electrons and protons, even in our densest metals, is great compared with the electrons and protons themselves.  In fact everything in the universe, whether it be infinite space or the densest metals is made up mostly of holes. Everything is holey and relative.

Nothing can be large or small, good or bad, except with respect to some standard. It has been suggested that if every person on this earth, should either fall asleep or become unconscious at the same time and then that all space should be halved—compressed into one half its former size, that no one would be able to tell upon awakening that anything had happened.  Of course our houses would be only half as large; the distance to our places of business or to school would be only half as far, but our legs would be only half as long.  In fact it can be definitely proved that it would be impossible to prove that anything had happened.

On the little particles of dust that may be seen floating in a sunbeam in a darkened room are often found myriads of microbes. The dust particle is to the microbe a huge ball.  The earth in comparison with the great universe is a mere speck of dust.  I wonder if we are only microbes clinging to this dust particle—the earth.

If all of our life should be crowded into one brief second instead of threescore years and ten, we should go through the same joys, sorrows and tribulations as we do now; time would seem just as long, and we would take ourselves just as serious and think ourselves just as important as we do now.  Our lives in the universe of time is but a second.  Relative—relative— all is relative.

Some Observations on Science

I have often wondered why God made us so wise that we could think about anything we choose to think and yet so limited that we could push nothing to its ultimate conclusion.



Most of the sources for “A Quiet Man of Science and Faith” are located in the Dr. Julius Olsen boxes in Reverend James Teel’s duplex office at 880 Hickory St., Abilene, TX. While looking through the boxes, July 14, 2010, I read and made copies of these documents. Rev. Teel plans to write a biography of Dr. Julius Olsen.

Psalm 19:1-4a is quoted from The New Jerusalem Bible. Standard ed. Doubleday, 1999. Dr. Millard Alford Jenkens, pastor of First Baptist Church, Abilene, Texas, noted in his tribute to Dr. Julius Olsen at Dr. Olsen’s memorial service, September 17, 1942, that Psalm 19:1-3 was a “choice scripture” of Dr. Olsen’s.

Facts about Dr. Julius Olsen are taken from The Bronco, Yearbook of Simmons University, 1934
http://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth38632/m1/7/?q=Dr. Julius Olsen

The nineteen-page typescript of Dr. Olsen’s Memorial Service, recorded in shorthand and then typed by Harvey C. Brown, Official Shorthand Reporter, 42nd Judicial District of Texas, Abilene, Texas is located in Rev. James Teel’s duplex office.

The handwritten birthday notes are located in Rev. James Teel’s duplex office.

The poem “Thinking of Julius” is located in Rev. James Teel’s duplex office.

The handwritten rough draft of Dr. Olsen’s speech “Some Observations On Science” is located in Rev. James Teel’s duplex office.

The source for the occasion for Dr. Olsen’s banquet speech “Some Observations On Science” is The Optimist (newspaper of Abilene Christian College), vol. 19, no. 20, ed. 1, Thursday, February 18, 1932—http://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth91570/?q=The%20Optimist%20February%2018,%201932

Source for dates of construction: “Olsen House,” Council of Independent Colleges Historic Campus Architecture Project

When Dr. Olsen quotes Dr. Robert Andrews Millikan, Nobel Laureate in Physics, 1923—“The foundations of our religion is not laid where scientific discoveries of any kind can disturb them”—, Dr. Olsen is probably quoting [somewhat misquoting] Dr. Millikan’s comment in an interview entitled “A Scientist’s God” (Collier’s, October 24, 1925):

“‘This much I can say with definiteness—namely, that there is no scientific basis for the denial of religion—nor is there in my judgment any excuse for a conflict between science and religion, for their fields are entirely different. Men who know very little of science and men who know very little of religion do indeed get to quarreling, and the onlookers imagine that there is a conflict between science and religion, whereas the conflict is only between two different species of ignorance.

‘The first important quarrel of this sort arose over the advancing by Copernicus of his theory that the earth, instead of being a flat plane and the center of the universe, was actually only one of a number of little planets, rotating once a day upon its axis and circling once a year about the sun. Copernicus was a priest—the canon of a cathedral—and he was primarily a religious rather than a scientific man. He knew that the foundations of real religion are not laid where scientific discoveries of any kind can disturb them. He was persecuted, not because he went against the teachings of religion but because under his theory man was not the center of the universe and this was most displeasing news to a number of egoists.’” (R. A. Millikan, 1925)

Source: http://nobelist.tripod.com/id1.html

Dr. Julius Olsen: Hardin-Simmons Faculty Baseball Game
Dr. Julius Olsen: Hardin-Simmons Faculty Baseball Game