By Jeffrey M. Kirk
There was an interesting obituary June 27 in The New York Times: “John Goodenough, Who Changed World with Lithium Ions, Dies at 100.” Robert D. McFadden wrote:
A devoted Episcopalian, Dr. Goodenough kept a tapestry of the Last Supper on the wall of his laboratory. Its depiction of the Apostles in fervent conversation, like scientists disputing a theory, reminded him, he said, of a divine power that had opened doors for him in a life that began with little promise.
Goodenough was born in Germany in 1922 to American parents. While he was young, his family returned to the United States. His father taught comparative religion at Yale and his mother was a homemaker. Apparently, his parents struggled to help him as he grew up.
Goodenough had dyslexia. He had trouble in school until he was sent to an elite private school at age 12. There, he got counseling and stayed away from subjects like English and history, concentrating on Latin, Greek, and mathematics. He graduated first in his class and was accepted to Yale University, where he studied physics.
As he finished his studies, he was drafted and served as a meteorologist in the U.S. Army during World War II. Yale gave him a course credit for his military service so he could graduate. He then embarked on a Ph.D. program in physics at the University of Chicago with some of the world’s most renowned physicists.
Upon receiving his Ph.D. in 1952, he married the love of his life, Irene. He then took a job with the prestigious Lincoln Laboratories of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. When federal funding eventually ended for his research in 1976, he took a position researching and teaching chemistry at Oxford University.
In 1980 at Oxford, Goodenough — with Stanley Wittingham of the State University of New York at Binghamton and Akira Yoshino of Meijo University in Japan — made the breakthrough that has changed the world. The men discovered how to significantly increase the power and flexibility of lithium-ion batteries, while reducing their size and cost. These ubiquitous, rechargeable batteries today power smart phones, unplugged computers, lawn mowers, and electric cars, and may help the world curb greenhouse gases. Probably each of us benefits from these batteries every day.
After 25 years at Oxford, Goodenough joined the Cockrell School of Engineering at the University of Texas at Austin. There he continued his research and teaching until age 100, when he died on June 26. Along the way, he and his two colleagues were belatedly awarded the 2019 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their 1980 lithium-ion-battery discoveries. At age 97 he became the oldest Nobel Laureate ever so honored.
His last years presented new challenges to Goodenough in science and for his wife, Irene. She developed dementia and for her safety had to be placed in an assisted living facility before her death in 2016. Despite her confinement, Goodenough remained a nearly constant presence to her. He was a beloved member of St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church in Austin, Texas, and his rector, the Rev. Katie Wright, said he would visit Irene every day and share meals, even as her mental functioning diminished. He was buried from St. Matthew’s on June 30.
In 2008 he reflected on his life as a Christian, writing a memoir called Witness to Grace. Though I was unable to see a copy of his memoir, I think we can infer what he was thinking. Any “witness to grace” is someone who has been set free from the kind of striving for God’s approval that St. Paul saw in the Letter to the Romans, chapter 6:12-23. These verses were appointed from Proper 8, Year A, in the Revised Common Lectionary for July 2. As a teacher of the law, Saul, later St. Paul, saw that the laws of God revealed sin as it was, but didn’t empower people to keep them.
Paul’s quest for an escape from sin and death could only come as a gift from God through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Paul bears witness to God’s grace, the all-determining fact of his life, saying, “Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Part of the debate in today’s extended section of Paul’s Letter to the Romans concerns the motivation to do good. Paul’s critics accused him of antinomianism, lawlessness. This lack of morals is all around us today in commerce, politics, and hatred toward others. We especially mourn the loss of honesty by politicians and the advent of the default option of threats and violence against those who disagree.
When Paul is asked if we should sin more so that God’s grace might more abound, he says, “By no means!” In contrast, we Christians are “witnesses to grace,” by entrusting our whole lives to God’s goodness, love, and mercy. The motive for right thoughts and actions then becomes thankfulness, not striving with God or competing with others. By our baptisms, we’re set apart, consecrated by the Holy Spirit, just as John Goodenough was set apart throughout his long life to be a “witness to grace.”
Today, the importance of our mission could not be more urgent. Every baptized Episcopalian is an emissary for God, an ambassador for Christ. Hymn 541, verse 4 says it well:
Come, labor on
Claim the high calling angels cannot share;
to young and old the Gospel gladness bear.
Redeem the time; its hours too swiftly fly.
The night draws nigh.
The Rev. Dr. Jeffrey M. Kirk is a retired priest of the Diocese of New Jersey.