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June 20 Fr George Lemaitre and the Big Bang

The pioneering priest and physicist George Lemaitre died today. He is famous for proposing the "Big Bang theory" of the origin of the universe. His theories helped modern scientific cosmology take a huge leap forward, and as a scientist and priest he had deep insights regarding the relationship between science and faith.

From an early age he wanted to become a scientist priest and as he living in a coal mining region in Belgium, his father directed him to study Mining Engineering at Louvain. However, World War I interfered with his studies and Georges and his brother Jacques volunteered to defend their small country. Life in the trenches, in the face of constant shelling, focused the mind, and it is a popular saying that there were on atheists in the trenches. Writing a letter to a friend the trenches: Lemaitre said “I have understood the ‘Fiat Lux’ [Latin for “let there be light” as the reason of the universe.” He wrote a document called God’s First Three Declarations, also translated sometimes as The First Three Words of God, which was never published but shows him taking great pains to establish an elaborate theory around the idea of light at the origin of the universe inspired in Genesis 1:3. He rejected the idea that the Bible teaches science, mentioning pope Leo XIII’s encyclical letter Providentissimus Deus (1893) and Augustine of Hippo. However, he speculated that there may be some Biblical insights of scientific knowledge in a veiled prophetic way. Some examples are his attempt to read the creation ex nihilo in Gen 1:3 arguing with a reference to the blackbody radiation that “physically, absolute darkness is nothingness” or his interpretation of the waters of Genesis 1:7-9 as a “mass of lights” that could then be “condensed” into liquid and solid states of matter.

After the war he was ordained as a Catholic priest and as the war was coming to an end, Albert Einstein proposed a static (i.e. eternal) model for the universe, introducing what he called ‘a cosmological constant’ that cancelled the contracting gravitational effect that he detected when the Theory of Relativity was applied to the universe as a whole. Le Maitres had become an expert on Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, and pursued doctoral studies in the University of Cambridge under the famous astronomer Arthur Eddington. Eddington had just observationally confirmed the Theory of Relativity (showing how gravitation was able to bend the light from a distant star while traveling near the Sun). It would prove to be an important friendship, the Catholic Lemaitre and the Quaker Eddington got along very well, especially in an environment where it could be prejudicial to admit to your faith.

On his return to Belgium in 1925, George took up a teaching post at Leuven and demonstrated evidence that the space between galaxies was expanding. This revolutionary idea went unnoticed but he had the chance to talk with Einstein later that year. Einstein accepted his mathematics, but at first rejected his physical interpretation. LeMaitre proposed a theory, in which he stated that the expanding universe was the same in all directions -- the same laws applied, the universe was not static. He had no data to prove this, so many scientists ignored it and Einstein was reluctant to endorse this extension of his theory of general relativity. However, at the same time in California, Edwin Hubble discovered that galaxies were moving away at high speeds. Le Maitre then was able to use Hubble's dramatic discovery as evidence for his theory. He thought if you imagined the galaxies rushing away from us like a movie, then just run the movie backwards. After a certain time, all those galaxies will rush together. Le Maitre put forth the strange idea that there was once a primordial atom which had contained all the matter in the universe. Atheist cosmologist Fred Hoyle, invented the name “Big Bang” in 1949, and used it pejoratively, considering the Big Bang to be a religious idea in disguise. For several years there were strong debates between those supporting it and those who favoured a "steady state" theory of the universe, in which the universe was eternal and unchanging. This argument ended when Penzias and Wilson found evidence of cosmic background radiation. LeMaitre had determined that this would be the residue of the big bang's explosion many billions of years ago.

Lemaître had a profound but very personal spirituality. He was part of a small community of priests, the Friends of Jesus, who sought a deeper spirituality through studying mystics, regularly attending silent retreats and taking special vows, such as poverty and a complete offering of their lives to Christ. Lemaître was always transparent regarding his faith, no matter how inconvenient in scientific and academic circles and he always appears in photographs dressed in the garb of a Catholic priest in every occasion. However, he was prudent and did not use his scientific position to proselytize and rarely mentioned his religious ideas in scientific contexts. In an interview in the New York Times, he spelled out this careful demarcation, If the Bible does not teach science, among other things, what does it teach, you ask. “The way to salvation,” comes the reply. “Once you realize that the Bible does not purport to be a textbook of science, the old controversy between religion and science vanishes.” He was careful not to use science for apologetics realising the futility of that, however his drive to discover a universe that was intelligible was due to his faith and his desire to understand how a loving God had made life.