Georges Lemaître

:

The Separation of Science and Faith

3/18/2011

J. McCartney




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Introduction

Once nicknamed “The Father of the Big Bang Theory”, Georges Lemaître‟s
contributions to the history of modern physics have become increasingly neglected
in recent years. It is hard to believe that this obscure Belgian priest once enjoyed
the status of an international celebrity, both for his ground-breaking theories and his
unusual status as a theoretician and a practicing Jesuit clergyman. Though Lemaître
went out of his way to keep his scientific and religious practices separate, it is still
possible to glean from his writings some indication of the connection that these two
fields had in his own mind. This essay examines Lemaître‟s life in the context of that
connection.
Early Life

Georges Lemaître was born into a large family in Louvain, Belgium in 1894.
Although he had already expressed his dual interests in theology and mathematics,
it was decided very early on that Georges would study mining engineering. This
would enable him to begin a practical career and help support his family.
Unfortunately for Lemaître, his college career was soon interrupted by the first
salvos of World War One. Lemaître followed the expected course for young men of
his generation, and signed up to join the Belgian army.
Lemaître survived many months of intense fighting on the battlefield, and was
one of the first soldiers to witness the horrific results of an attack by chlorine gas (a
substance which was in large part responsible for the outlawing of chemical
warfare). From his own accounts and those of his companions, Lemaître was able to

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keep calm under this intense pressure by reading advanced science textbooks. By
all accounts, Lemaître acquitted himself honorably, and was awarded the Belgian
equivalent of the Silver Star (Croix de Guerres avec palmes) for service and bravery
after the fighting was over.
It is hard to say what impact his war experiences had on Lemaître. There is no
existing record of his feelings on the matter. What is known is that when the war was
over, Lemaître switched over to studying for a mathematical and physical sciences
degree, with the intention of studying theology immediately afterwards.
Early Academic Career

The significance of Lemaître‟s early collegiate academic training lies in the
influences he came under while studying physics, mathematics, and theology. It was
during this period that Lemaître first discovered Einstein‟s relativity equations, a
subject he had to study on his own as there were yet no classes being taught about it.
It was also during this period that Lemaître embarked on his Jesuit training, a path
that would support the other side of his vocation and make him well-suited to
construct logical arguments for his theories.
The Jesuit order was founded by St. Ignatius Loyola in 1540. From the
beginning, one of the main foci of the Jesuit mission was the education of the next
generation. In the early modern era, Jesuit primary schools were often the only
access to education that children in European villages had. The Jesuit order also had
a reputation for training its clerics in rigorous rhetoric and logic. In its heyday, the
Jesuit order had such influence that the head of the order was known as “the Black

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Pope” and considered by many to be almost as great an authority in the Roman
Catholic Church as the Pope himself. The Jesuit training received by Lemaître, in
addition to training him to act as a priest, seems to have honed Lemaître‟s ability to
hold separate the religious and spiritual teachings of his day.
Lemaître was not yet a cosmologist; the term had yet to be invented. He
considered himself to be a mathematician, and as such applied for an exchange
scholarship to Cambridge University in England. He was accepted, and there he
was taken under Sir ArthurEddington‟s wing, to the mutual edification of both men.
While at Cambridge, Lemaître taught himself Einstein‟s general relativity
theory, using Eddington‟s textbook as a guide and with Eddington‟s assistance.
There were as yet no classes in the subject. During his studies of Einstein‟s theories
on general relativity, Lemaître came to be heavily influenced by the views of Arthur
Eddington, an influence that was to play an important role in his later career.

Static or Expanding Universe?
When Lemaître was studying for his graduate degrees, Einstein‟s general
relativity equations had just begun to impinge upon the public‟s consciousness. In
particular, very little was understood about the physical implications of these
formulae. The equations themselves were considered to be the province of
mathematicians, rather than physicists. In US universities, general relativity was still
being taught solely in math departments up until the 1950s. Thus, Einstein‟s model

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was considered to be more of an esoteric mathematical interest than anything that
actually represented the state of the universe.
Even so, the scientists and mathematicians often tried to rearrange these
equations to suit their own world views. Einstein himself, and many after him, tried
to drop the cosmological constant, λ, from his equations, declaring it to be inelegant.
Einstein was forced to add the cosmological constant to his equations in order to
prevent his model of the universe from collapsing under its own gravity. He later
tried to re-work the formula to make λ unnecessary, in part to harmonize his
equation with his view that the universe should be represented by an elegant
mathematical statement. Einstein later brushed off Lemaître‟s initial attempt to
explain a hypothesis with a similar aesthetic argument, reportedly declaring the
proposed dynamic universe to be “too ugly” to be true.
This was in part due to the prevailing popularity of the belief in a static,
unchanging universe. de Sitter was one of the first theoreticians to try to apply
Einstein‟s equations to the physical universe. The solution of de Sitter‟s model
resulted in a stable equilibrium; de Sitter and others supposed that this static version
was the only viable solution. Einstein and de Sitter, among others, were devoted to
the idea that the universe was eternal and unchanging, almost as much as Aristotle
had been centuries before.
Einstein had added the cosmological constant, λ, into his general relativity
equations in order to preserve his model‟s unchanging nature. As John Farrell
writes in The Day Without Yesterday, “This was the way people of the early

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twentieth century thought of the universe, as a placid, unchanging system.” (Farrell,
8)
de Sitter‟s model used Einstein‟s equations to shape a physical universe that
was devoid of matter and completely flat. Einstein disliked this model, but on
ideological rather than logical grounds. In Einstein‟s view of the general relativity
model, the curvature of space was determined by the presence of matter; hence he
felt that de Sitter‟s model invalidated his (Einstein‟s) pet theory. Alexander
Friedmann was the first to propose a variation on Einstein‟s equations in 1922 that
would result in a dynamic (altering in size) universe. Friedmann‟s work covered
some of the same mathematical ground as Lemaître‟s. However, Friedmann treated
the dynamic expansion as a mathematical curiosity, while Lemaître focused on the
physical applications. Friedmann‟s work was also not very widely known outside
Russia.
The timing was propitious for an expanding-universe theory. Hubble had just
started making public the observations that would result in Hubble‟s Law (objects in
deep space have a Doppler-shifted velocity relative to the Earth and each other).
The idea of an expanding universe was helped along by these observations, which
showed a large percentage of surrounding galaxies red-shifted (receding away from
the Milky Way).
Unfortunately for the peace of mind of the scientific community, Hubble‟s
observations supported the theory of an expanding universe and contradicted de
Sitter‟s popular static theory. The challenge was to reconcile Einstein‟s and de
Sitter‟s mathematical work with the known physical observations. When Eddington

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published a Royal Society article lamenting the lack of a mathematical solution that
matched the data, Lemaître sent him a reminder of his (Lemaître‟s) previous work.
At first, Lemaître‟s theory seemed doomed to a similar oblivion as
Friedmann‟s. His first paper on the subject was published in a little known Belgian
journal, in 1927, far from the attention of the growing cosmological community. It
wasn‟t until Eddington brought Lemaître‟s previous work to the attention of this
community by getting the theory published in the Royal Society journal that the idea
began to be taken seriously.
The Beginnings of Lemaître’s Model

Though he had been working with general relativity theory since 1927,
Lemaître‟s novel conclusion of the universe expanding from a single, physical
singularity (what he called the “Primeval Atom”) was not fully expounded until 1931.
Indeed, A. Deprit, in a talk about Lemaître, called Lemaître‟s letter to Nature on the
9
th
of May, 1931, “the charter of the Big Bang Theory” (Berger, 373). It was in this
letter, a response to Eddington‟s “repugnance” at the thought of a universe with a
definite beginning in time, that Lemaître declared: “If we go back in the course of
time we must find fewer and fewer quanta, until we find all the energy of the
universe packed in a few or even in a unique quantum.” (Farrell, 107) Going further
to rebut Eddington‟s misgivings, Lemaître also tried to justify this quantum as being
time-independent, saying:
“If the world has begun with a single quantum, the notions
of space and time would altogether fail to have any
meaning at the beginning; when the original quantum had
been divided into a sufficient number of quanta. If this

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suggestion is correct, the beginning of the world
happened a little before the beginning of space and time.
I think that such a beginning of the world is far enough
from the present order of nature to be not repugnant at
all.” (Farrell, 108)

The reason why Lemaître did not present his views to the international
community before 1931 is not known. It is possible he was simply hesitant of the
reception his theory would receive, although Kragh presents the hypothesis that
Lemaître was deliberately choosing not to seek international recognition.
Farrell suggests that Lemaître had an advantage over older physicists, in that
his intrinsic worldview was different, and states, “In a sense, he was the first
cosmologist to grow up with Einstein‟s physics rather than Newton‟s.” (Farrell, 108)
According to Farrell, this unique perspective may have allowed Lemaître to see
possibilities in the consequences of the general relativity equations that were not
readily apparent to his contemporaries.
Lemaître‟s solution was based on a correction to part of de Sitter‟s work.
Lemaître pointed out that when the coordinate system was changed to an arbitrary
one, de Sitter‟s model resulted in a dynamic universe, capable of changing size.
There was as yet no mathematical reason to choose whether this meant an expansion
or a contraction, but the galaxy red-shift data pointed suggestively in the direction of
expansion.
In spite of Hubble‟s evidence, many scientists still supported the static
hypothesis. The objections were mainly philosophical rather than logical. Using the

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cosmological constant to make the universal model dynamic resulted in a set of
equations that was decidedly less elegant than the static version.
In the realm of logical though and scientific philosophy, Kragh describes how
Lemaître avoided the perennial problem of scientific induction and determinism:
“Lemaître had to avoid the Kantian antinomy
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of
beginning. This dilemma is based on determinism,
according to which future states of a physical system can
be inferred from some initial conditions. A deterministic
explanation of a beginning will then have to refer to a
more remote state as initial conditions, which is only to
push the problem back in time. The problem ends in an
infinite regress, that is, without a solution. This was where
quantum mechanical indeterminacy came in. In a
nondeterministic system the antinomy will not arise and so
Lemaître saw a way in which the world could have
begun.” (Kragh (b), 48)

The Kantian antinomy in question is summarized in the preface of Lemaître‟s
The Primeval Atom, quoted from Kant‟s Critique of Pure Reason as:
 “The world had a beginning in time and it is also limited in space.”
 “The world has neither a beginning in time nor limits in space, but it is
infinite in time as well as in space.” (Lemaître, 13)

Lemaître was not alone in trying to find a way around deterministic reasoning.
Farrell‟s biography describes the scientists of Lemaître‟s generation as “questioning
the philosophical underpinnings of mechanics.” (Farrell, 22)
There were also theological considerations to both models. Although the Big
Bang theory is often cited as supporting the Christian view of creation, at the time,
the static theory of an enduring cosmos was thought to be evidence of God‟s perfect
creation. Some physicists even adjusted their theories to suggest the spontaneous

1
Antinomy: The mutual incompatibility of two laws.

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creation of hydrogen atoms somewhere in the universe (in the steady-state theory),
to supply the amount of mass necessary for a stable universe model.
In the beginning, though, Lemaître‟s hypothesis was disregarded not so much
for its philosophical implications as for its contradiction of the current paradigm.
The concept of an eternal universe was deeply entrenched in the minds of most
secular scientists, and it was difficult for them to conceive of an alternative.
Lemaître, Einstein, and Simplicity

Accounts differ as to what the exact relationship between Einstein and
Lemaître was. In their first meeting in 1927, Einstein brushed off Lemaître‟s
expansion hypothesis, as an affront to his (Einstein‟s) philosophy, but later accounts
show that there was a mutual respect between the two men, and that they actually
collaborated on several occasions.
The initial problem lay in the physical implications of Lemaître‟s use of the
cosmological constant. de Sitter‟s model had posited a universe full of empty space,
in a flat, disc-like configuration. With Lemaître‟s model, the universe was no longer
empty, no longer static in a confined shape, and began with a mathematical/physical
singularity. In mathematics, a singularity is an equation solution that results in either
infinity or zero. In Lemaître‟s model, the development of the universe was traced
back to a period of minimum (zero) entropy, resulting in a state of infinite
compression of matter.
Later, Lemaître revised this point of singularity to suggest that subatomic
forces stopped the infinite compression at zero entropy (Berger, 27). That this was

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reportedly at Einstein‟s suggestion shows the kind of working relationship that
eventually developed between the two men. Indeed, at a conference in California,
Lemaître and Einstein developed the habit of taking long walks together, debating a
topic that the reporters who followed Einstein nicknamed “Einstein‟s little lamb”.
This was none other than the cosmological constant, lambda, which Einstein still
reviled and Lemaître insisted must have some empirical significance beyond the
balancing of Einstein‟s equations.
Even with the best of intentions, most scientists cannot help but bring some of
their own philosophical perspectives into their work. Einstein‟s particular belief was
that the universe was inherently rational. In this he was influenced by the ideas of
Ernst Mach, who proposed that mechanical laws relative to the universe should be
seen as purely rational. (Kragh (b), 8) As Farrell put it,
“Einstein often pointed out that the relativity theory was
itself rooted in a deep-seated belief—indeed what might
be called a stubborn article of faith with Einstein—that the
universe worked on basically simple universal
principles.” (Farrell, 202)

Einstein also had a marked fondness for simplicity and elegance in equations.
One of his main objections to the use of the cosmological constant in relativity
equations was that it was “gravely detrimental to the beauty of the theory” (Kragh
(b), 10).
Lemaître absorbed some of this preference for simplicity during his studies of
Einstein‟s work. As Kragh put it, “he became a believer in logical beauty, simplicity,
and unity.” According to Lemaître‟s own journal notes from 1922, his views were
that “scientific progress is the discovery of a more and more comprehensive

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simplicity” (Kragh (b), 28). Lemaître also applied the search for simplicity to his
own cosmology work, stating, “The purpose of any cosmogonic theory is to seek out
ideally simple conditions which could have initiated the world and from which, by
the play of recognized physical forces, that world, in all its complexity, may have
resulted.” (Lemaître, 162)
Lemaître later confronted this preference for simplicity in a 1945 lecture on
cosmogonic hypotheses, saying,
“When one reads Laplace, Kant, or Buffon, one notices that
these authors have experienced a particular pleasure in
developing their systems, a sort of exaltation related to the
enthusiasm of the poets; the pleasure of discovering an
enigma, of perceiving a simplicity hidden under the
apparent complexity of the world, also, without doubt, an
aesthetic pleasure before grandiose beauty, perhaps also
the pleasure of risk, which their enterprise brings, since
the progress of positive knowledge must ultimately
control their intuitions by confirming them, unless it annuls
them or even makes them seem almost ridiculous, after a
while.” (Lemaître, 108)
Fame, Publicity, and Suspicions of Faith

In 1933 Lemaître‟s ground-breaking thesis began to garner more public
attention. With Hubble‟s discoveries of the red-shifted galaxies, the prospect of an
expanding universe began to seem more like a real possibility than a mathematical
curiosity. In the 1930‟s Lemaître, as “The Father of the Big Bang”, reached a status of
near-celebrity, both for his theory and for his status as a Jesuit priest. Describing the
reaction to the „rediscovery‟ of Lemaître‟s 1927 paper, in conjunction with the
publication of Hubble‟s galactic velocity/distance relation, just before 1930, Farrell
summarizes:

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“Lemaître‟s public life was about to begin. His solution
seemed made to order, and the avowed expansion of
the universe was no longer a mathematical
contrivance. It was a reality.” (Farrell, 98)

Due to his work on the general relativity equations, Lemaître was awarded the
Farqui prize by the king of Belgium. At the time, it was second only to the Nobel
Prize in prestige, and came with a monetary award of ~$300,000. The prize was
apparently awarded partly due to the urgings of Einstein, demonstrating the degree
of respect that he felt for Lemaître.
Though Lemaître always took great care to keep his faith separate from his
science, the simple fact that he was a priest led some of his detractors to regard his
theory with suspicion. To some, Lemaître‟s “Primeval Atom” hypothesis (later
revised and nicknamed the “Big Bang Theory”), with its emphasis on a single point
of origin for the cosmos, smacked of creationism. There was even some suspicion
attached to Lemaître‟s longtime mentor, Eddington.
A. Deprit, in an address at a conference commemorating Lemaître, remarked,
“The Big Bang Theory had been held in suspicion by most
astronomers, not least by Einstein, if only for the reason
that it was proposed by a Catholic priest and seconded by
a devout Quaker, hence highly suspect of concordism
2
.”
(Berger, 387)

This is another example of the disparate accounts that exist of Einstein‟s
relationship with Lemaître. Although their wrangling upon the various mathematical
formulae and physical theories was by some accounts very amiable, the press and
other sources apparently could not resist painting the dichotomy between
Lemaître‟s and Einstein‟s cosmological views as a great controversy.

2
Concordism: The idea that biblical passages parallel or explain modern scientific concepts.

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While it is undoubtedly true that Lemaître‟s theory was propounded by a
Jesuit Catholic priest, it is not as clear that the theory deserves the sobriquet of
being “seconded by a devout Quaker”. Though Eddington (the devout Quaker in
question) was instrumental in ensuring that Lemaître‟s expanding-universe
hypothesis gained reception with a wider scientific audience, there is some
evidence that Eddington was actually a proponent of the steady-state hypothesis. In
any case, there is no prima facie evidence that Eddington used his faith to justify his
cosmological theories any more than Lemaître did.
In fact, Eddington was opposed to the idea of a non-eternal universe. In
discussing the possibility of a beginning point of zero entropy, in a 1931 article in
Nature, Eddington said:
“Following time backwards, we find more and more
organization of the world. If we are not stopped earlier,
we must come to the time when the matter and energy of
the world had the maximum possible organization. To go
back further is impossible. We have come to an abrupt
end of space-time—only we generally call it the
„beginning‟ ” (Kragh (b), 46).

Eddington went on to say, “philosophically, the notion of a beginning of the
present order of Nature is repugnant to me.”
As astronomical observation techniques were not yet advanced enough to
discover conclusive proof of the leftovers of the universe‟s beginnings, Lemaître had
to be content with letting his theory rest on its mathematical underpinnings, at least
for a time. Though he supported it unreservedly, Lemaître was always careful to
present his hypothesis as one possible scenario, and not an undisputed,
dogmatically-held truth.

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It was perhaps this very lack of dogmatism that aided in the acceptance of the
expanding universe theory in the 1930‟s. With Hubble‟s galactic observations, the
timing was ripe for a paradigm shift, and Lemaître‟s theory fit in perfectly with the
spirit of the times.
The idea of Lemaître‟s theory supporting concordism owing to Lemaître‟s
Catholic faith was even more in error than supposing concordism was implied by
Eddington‟s Quaker religion, given Lemaître‟s views on the inappropriateness of
mixing science and the Bible. In 1933, Lemaître said on the subject, “Hundreds of
professional and amateur scientists actually believe the Bible pretends to teach
science. This is a good deal like assuming that there must be authentic religious
dogma in the binomial theorem” (Kragh (b), 59)
Kragh calls Lemaître‟s philosophical stance “epistemic optimism.” Lemaître
held an attitude similar to Galileo‟s centuries earlier, that God had given humankind
the ability to reason in order to discover more about the universe. In fact, he ended
the first chapter of The Primeval Atom on just such a note, in one of the very few
theological interludes of Lemaître‟s scientific work.
“We cannot end this rapid review which we have made
together of the most magnificent subject that the human
mind may be tempted to explore without being proud of
these splendid endeavors of Science in the conquest of the
Earth, and also without expressing our gratitude to One
Who has said: “I am the Truth,” One Who gave us the
mind to understand Him and to recognize a glimpse of His
glory in our universe which He has so wonderfully
adjusted to the mental power with which He has endowed
us.” (Lemaître, 55)


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Other scientists‟ philosophies were mainly based on faith in rational
empiricism, which seems to be more grounded in group consensus than an
objective rationality. Hence, once the expanding universe theory had a large
enough following, the static universe hypothesis was increasingly marginalized.
Though the static universe and the later incarnation of the steady-state hypothesis
continued to have staunch supporters who gathered sustaining evidence right up
until the 1960‟s, the expanding universe and Big Bang theory were given prime of
place in teaching and discussion.
Lemaître’s Religion

It is beyond doubt that Lemaître was a devout Roman Catholic. That he was
also a scientist who believed wholeheartedly in the scientific method has caused
some confusion for those who see an inherent conflict between these two belief
systems.
Lemaître was perhaps fortunate that during his lifetime the Roman Catholic
Church was moving towards a more accommodating stance regarding competing
faiths and philosophies. As a Catholic, Lemaître was obliged to believe in the truth
of the Bible, but for him that truth seems to have been spiritual rather than literal.
Lemaître reportedly had very little patience with people who tried to find science in
the scriptures. To him, the story of creation was one that was meant to convey the
gist of a story whose main thesis was outside of human understanding.
There were some naysayers, notably Fred Hoyle and William Bonnor, who
viewed Lemaître‟s work with suspicion owing to his faith. Hoyle was also a natural

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antagonist of the “Big Bang”, a nickname that was invented by Hoyle in a radio
address in 1950. Hoyle was one of the main proponents of the Steady State theory in
Britain, a theory that “gained the support of physicists who were uncomfortable with
the primeval atom and indeed any model of the universe whose evolution implied a
temporal beginning of the world.” (Farrell, 142)
However, even Hoyle‟s antagonism was based on philosophical, not personal
grounds. Hoyle apparently got on very well with Lemaître, and even went on
vacation with him once (Farrell, 149). This speaks well of the broadmindedness on
both men‟s parts, as Hoyle was a pronounced atheist with anti-clerical feelings. In
addition to his theological objections, Hoyle had scientific and philosophical
objections to the expanding universe theory as well. To Hoyle, the idea that the
universe changed in time implied the possibility that the laws of physics also
changed in time. This was a concept that Hoyle considered anathema. (Farrell, 154)
Though Lemaître always endeavored to keep his science and his faith
separate, there were some instances where Lemaître‟s beliefs crept into his work.
For instance, in a 1929 prose essay on “The Size of Space”, after comparing the
“sphere of fixed stars” to a “huge army”, Lemaître said,
“How does the imagination of the poets compare with the
reality of the heavens? The world is not a dungeon, not
even a nicely-decorated dungeon; it is a boundless
perspective, marked out with bright guideposts which
seem to have been placed at the farthest distance where
they may still help us to answer the riddle, or rather, to
value and admire the work of beauty which has been
prepared by the “God of the Armies”
3
“(Lemaître, 32)


3
This is a quotation from the Bible, 1 Samuel 17:45.

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Lemaître never used his theology to justify any of his scientific arguments, but
it may have had a more subtle impact on his work. Scholars have uncovered an
unpublished essay of his from 1922, while Lemaître was just being introduced to the
heady concepts embodied in general relativity. In this essay, Lemaître apparently
gave his theological view of the universe‟s origins free rein for once, declaring “as
the genesis suggested it, the universe had begun by light.” (Berger, 395) This gives
even greater significance to his characterization of the universe‟s beginning with
fireworks.
The section of Lemaître‟s The Primeval Atom most often quoted is the passage
where he compares the formation of the cosmos to a finished display of fireworks,
with only the glowing remnants of embers still visible. However, it is the paragraph
immediately following this which best gives an overview of Lemaître‟s view of
creation, and his awe of the process that produced this fragile planet for humanity.
„The evolution of the world can be compared to a
display of fireworks that has just ended: some few red
wisps, ashes and smoke. Standing on a well-chilled
cinder, we see the slow fading of the suns, and we try to
recall the vanished brilliance of the origin of the worlds.
The sun-atom splinters into fragments held together
by universal attraction, fragments which splinter in their
turn, hurling into the vacuum particles which are fast
enough to escape the attraction of the entirety, sparks
escaping from the burning crucible where the atom
became a star. Rays travel in a straight line in the still-
increasing desert of space, until they encounter a lost
oasis, our galaxy, a chilled seed, our earth, and discharge
an electrometer, proving the formation of the suns.”
(Lemaître, 78)

There is something else of note in this passage. Though he later revised his
initial estimation based on new data about the energy level of cosmic rays, in the

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first iteration of his theory Lemaître really did believe that this cosmic radiation was
caused by a primeval atom; “four atoms of hydrogen meeting in interstellar space
and combining to form an atom of helium while releasing ultrapenetrating radiation”
(Lemaître, 77). In Lemaître‟s own words, “The primeval atom hypothesis is a
cosmogonic hypothesis which pictures the present universe as the result of the
radioactive disintegration of an atom” (Lemaître, 134). Lemaître revised his initial
theory several times over the course of a decade. The final version of the Big Bang
theory started from Lemaître‟s “Primeval Atom” expanded dramatically in a short
time, slowed down, and then accelerated its expansion again. Later developments
in astronomy would bear out Lemaître‟s prediction of the acceleration of the
expansion rate.
Lemaître and the Pope’s Address

There was one event in which Lemaître‟s philosophy of science and his
religion definitely collided. This was Pope Pius XII‟s address in 1951, which
explicitly used Lemaître‟s hypothesis as support for the biblical account of creation.
Speaking in a „Solemn Audience‟ and addressing modern cosmology‟s relation to
faith, the Pope declared,
“Indeed, it would seem that present-day science, with one
sweep back across the centuries, has succeeded in
bearing witness to the august instant of the Fiat Lux, when
along with matter, there burst forth from nothing a sea of
light and radiation, and the elements split and churned
and formed into millions of galaxies.” (Farrell, 196)


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This address enraged Lemaître, coming as it did with no warning and
invalidating his carefully nurtured stance of neutrality on the subject of his theory‟s
relation to Catholic teachings.
The lack of warning may have been especially hurtful, as it was clear from the
address that the Pope had built his arguments upon those of Stephen Whittaker, one
of Lemaître‟s colleagues, while Lemaître had not been consulted at all. This fact is
slightly perplexing, as Lemaître was at the time a respected member of the Pontifical
Academy of Science, established especially for the purpose of providing a scientific
consulting authority for the Roman Catholic Church.
Though he later set up an individual consultation with the Pope to explain his
views, and later pontifical addresses proved much more circumspect regarding the
Big Bang theory, this event seems to have been somewhat demoralizing for
Lemaître. Combined with later circumstances, it seems to have acted to prevent him
from putting in any more serious work on his theory in subsequent years.
After spending so much time defending his hypothesis, Lemaître eventually
declared that it would have to wait on further proof from physics as yet
undiscovered. Lemaître was referring to the cosmic rays that he supposed would
have been leftover from the disintegration of his primeval atom. Though his theory
of leftovers from the beginning of the universe‟s expansion later bore fruit in the
shape of the cosmic microwave background radiation, Lemaître had by that time
moved on to other puzzles, including scientific computing, and his cosmological
theories never moved very far from the work he had done in the 1930‟s.

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When Lemaître did speak at cosmological conferences in the 40‟s and 50‟s,
besides going over his previous theory, he took great care to de-emphasize the
connection between his „fireworks universe‟ and the Christian account of creation.
This is especially apparent in an address he gave at a conference in Brussels 1958,
where Lemaître stated, regarding the theory of a singularity event at the beginning
of space-time:
“As far as I can see, such a theory remains entirely outside
any metaphysical or religious question. It leaves the
materialist free to deny any transcendental Being. He may
keep, for the bottom of space-time, the same attitude of
mind he has been able to adopt for events occurring in
non-singular places of space-time. For the believer, it
removes any attempt to familiarity with God, as were
Laplace‟s chiquenaude or Jean‟s finger. It is consonant
with Isaias speaking of the hidden God, hidden even in the
beginning of creature.”

The finger that Lemaître is referencing is a suggestion that one of his
colleagues, James Jeans, once made tongue-in-cheek. In discussing the origins of
the cosmos, Jeans suggested the possibility of “the finger of God agitating the ether”
in order to stir up high-energy photons to “crystallize into electrons and protons,
and finally form atoms” (Kragh (b), 42). Laplace‟s chiquenaude
4
involved a nebular
gas spinning off rings which would condense into planets
The World War Two Years

Besides the impact of the Pope‟s address, another major event intervened in
Lemaître‟s life to prevent his having a greater impact on the developing views of
cosmology. This was the advent of the Second World War, where the citizens of

4
Chicquenade: to flick (off)

21

Belgium, including Lemaître, were effectively cut off from the rest of the world in
isolation under Hitler‟s rule.
During this period, Lemaître was almost accidentally wiped out by friendly
fire from the Allied nations, as bombs meant for enemy lines were mistakenly
dropped on the city of Louvain. One of these bombs struck Lemaître‟s apartment
building. Fortunately, he escaped with minor injuries. Another bomb burned down
the library at the University of Louvain where Lemaître was teaching, although again
fortunately, he was nowhere near the building.
Perhaps not by coincidence, it was during this period of German occupation
that the steady-state theory gained its greatest popularity in those countries where
cosmology research was still actively pursued. Cut off as he was, Lemaître had no
way of knowing how his pet theory was being treated, and no opportunity to rise to
its defense.
It is possible that Lemaître may not have been interested in that defense
anyway. During the war years, Lemaître seems to have lost interest in working out
the convolutions of the Big Bang theory, and focused his attentions in other areas. He
was trying to work out how to search for cosmic rays, as well as establishing the
university‟s first scientific computing center, partly with his own funds.
After spending many years travelling the globe, and being a one-time
celebrity, it is also possible that Lemaître simply wanted to settle down in one place,
and enjoy his teaching career. After the war ended, he also felt an obligation to his
ailing mother which tied him even more firmly to one place.

22

Conclusion

P. J. E. Peebles, in his biographical conference address on Georges Lemaître,
said it best:
“Physical scientists have a healthy attitude towards the
history of their subject: by and large we ignore it. But it is
good to pause now and then and consider the careers of
those who through a combination of the right talent and at
the propitious time have had an exceptional influence on
the progress of science. As I have noted on several
occasions it seems to me that Georges Lemaître played a
unique and remarkable role in setting out the program of
research we now call physical cosmology.” (Berger, 23)

Lemaître indeed had a “unique and remarkable role” in the foundations of
cosmology. His final version of the Big Bang theory has been increasingly borne out
by modern astronomical observations, which prove that the expansion of the
universe is indeed accelerating. Lemaître is one of very few scientists whose
adherence to an unpopular theory was vindicated by later evidence, who could truly
be said to have been „ahead of his time‟.
In his memorial essay on Lemaître, P. J. E. Peebles called the Belgian priest
“distinctly the pioneer” in “the new vistas of physics opened up by the discovery of
the expanding universe” (Berger, 25). Peebles declared Lemaître to be without
peer in the field, until Gamow came on the scene in the 1940‟s.
Sadly, Lemaître‟s contribution to the theory of an expanding universe often
goes unrecognized by modern scientists. It is not unusual at all to walk into a
physics classroom and hear an instructor lecturing on how Hubble discovered that
the universe was expanding. What Hubble really discovered was a method of

23

measuring the distance of galaxies, and the red-shifted properties of the majority of
the galaxies he measured. However, as Kragh wrote in Conceptions of Cosmos,
“Lemaître was the first to introduce the crucial notion that
„The receding velocities of extra-galactic nebulae are a
cosmical effect of the expansion of the universe.‟ That is,
he realized that the redshifts were caused not by galaxies
moving through space, but by galaxies being carried with
the expanding space.” (Kragh (a), 144)

Though his strict policy of keeping science and religion separate served him
well in the scientific arena, it is a shame that because of this, there is no record of
what Lemaître felt about the theological implications of his work. Lemaître may have
been boxed in by the perceived conflict between science and religion; that as a
serious scientist, he was unable to put any of his feelings about God into his work
without facing ridicule and suspicion. There is some evidence that his early essays
included just such mentions, which were edited out before publication.
While he may have been set against finding a direct link between biblical
accounts of creation and the origin theory of the cosmos, this does not rule out an
underlying philosophical or metaphysical connection. As a scientist and a priest,
Lemaître had a unique perspective about God and creation; it is a pity that no-one
will ever know what it was. Modern histories of Lemaître on cosmology focus on the
man‟s scientific work and almost ignore his religious background. Lacking such an
elementary part of Lemaître, these works will ever be sadly incomplete.

Bibliography
Berger, A., ed. The Big Bang and Georges Lemaitre: Proceedings of a Symposium in
Honour of G. Lemaitre Fifty Years after His Initiation of Big-bang Cosmology:
Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium, 10-13 October 1983. Dordrecht: Reidel, 1984.
Print

Kragh, Helge. Conceptions of Cosmos: from Myths to the Accelerating Universe: a
History of Cosmology. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2007. Print.

Kragh, Helge. Cosmology and Controversy: the Historical Development of Two
Theories of the Universe. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1996. Print.

Farrell, John. The Day without Yesterday: Lemaitre, Einstein, and the Birth of Modern
Cosmology. New York: Thunder's Mouth, 2005. Print.

Laracy, Joseph. "Priestly Contributions to Modern Science: The Case of Monsignor
Georges Lemaitre," Faith. 42(3):16-19.

Laracy, Joseph. "The Faith and Reason of Father Georges Lemaître," Homiletic and
Pastoral Review. 50-59, February 2009.

Lemaitre, Georges. The Primeval Atom. Trans. Betty H. Korff and Serge Alexander
Korff. Toronto: New-York . D. Van Nostrand, 1950. Print.

Poe, Edgar Allen. "Poe: Eureka." American Studies @ The University of Virginia. 2 July
1999. Web. 19 Mar. 2011.
<http://xroads.virginia.edu/~hyper/poe/eureka.html>.


1

Appendix A: Timeline of Lemaître‟s Life
 1894: Georges Eduard Lemaître born in Charleroi, on July 17

 1904: Lemaître enters Jesuit High School of the Sacred Heart in Charleroi,
and shows promise in mathematics.

 1910: Lemaître‟s family moves to Brussels.

 1913: Lemaître obtains his bachelor‟s degree in mining engineering and
starts working

 1914: Germany invades Belgium during WWI. Five days later, Georges
Lemaître enlists in the Belgian army, along with his brother, Jacques.
Georges Lemaître served for four years and reached the rank of
sergeant. Jacques Lemaître reached the rank of auxiliary lieutenant.

 1917: Two general-relativistic models of the universe exist, Einstein‟s and
de Sitter‟s

 1919: Lemaître starts studying physics and mathematics at the University
of Louvain

 1920: Lemaître starts studying theology at the seminary school, House of
St. Rombaut, after earning his science PhD along with a baccalaureate
degree in Thomist philosophy. At the seminary, Lemaître is introduced
to the works of Einstein.
 1922: Alexander Friedmann writes a paper suggesting nonstatic universe
 1923: Lemaître is ordained as a priest

 1923-1924: Lemaître spends a year in Cambridge, studying with
Eddington

 1924-1925: Lemaître spends a year in the U.S., studying with Shapley at
Harvard and obtaining a PhD from MIT. He does graduate work on de
Sitter‟s model which suggests a nonstatic model, with changing radius of
space, via a change in coordinates

 1925: Slipher studies Doppler shifts of forty-five different galaxies. Forty-
one are discovered to be red-shifted (receding)


2

 1925: Lemaitre is appointed associate professor of math at College du
Saint Esprit

 1927: Lemaître develops his own theory of universal expansion and
publishes it in an obscure Belgian journal


 1929: Hubble publishes data on the linear relationship between the
apparent velocities of galaxies and their distance (what would become
known as Hubble‟s Law). Hubble argues that this supports the theory of
the curvature of space.

 1930: Eddington poses a question to the British Royal Astronomical
Society, on how to resolve Hubble‟s moving galaxies with the existing
static universe models.

 1930: Lemaître reminds Eddington of his (Lemaître‟s) 1927 paper.
Eddington aids in bringing Lemaître‟s expanding universe theory to the
attention of the international astronomical community.

 1931: Einstein accepts the new paradigm of the dynamic universe but
prefers the oscillatory model.

 1931: Lemaître becomes dissatisfied with 1927 model of the universe
expanding from a static state, and starts work on a model that would start
from a singularity (the Big Bang).

 1932: Friedmann-Lemaître model (of a universe expanding
asymptotically to a de Sitter empty-space configuration) formalized.

 1934: Lemaîtreis awarded the Farqui prize by the king of Belgium, with
Einstein‟s recommendation.

 1935: Lemaître is named an honorary canon of the Malines cathedral

 1936: Pontifical Academy of Science is created, to replace Academia dei
Novi Lincei. Lemaître is elected as a member.

 1940: Lemaitre attempts to flee the German invasion of Belgium during
WWII and is turned back

 1951: Pope Pius XII delivers a speech linking Lemaître‟s work with
Catholic dogma


3

 1960: Lemaître is named a Prelate of the Papal Household and becomes a
Monsignor

 1960-1966: Lemaître serves as President of the Pontifical Academy of
Science

 1966: Lemaitre dies after complications from a heart attack in 1965


4

Appendix B: Early Variations on the
Big Bang

Although it may seem obvious in retrospect, the idea of a universe expanding
from a definite starting point was a great intellectual leap when it was first posited by
Lemaître. Lemaître himself said about the static universe:
“The cosmic theory of Einstein, in addition to the
hypothesis of the homogeneity of space, implied an
hypothesis which may seem so natural that we must be
forgiven for not having mentioned it at the outset, namely,
the hypothesis that the tour of the universe does not vary
with time, or, in other words, that the universe is static.”
(Lemaître, 52)

Perhaps in recognition of the „naturalness‟ of the static universe, both
Eddington and Lemaître first used a universal model that expanded from an initial
quasi-static state, which was compatible with current theories of stellar ages.
However, this quasi-static state required a very finely balanced equilibrium, which
Lemaître considered unlikely. This is what spurred Lemaître to take the intuitive
leap from a static to an expansive initial state. Or, as P. J. E. Peebles put it in his
address on Lemaître‟s impact on cosmology:
“It was Lemaître who took the bold step: if the universe
cannot have existed into the indefinite past in a quasi-
static phase then let us consider the possibility that space
expanded from a singularly dense state, what Lemaître
came to call the Primeval Atom (and Gamow later termed
the Big Bang).” (Berger, 26)

Lemaître was the first person to assemble the mathematical, physical, and
relativistic pieces of what would become the Big Bang theory. But he was not the

5

first person to come up with the idea. In 1848, Edgar Allen Poe wrote an essay titled
“Eureka”, where he described the universe‟s creation, via “a particle absolutely
unique, individual, undivided” (Poe, 30):
“The assumption of absolute Unity in the primordial
Particle includes that of infinite divisibility. Let us conceive
the Particle, then, to be only not totally exhausted by
diffusion into Space. From the one Particle, as a centre, let
us suppose to be irradiated spherically -- in all directions -
- to immeasurable but still to definite distances in the
previously vacant space -- a certain inexpressibly great
yet limited number of unimaginably yet not infinitely
minute atoms” (Poe, 30)

Lord Kelvin also provided one of the early precursor theories to the Big Bang.
When the field of thermodynamics was just beginning, the Second Law of
Thermodynamics caused some nervous speculation on how the ultimate increase in
entropy would lead to the heat death of the universe. Kelvin suggested that it ought
to be possible to work backwards to a state of less entropy. (Farrell, 50)