Fr Georges Lemaître: Father of the Big Bang

From the Editor´s Desk (Tuesday, June 20, 2017, Gaudium Press) An article by Fr Andrew Pinsent, Research Director of the Ian Ramsey Centre for Science and Religion at Oxford University, follows:

Why should anyone be interested in Fr Georges Lemaître? Here’s one reason. Being both a priest and a former particle physicist at CERN, I am often asked to give talks on faith and science. Quite often young people ask me the following question, “How can you be a priest and believe in the Big Bang?” To which I am delighted to respond, “We invented it! Or more precisely, Fr Georges Lemaître invented the theory that is today called the “Big Bang” and everyone should know about him.”

Here is a little of the historical background. The Belgian priest-astrophysicist Fr Georges Lemaître in 1927 published a paper in the Annals of the Scientific Society of Brussels presenting the idea of an expanding universe. When invited to a meeting of the British Association in London in 1931, on the subject of science and religion, Fr Lemaître proposed that the universe had expanded from an initial point, which he called the ‘Primeval Atom’. In 1949, the astronomer Fred Hoyle described Fr Lemaître’s theory as a ‘Big Bang’. Shortly before Fr Lemaître died in 1966, he learned of the discovery of cosmic microwave background radiation, widely interpreted today as the faint echo of the Big Bang itself. With some modifications, the Big Bang has today become our standard grand narrative for understanding the cosmos.

Given that this history is incontrovertible (see, for example, Helge Kragh, Cosmology and Controversy (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1996)), why then do young people still ask me, “How can you be a priest and believe in the Big Bang?” Many answers could be given in particular cases, but the underlying reason, I think, is that there is another kind of grand narrative at work. Part of that narrative today, absorbed from at least the age of ten in schools and from the media, is that faith is opposed to reason, and the Catholic Church in particular is opposed to science. The fact that a Catholic priest invented the Big Bang theory is therefore what might be called an ‘inconvenient truth’, something that cannot happen and therefore, for all intents and purposes, did not happen. More subtly, some people acknowledge Fr Lemaître’s achievement but deny that any significant implications can be drawn for understanding the relation of faith and science. They point out that his scientific work was distinct from his priesthood or that he is a ‘black swan’ event from which no wider conclusions can be drawn.

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Such criticisms, however, overlook the value of the negative conclusion, namely that faith and revolutionary brilliance in science were clearly not incompatible in Fr Lemaître’s life, and perhaps that there are more ‘black swans’ waiting to be rescued from neglect. Moreover, even an appreciation of the extent to which Fr Lemaître is overlooked can serve as a catalyst for a broader re-examination of cultural prejudices regarding faith and science. For example, did the Catholic Church oppose the Big Bang theory? Was Fr Lemaître exiled or disgraced? No! Fr Lemaître was honoured by the Pope, who appointed him to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in 1936. Did atheists welcome the Big Bang theory? No, or at least many did not for a surprisingly long time! As late as 1948, at a meeting in Leningrad, Soviet astronomers affirmed the need to fight against the ‘reactionary-idealistic’ theory of a ‘primeval atom,’ (i.e. the Big Bang) support for which, it was claimed, would help ‘clericalism’ (see Kragh, 262).

Such opponents saw, perhaps more clearly than we do today, that although aspects of the cosmos can be modelled by mathematics, to consider the formation and evolution of the cosmos as a whole requires taking up a God-like perspective in our imaginations, an implicitly hazardous prospect (at least at first) for the materialist or physicalist.

Furthermore, to explore the origins, structure and evolution of the cosmos with the expectation of discerning knowable order is a habit born out of patterns of thinking shaped over centuries by the revelation of a Creator God of reason and love. As early as the first Christian century, we find, for example, Pope St Clement I referring to the sun, moon, and stars being “…put in motion by his [God’s] appointment … in harmony and without any violation of order…” (Epistle of Pope Clement I to the Corinthians, 19:2 – 20:12 (trans. C. Hoole), a narrative of order and love that has shaped the expectations of our culture regarding the possibility and value of cosmology.

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What, then, is to be done to help raise the profile of people like Fr Georges Lemaître? Among Catholics with some kind of popular outreach, Fr Gordon MacRae through his widely-read blog TSW has done more than almost anyone I know in recent years to draw attention to Fr Lemaître. Inspired in part by Fr Gordon’s work, my colleagues and I in England have now put together some high quality laminated A3 posters that we can send worldwide in a series called the “Catholic Knowledge Network”. A copy of the A3 poster for Fr Lemaître is shown at the bottom of this post. If you would like to purchase these beautiful posters (for education institutions, parish halls, classrooms, and other public spaces), please do so from our publisher, the Catholic Truth Society in London, from where they can be sent worldwide:

As a regular reader of ‘These Stone Walls’ and a contributor to Fr Gordon’s legal defense fund, I thank him for this opportunity and for the remarkable worldwide impact of his blog. I also thank those who edit and maintain this blog on his behalf.

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