Georges Lemaître
Georges Lemaître

Science and faith do not usually marry very well, but there are exceptions, such as that of the Belgian Catholic scientist and priest Georges Lemaître, who not only supposes an example recognized by the scientific community, but with great humility was able to correct Albert Einstein himself. We are talking about the father of the Big Bang theory who was trying to prove the origin of the universe.

Without renouncing his Catholic faith, Lemaître spoke of an infinite past of the universe but that did not contradict his belief in a God who created the world, since both Aristotle and Saint Thomas Aquinas had shown that a created universe does not need a beginning in the time.

His precocity for science, standing out in mathematics and physics, was parallel to his vocation, since at age 9 he decided that he would be a priest. He achieved both thanks to his father’s advice to first study and then be ordained a priest. He got scholarships, traveled the world and got recognition, but his humility allowed the honors and fame of his findings and contributions to astronomy and astrophysics to be taken by others.

Perhaps the most precise definition of Lemaître and his discoveries was given by Albert Einstein himself when he heard it at a conference in California. Standing, he stated that the theory of the origin of the universe “is the most beautiful and satisfying explanation of the Creation I have ever heard.”

Georges Henri Joseph Édouard Lemaître was born on July 17, 1894, in the Belgian town of Charleroi. He was the oldest of four children and from a very early age showed his precocity in mathematics and physics but also in his personal vocation, by announcing to his parents at the age of nine that he wanted to be a priest.

Encouraged by his father, Georges Lemaître decided first to study before entering the seminary, and enrolled in the Jesuit High School of the Sacred Heart in Charleroi, where he excelled in chemistry, physics and mathematics. In 1910, the father got a new job and moved the family to Brussels. The young Lemaître, now 16 years old, enrolled in another Jesuit school, the Saint Michel College, where his teachers discovered their exceptional skills in mathematics and physics.

Although he still liked the idea of ​​becoming a priest, Georges decided to study engineering instead of theology. In 1911 he entered the Catholic University of Louvain to study a career in engineering and in July 1913 he obtained the diploma and began to do work as a mining engineer.

The First World War forced him to stop his studies and served as a volunteer in the Belgian army, reaching the rank of sergeant major. He was decorated with the Cross of War medal for his bravery, but the atrocities he contemplated increased his priestly vocation, in addition to being expelled from a mission after telling the instructor that his ballistic calculations were wrong. Some colleague would later recall that his vocation of faith and science was so parallel that he was still seen in front reading the book of Genesis of the Bible as articles of equations of French physicists.

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He resumed his studies and in 1920, at the age of 26, he was awarded the highest distinction, a Ph.D. in Mathematical Sciences for his thesis ‘The approximation of real functions of several variables‘. Georges Lemaître also obtained a baccalaureate in philosophy based on the Italian priest of the thirteenth century Saint Thomas Aquinas.

His next step was to begin the steps to become a priest by entering the House of Saint Rombaut in October 1920. His teachers, in pointing out his continued interest in mathematics and physics, suggested that he study the work of Albert Einstein. Lemaître did so, learning about the calculation of the tensor and the general relativity of the books written by the famous mathematical astronomer Arthur Eddington.

In 1922, Lemaître presented a thesis, ‘The Physics of Einstein‘, which earned him a scholarship from the Belgian government and accepted the possibility of going to the University of Cambridge (England) as an astronomy researcher. Almost in parallel he was ordained a priest in September 1923, at the age of 29 years. However, instead of practicing as a priest in a parish or a school, Lemaître used the scholarship to study general relativity and work personally with Eddington, who suggested to Lemaître that he start working on a doctorate on the universe.

Eddington asked Lemaître to apply the rules of general relativity to the contents of his work and to see what the result was: Lemaître discovered two solutions to Eddington’s problem: the first consisted of a proposal made by Einstein in 1917 of a universe closed, stable and static whose mass density of energy is constant; the second had to do with Willem de Sitter’s proposal, also in 1917, for a universe whose large-scale behavior is dominated by the cosmological constant (the energy density of empty space).

Georges Lemaître crossed the Atlantic to conduct research at Harvard University and also enrolled as a Ph.D. student in Physics at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology). During his stay in the United States he traveled a lot and met the most important astronomers and physicists in the country, including Forest Ray Moulton, William Duncan MacMillan, Vesto Slipher, Edwin Hubble and Robert Millikan.

Georges returned to Belgium in the summer of 1925 and, supported and recommended by Eddington, was appointed associate professor of mathematics at the Catholic University of Leuven. In 1927 he defended his thesis at MIT: ‘The gravitational field in a fluid sphere of uniform invariant density according to the theory of relativity‘.

In this new role of researcher and disseminator, Georges Lemaître reralizó the derivation of what is now known as the Law of Hubble, which tells the speed with which a galaxy is moving away and its distance. The famous Solvay Conference of 1927 was attended by most of the leading physicists. Einstein also came and spoke with Lemaître telling him that the ideas he defended had already been presented by Friedmann in 1922, and he also told him that although he thought that his solutions to the equations of general relativity were mathematically correct, he presented a solution that was not feasible physically. Specifically, Einstein told him: “Your calculations are correct, but your understanding of physics is abominable.”

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Einstein was not alone in finding Lemaitre’s ideas unacceptable; rather it was the opinion of almost all scientists. However, in 1929 Hubble published a work that presented a greater evidence of an expanding universe, contradicting the then accepted theory of a static universe.

Eddington and other members of the Royal Astronomical Society began working to try to solve the problem caused by the discrepancy between theory and observation, with a part of Lemaître’s theory that scientists, including Eddington, found impossible to accept, as it was that the universe had a beginning in a finite time in the past as it defends the catholic religion in the book of Genesis.

Lemaître responded to the objections against his theory in a document published in the journal ‘Nature‘ in May 1931. “If the world has begun with a single quantum, the notions of space and time would have no meaning at the beginning; they would only begin to have a sensible meaning when the original quantum had been divided into a sufficient number of quanta. If this suggestion is correct, the beginning of the world occurred a little before the beginning of space and time. ” In fact, Lemaître always expressed that it was important to maintain a separation between scientific ideas and religious beliefs about creation.

This was the first explicit formulation of the Big Bang theory, now accepted and at that time also accepted by most scientists and which Georges called “Theory of the primeval atom”. In 1933, Einstein and Lemaître offered a series of lectures in California. After listening to Lemaître explain his theory in one of these seminars, Einstein stood up and said: “This is the most beautiful and satisfying explanation of the Creation I have ever heard.”

Albert Einstein and Georges Lemaitre
Albert Einstein and Georges Lemaitre

The ideas of Georges Lemaître came to the popular press, which described him as the leading cosmologist of the moment. An article in the ‘ New York Times ‘ showed a photograph of him with Einstein with the legend: “They have a deep respect and admiration for each other” and that is that the fact that Lemaître was both a scientist and a Catholic priest It was part of the fascination of the popular press, to the point that a journalist wrote of him: “There is no conflict between religion and science, Lemaître repeats again and again… His point of view is interesting and important not only because he is a Catholic priest, not one of the leading mathematicians and physicists of our time, but because he is both.”

The greatest opponent of Lemaitre’s hypothesis was the English astronomer Fred Hoyle, one of the architects of the Stationary State model. In fact it was he who gave his name to the Big Bang theory in a radio interview for the BBC and he did it in a derogatory way.

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For the Belgian priest Georges Lemaître, the history of the universe is divided into three periods: the first is called “the explosion of the primitive atom”, according to which 5,000 million years ago there was a nucleus of hyperdense and unstable matter that exploded in the form of a super-radioactivity. This explosion spread for a billion years and astronomers perceive its effects on cosmic rays and X emissions.

“Could the Church have a need for science? Do not; the cross and the Gospel are enough for him. But nothing is alien to the Christian.How could the Church be disinterested in the noblest of strictly human occupations, the investigation of the truth? “

Then comes the equilibrium period or the static universe of Einstein. He states that once the explosion is over, a balance is established between the cosmic repulsion forces at the origin of the event and the forces of gravitation. It is during this equilibrium phase that it lasts 2,000 million years, when knots are formed and give birth to stars and galaxies.

Finally, follow the periods of expansion, initiated 2,000 billion years ago, which would show that the universe is expanding at a speed of 170 kilometers per second indefinitely.

In 1948, George Gamov proposed a new description of the beginning of the universe; and although he is considered today as the father of the Big Bang theory, the master lines were already present in a very clear way in the cosmology of the Lemaître.

The renowned Belgian priest obtained various positions in the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, being personal advisor to Pope Pius XII and president of the same in 1960. In 1979, during the speech of Pope John Paul II to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences with reason for the commemoration of the birth of Albert Einstein, quoted some words of Lemaître on the relationship between the Church and science:

“Could the Church have a need for science? Do not; the cross and the Gospel are enough for him. But nothing is alien to the Christian. How could the Church be disinterested in the noblest of strictly human occupations, the investigation of the truth? ”

At the end of his life, Georges Lemaître devoted himself increasingly to numerical calculations. His interest in the incipient computers and computer science finally fascinated him completely.

He died in the Belgian city of Leuven, on June 20, 1966, at the age of 71, two years after hearing the news of the discovery of cosmic microwave background radiation, which was the definitive proof of his fundamental astronomical theory of the Big Bang.

The name in a crater on the Moon and in a space vehicle of the European Space Agency (the ATV5), which does not even exist anymore, are two almost insignificant recognitions for human size and its contribution to the understanding of the origin of the universe that welcomes

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