Posted by: Mark Nielsen | May 15, 2009

Lemaitre the Jesuit, Father of Big Bang Theory

Those who mark time here with me often are aware that I’m a spacy sort of fellow. By that I mean that I’m a big fan of space, NASA, the solar system, sci-fi, and all things astronomical. By extension, I’m also inclined toward the metaphysical: the contemplative side of stargazing that seeks the living God in the mysterious heavens, and the distant past of His universe.

For me, God and modern astrophysics (and science in general) are not in conflict with each other, but are inextricably linked.

For instance, did you know that the first scientist to propose the Big Bang Theory was actually Monsignor Georges Lemaitre (1894-1966), a Belgian Jesuit priest and scholar in the 1920s and 1930s? He was trying to work out the implications of an expanding universe in light of Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity (about time), and therefore proposed a cataclysmic everything-springs-from-a- speck-of-almost-nothing theory that made all the fancy math work out right.

Mark Midbon, in an article first published in Commonweal and posted now at the Catholic Education Resource Center site, puts what happened next this way:

Lemaitre published his calculations and his reasoning in Annales de la Societe scientifique de Bruxelles in 1927. Few people took notice. That same year he talked with Einstein in Brussels, but the latter, unimpressed, said, “Your calculations are correct, but your grasp of physics is abominable.”

And yet in 1933, Einstein is reported to have said publicly in a meeting of scientists in California, “This is the most beautiful and satisfactory explanation of creation to which I have ever listened.”

How about that?  The leap (of faith?) required to accept this theory (one which also includes the possibility of a God who existed before the creation of the universe and of time, or who perhaps set the Big Bang in motion) was at first too much even for Einstein himself to make. So Lemaitre had to faithfully wait for Al to come around to his way of thinking, which he eventually did.

Then Lemaitre had to wait a few more decades for all the unspoken but fairly apparent anti-religious or anti-Catholic sentiment to die away within the scientific community. The Big Bang was a highly and vehemently debated principle right up through 1964, when theories about “background noise” (in the form of microwaves observed by Bell Labs) were used as further evidence that a cataclysmic explosion and its echoes were the source of that noise, and thus the source of the initial creative event.

Lemaitre had been ill when the news of these developments first broke. But eventually he received word that his gutsy, godly logic was finally being vindicated by other proofs and corroborating evidence. Thankfully, he lived to see his 1927 work finally beginning to gain firm footing, in 1964 and 1965. Then in 1966, he passed away, probably glad for the chance to finally consult the ultimate Source of all creation and truth.

So the next time anyone – Catholic, Protestant, Islamist, atheist, whoever — tries to tell you that the church has no respect for science and promotes ignorance and superstition, tell them about Father Lemaitre, whom Pope Pius inducted into the Pontifical Academy of Science in 1936. I was pleasantly shocked when I found out about this guy over the winter in a History Channel documentary.

God is the only true Scientist. The rest of us are just trying to recreate or understand His work. We’ve spent thousands of years fighting about it, working to set aside our own biases and the impulse to recreate the universe (and its beautiful scientific realities) in our image, instead of just letting God reveal Himself , in all His glory.

Won’t these people ever learn?

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