Georges Lemaître: A Priest and Physicist

Light of truth

Kuruvilla Pandikattu SJ

Father Georges Lemaître (1894-1966) was an astronomer and professor of physics who is the first one to claim that the universe is expanding. His theory was observationally confirmed soon afterwards by Edwin Hubble in what is now known as Hubble’s Law. Now Hubble owes a lot to Lemaitre for his famous law, a fact sadly forgotten today.

Lemaître is also credited with proposing what has now become known as the Big Bang theory – which says that the observable universe began with an explosion of a single particle.

The theory, which is now widely accepted, first appeared in 1931 in one of Lemaître’s academic papers and was a significant break from the orthodoxy of the time.

Born on 17 July 1894 in Belgium, he initially began studying civil engineering. His academic pursuits were however put on hold while he served in the Belgian army for the duration of the First World War.

After the war, he studied physics and mathematics and was also ordained as a priest in the Catholic Church. He has remained an ardent Catholic in all his scientific explorations.

In 1923 he became a graduate student at the University of Cambridge before going on to study at Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

In 1925 he returned to Belgium, where he became a part-time lecturer at the Catholic University of Leuven. Two years later, he published his groundbreaking idea of an expanding universe.

His initial idea was not related specifically to the Big Bang, but his later research focused on the concept of the universe starting from a single atom, writes Shehab Khan in the British newspaper “Independent.”

When Pope Pius XII wanted to say that Big Bang was a proof for creation by God, Lemaître discouraged the Pope. He said that the theory was neutral and there was neither a connection nor a contradiction between his religion and his theory. Lemaître and Daniel O’Connell, the Pope’s scientific advisor, persuaded the Pope not to mention Creationism publicly, and to stop making proclamations about cosmology. While a devout Roman Catholic, he opposed mixing science with religion, although he held that the two fields were not in conflict.

In 1933 at the California Institute of Technology, some of the greatest scientists of the time from around the world gathered to hear a series of lectures.

After Lemaître delivered his lecture and theory, Albert Einstein stood up and said: “This is the most beautiful and satisfactory explanation of creation to which I ever listened.”

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