By Contributor Bruce Meyer
I’m always perplexed when I hear pious talk about the Big Bang theory in underhanded, atheistic tones, as if it had been made up in a dark room by malicious religion-hating ogres. It’s a good story, one that doesn’t actually involve any ogres (I hope); only figurative giants.
Georges Lemaitre was an unknown physics professor with a brilliant idea. He was also a devout man who had been ordained as a Catholic priest. His religion, in my mind, gave him a distinctive perspective on the scientific data. Albert Einstein was a giant, a towering figure of the 20th century, like Goliath. He was world-famous for his Theory of Relativity, among his many other extraordinary accomplishments.
Both Lemaitre and Einstein lived at a time when the ideas of cosmology were very different from today. Einstein, along with most physicists, believed in a steady-state universe. It was neither expanding nor contracting. There was no beginning and there would be no end. He was so confident of this scheme that he built it into his Theory of Relativity. Years later, he would call it his greatest mistake.
But when Lemaitre first proposed his theory of the expansion of the universe, Einstein was reported to have responded in derision, saying something, “Your math is correct, but your physics is abominable.” Einsten wasn’t alone. The term “Big Bang” was coined by Lemaitre’s fellow physicists to mock him. He was known as that Christian guy who wanted to play in astronomy.
Lemaitre persisted. He continued to teach, speak and promote his theory. When Edwin Hubble published his work supporting an expanding universe, everybody took a second look, including Einstein. As more data was gathered, the Big Bang theory gained prominence. Even Einstein was won over. He proposed Lemaitre for several awards of scientific distinction.
So I hope you’ll agree with me that Georges Lemaitre was no religion-hating ogre. He died in 1966, but about a year before his death scientists at Bell Labs accidentally discovered the cosmic microwave background radiation. It was an echo of the big bang.
Lemaitre’s idea was shown to be true: The universe did indeed have a beginning.