Over this past year, I’ve been involved in producing a series of Science and Faith programmes for Radio Maria England. Radio Maria England is a Catholic radio station based in Cambridge and is part of the World Family of Radio Maria which has 86 branches around the world. One thing we’ve noticed so far in our Science and Faith series is how well our listeners respond to stories about the lives of great Catholic scientists. For instance, shortly after airing our episode on cosmology and the Belgian Catholic priest Fr Georges Lemaître, someone from an organisation called Equipping Christian Leadership in an Age of Science (ECLAS) contacted us saying he wanted to help us find the next Georges Lemaître. As a result of this conversation, we applied for and were awarded a generous ECLAS grant to fund our next Radio Maria Science and Faith series. Whether or not we succeed in finding the next Georges Lemaître, we hope we might at least inspire people to take an active interest in both their Catholic faith and in science. One can put forward good philosophical and theological reasons for why science and the Catholic faith can happily coexist, but nothing is quite as convincing as the testimony of someone who is highly gifted in science and who also has the gift of faith.
Fr Lemaître was very blessed with both these gifts. From a young age, Georges excelled in mathematics but also expressed an interest in theology. He was nine years old when he first told his father he wanted to become a priest. On one occasion, the young Lemaître became particularly excited about a passage from the Book of Genesis that seemed to foreshadow some of the developments in science. However, one of his science teachers and mentors, Fr Ernest Verreux, tried to subdue Lemaître’s enthusiasm, saying that it was just a coincidence and that the most we can say is occasionally one of the prophets made a correct scientific guess. Lemaître took his mentor’s advice to heart, and it is thought, many years later, Lemaître may have privately offered Pope Pius XII similar advice after the pope had delivered a speech suggesting Lemaître’s cosmological theory bore witness to the Fiat lux of Genesis.
After secondary school, Lemaître began to study civil engineering at the University of Louvain, but it was not long before the First World War broke out. For the next few years, Lemaître was caught up in the horrors of trench warfare. This experience further deepened Lemaître’s sense of a priestly vocation, but it was also while in the trenches that he read Henri Poincaré’s book on electricity and optics. This inspired Lemaître to change from civil engineering to studying mathematics and physics once he went back to university. In 1920 he completed a doctorate in mathematics, and he began training for the diocesan priesthood, being ordained in 1923.
The following year, he won a scholarship to study Einstein’s general theory of relativity under Sir Arthur Eddington at St Edmund’s College, Cambridge. It was not long before Lemaître was beginning to understand some of the fascinating consequences of Einstein’s theory, consequences that even Einstein himself found difficult to accept. Lemaître was able to show that Einstein’s theory predicted that the whole universe should be expanding. When Lemaître explained his result to Einstein at the 1927 Solvay Conference, Einstein replied: “Your calculations are correct, but your physics is abominable.” Einstein, like many physicists at the time, was wedded to the idea of an eternally static universe.
The same year, Lemaître published his result, but it was largely ignored by the physics community. That was until 1929 when Edwin Hubble published his astronomical findings that the universe was indeed expanding as Lemaître had predicted.
In 1932, Lemaître published an even more radical suggestion: according to Einstein’s theory, the universe can’t have existed infinitely far in the past but must have expanded from an infinitely dense point. This theory is now known as the Big Bang. By 1933, Einstein had become much more impressed with Lemaître, describing his theory as a beautiful and satisfying interpretation of cosmic rays as relics of the universe’s origin. It was during this time that the press started to treat Lemaître with the same sort of celebrity awe that followed Einstein. When Einstein and Fr Lemaître, in his dog collar, were seen in deep conversation, the running joke was they were discussing the “little lamb”, a reference to the Lambda term in Einstein’s field equations.
You can read more about Lemaître’s inspiring life in John Farrell’s book The Day without Yesterday. If you’re interested in hearing from today’s Catholic scientists, you can find out about Radio Maria’s next Science and Faith series by googling “Faith Journeys in Science”. Catholics have contributed so much to scientific developments, and it is only right that we should let their voices be heard.
This article first appeared in the March 2022 issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe today.
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