'A Day Without Yesterday': Georges Lemaitre & the Big Bang
"Georges Lemaitre a Belgian mathematician and Catholic priest who developed the theory of the Big Bang."
In January 1933, the Belgian mathematician and Catholic priest Georges Lemaitre traveled with Albert Einstein to California for a series of seminars.
After the Belgian detailed his Big Bang theory, Einstein stood up applauded,
and said, “This is the most beautiful and satisfactory explanation of
creation to which I have ever listened.”
In the winter of 1998, two separate teams of astronomers in Berkeley, California, made a similar, startling discovery. They were both observing supernovae -- exploding stars visible over great distances -- to see how fast the universe is expanding. In accordance with prevailing scientific wisdom, the astronomers expected to find the rate of expansion to be decreasing, Instead they found it to be increasing -- a discovery which has since "shaken astronomy to its core" (Astronomy, October 1999).
This discovery would have come as no surprise to Georges Lemaitre (1894-1966), a Belgian mathematician and Catholic priest who developed the theory of the Big Bang. Lemaitre described the beginning of the universe as a burst of fireworks, comparing galaxies to the burning embers spreading
out in a growing sphere from the center of the burst. He believed this burst of fireworks was the beginning of time, taking place on "a day without yesterday."
After decades of struggle, other scientists came to accept the Big Bang as fact. But while most scientists -- including the mathematician Stephen Hawking -- predicted that gravity would eventually slow down the expansion of the universe and make the universe fall back toward its center, Lemaitre believed that the universe would keep expanding.
He argued that the Big Bang was a unique event, while other scientists believed that the universe would shrink to the point of another Big Bang, and so on.
The observations made in Berkeley supported Lemaitre's contention that the Big Bang was in fact "a day without yesterday."
When Georges Lemaitre was born in Charleroi, Belgium, most scientists thought that the universe was infinite in age and constant in its general appearance. The work of Isaac Newton and James C. Maxwell suggested an eternal universe.
When Albert Einstein first published his theory of relativity in 1916, it seemed to confirm that the universe had gone on forever, stable and unchanging.
Lemaitre began his own scientific career at the College of Engineering in Louvain in 1913. He was forced to leave after a year, however, to serve in the Belgian artillery during World War I.
When the war was over, he entered Maison Saint Rombaut, a seminary of the Archdiocese of Malines, where, in his leisure time, he read mathematics and science.
After his ordination in 1923, Lemaitre studied math and science at Cambridge University, where one of his professors, Arthur Eddington, was the director of the observatory,For his research at Cambridge, Lemaitre reviewed the general theory of relativity.
As with Einstein's calculations ten years earlier, Lemaitre's calculations showed that the universe had to be either shrinking or expanding. But while Einstein imagined an unknown force -- a cosmological constant -- which kept the world stable, Lemaitre decided that the universe was expanding.
He came to this conclusion after observing the reddish glow, known as a red shift, surrounding objects outside of our galaxy. If interpreted as a Doppler effect, this shift in color meant that the galaxies were moving away from us.
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."