To Menu

Georges Henri J.E. Lemaître

Born: July 17, 1894, in Charleroi, Belgium
Died: June 20, 1966, Belgium

Georges Henri Joseph Édouard Lemaître was born in 1894 in the town of Charleroi, Belgium. As a young man, he was drawn to both science and theology, but his studies were interrupted by the outbreak of World War I, during which he served as an artillery officer and witnessed the first use of poison gas as a weapon.

After the war, Lemaître resumed his studies in theoretical physics, and in 1923 was ordained as an abbot in the Roman Catholic Church. In the same year, he became a graduate student of astronomy at Cambridge University.

In 1924, he continued his studies with noted British astronomer Arthur S. Eddington who regarded him as an exceptional student, gifted with a quick, insightful mind, and great mathematical ability.

Lemaître spent 1925 at Harvard College Observatory in Massachusetts, under the tutelage of American astronomer Harlow Shapley who at the time was investigating nebulae. In the same year, Lemaître registered for doctoral studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

In 1927, Lemaître published a paper *in the Annals of the Scientific Society of Brussels (Annales de la Société Scientifique de Bruxelles). In it, Lemaître presented his theory of an expanding Universe, rather than then accepted static one. But, since the annals of that society were not widely read outside of Belgium, Lemaître’s paper went unnoticed by the wider scientific community.

As Fate would have it, however, the theory would not remain obscure for long. In 1929, Edwin Hubble and Milton Humanson published their research on the spectral shift of galaxies outside of the Milky Way. They speculated that since the light emissions from these galaxies were shifted to toward the red end of the spectrum, they were receding from us; suggesting, therefore, that the Universe was expanding.

Based on this evidence, other astronomers began to regard the static, non-evolving model of the Universe as unsatisfactory, and in 1930 Lemaître’s theory gained wider circulation with the help of his old mentor Arthur Eddington.

In that year, Eddington published his commentaries on Lemaître’s 1927 paper in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, in which he praised Lemaître’s theory as offering a better model of the Universe.

By 1931, Lemaître had refined his theory, arguing that if the Universe were expanding, then by extrapolation it had been smaller in an earlier epoch of its existence. The farther one went back in time the Universe would be progressively smaller until one reached the time when all of the Universe was packed into a dense, single particle, or ‘primordial atom’ as he called it, from which space, time and matter would originate.

Georges Lemaitre

In 1931, Lemaître’s theory was viewed as radical and was not accepted by everyone. One of the theory’s most vocal opponents was British astronomer Fred Hoyle who in a radio broadcast dismissed it derisively as the Big Bang theory. However, acceptance of Lemaître’s theory grew, and in 1951 Pope Pius XII was of the opinion that it offered scientific validation of the Church’s belief in divine creation.

But Lemaître himself viewed the matter differently. Although he was a devout Catholic, he believed his theory was neutral, offering neither support to, nor contradiction of, religious faith. In his own words:

“As far as I can see, such a theory remains entirely outside any metaphysical or religious question. It leaves the materialist free to deny any transcendental Being… For the believer, it removes any attempt at familiarity with God… It is consonant with Isaiah speaking of the hidden God, hidden even in the beginning of the Universe.”

* The paper was entitled 'A homogenous Universe of constant mass and growing radius accounting for the radial velocity of extra-galactic nebulae' (Un univers homogène de masse constant et de rayon croissant rendant compte de la vitesse radiale des nébuleuses extragalactiques).

Related links: