Emma Hoarty / Sun Staff Photographer

Prof. Jonathan Lunine at his talk on the intersection of science and religion, Thursday.

May 5, 2017

Prof Sheds Light on History of Catholic Priest Who Proposed Big Bang

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Exploring an intersection that is not often discussed, Prof. Jonathan Lunine, physical sciences, discussed the life of Georges Lemaître, a physicist and Catholic priest who proposed the idea of the Big Bang model as the origin of the universe.

For Lunine, Lemaître’s story served as an allegory to illustrate the connection that exists between religion and science.

Lunine, who is the director of the Cornell Center for Astrophysics and Planetary Science and a practicing Catholic, talked about his interest in Lemaître.

“He was a dramatic example of somebody who not only pursued a life of science to a great success, but also a life of faith,” he said.

Lemaître was a priest with a variety of interests — he studied both physics and mathematics at renowned institutions, Lunine said.

“In 1892 [Lemaître] was born in Belgium and educated at a Jesuit High school. He obtained a Ph.D. in Mathematics at the University of Louvaine in 1920. Between that and getting his Ph.D. in Physics from MIT in 1927, he was ordained as a Catholic priest in 1923,” Lunine said.

Lemaître was a distinguished cosmologist who interacted with the best and brightest in his era.

“In 1934, after writing several remarkable papers, he won the highest scientific prize in Belgium — the Francqui Prize. He was nominated by Albert Einstein,” Lunine said.

Lemaître’s work dramatically changed the way people thought about speed in the universe.

Lemaître’s hypothesis of the primeval atom — what we now call the Big Bang — was at first sharply criticized by scientists who thought that Lemaître’s research was religiously motivated.

“In 1951, Pope Pius XII gave a speech to the pontifical academy of sciences in which he claimed that Lemaître’s theory proved that God exists,” Lunine said.

Although Lemaître convinced the Pope to cease making such a claim, the reaction of his critics discouraged him from further research in cosmology.

“Lemaître retired from cosmology at that point, it may have been because of the public lampooning which occurred,” Lunine said.

While Lemaître was an acclaimed scientist, he was nonetheless religious.

“[Being educated in a Jesuit high school] must have influenced the way he wrote his papers, even though the model itself was clearly stimulated by his very deep understanding of general relativity, his derivation of the expanding universe model, and his derivation of the Hubble constant,” Lunine said.

Lunine talked about the implications of Lemaître’s life on the discussions between science and religion.

“Lemaître’s life to me illustrates the fact that this modern view that somehow science and religion are incompatible really makes no sense,” Lunine said.

“The assertion that science is the only road to discovering truth is called scientism. Lemaître’s life to me demonstrates the fallacy of the assertion that to be a scientist, you have to adopt this ‘scientismist’ view. His life also demonstrates the fallacy that religion and fundamentalism are one and the same. He was religious, but he was absolutely not fundamentalist,” Lunine said.

This observation led Lunine to discuss the current state of discussion between science and religion.

“It’s fair to say that the dialogue between science and religion has become something of a lucha libre wrestling match thanks to the amplifying effects of the internet,” Lunine said.

The professor hoped that informing more people about Lemaître would serve as a cautionary tale.

“I hope Lemaître’s life is a cautionary lesson to those who get both over enthusiastic about their science, or over enthusiastic about their religion,” Lunine said.

To tie these conversations to the classroom, Lunine emphasized diversity of thought.

“As professors we have tremendous influence on our students. We ought to be thoughtful in maintaining a perspective in which different ways of knowing are honored,” Lunine said.