Thursday, June 10, 2010

Big Bang

I think it amusing and encouraging that a Belgian Catholic priest, Father George Lemaitre (1894-1966), is known as "the Father of the Big Bang." Inspired by Albert Einstein's general theory of relativity, Lemaitre proposed that if taken to its logical conclusion Einstein's theory demonstrated that ours is an ever-expanding universe.

Einstein, following the common opinion of his day, believed the universe was a closed system, that it was static. Lemaitre questioned the number (the so-called cosmological constant) which Einstein put into his theory to make it work. When Lemaitre proposed his theory to the master in 1927, Einstein reportedly replied, "Your calculations are correct, but your physics is abominable."

(To be fair, Alexander Friedmann, a Russian mathematician, using math rather than physics, had come to the same conclusion about five years before Lemaitre did, but died without ever following up with observational data. Lemaitre may be said to have re-discovered the theory of an expanding universe.)

Lemaitre's observational data was supplied in 1929 by the American astronomer Edwin Hubble, whose telescopic search of the galaxies verified that they indeed seemed to be receding from one another. Einstein finally agreed.

An unlikely "prophet" of the big bang theory was American poet and short-story writer Edgar Allen Poe (1809-49). In an essay he entitled Eureka (1848), Poe surveys the universe and develops his theory that the start of the universe came from "a certain exertion of the diffusive power (presumed to be the Divine Volition.)" This was 80 years before Lemaitre talked with Einstein.

The Big Bang implies that the universe had a beginning. The biblical story of Yahweh's creating the heavens and the earth had some scientific basis. The continuing expansion of the universe from that initial big bang showed that in a sense creation was still happening. There is a dynamic in the world as we know it, and evolution is an obvious possibility.

Dominican theologian St. Thomas Aquinas concluded in the 13th century that "that the world began is an article of cannot be proved demonstratively" (Summa, I, 46, 2). It seems most appropriate to me that a diocesan priest who studied Aquinas should be the one to offer a demonstration.

I am but a neophyte when it comes to following some of Aquinas' arguments. I could not explain Einstein's theory for love or money. I have only the vaguest sense of Lemaitre's discovery.

But I am thoroughly engaged by the idea that someone of Lemaitre's background in religion and Church ministry should propose this far-reaching discovery about the universe. Coming from a faith perspective I should expect the universe to be ever expanding. God has shown a super abundance of love, a prodigality of forgiveness, the sheer wastefulness of grace. The multiplicity of stars alone reflects the extravangance of his generosity. Lemaitre discovered through his study of science that the universe is still expanding. Perhaps he could have come to that same conclusion by reflecting on faith alone. Scientists would have balked at a conclusion based on religion, but the rest of us would have said, "Yes, of course the universe is dynamic! God is like that!"

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