Georges Edouard Lemaître (1894-1966), a Belgian engineer, astrophysicist, and Catholic priest, was known for his theoretical contributions to the understanding of the origin of the universe. Theologically unorthodox and based on available scientific evidence, Lemaître’s theories postulated that the universe was expanding from an unknown point of origin. This expansion, as evidence suggested, would entail that the origin of the universe would require vast differences in space and time from the condition of the universe today. In what is now commonly referred to as the big bang theory, Lemaître speculated that the universe was a product in the breakdown of the primeval atom, whereby the stars, planets, and nebula exist in an expanding universe. Furthermore, he attempted to bridge the gap between science and religion by suggesting that there are two distinct metaphysics, one for science and another for religion. Lemaître was known for his publications Discussion on the Evolution of the Universe (1933) and Hypothesis of the Primeval Atom (1946).
Contrary to previous concepts of the universe as being both infinite and static, scientific contributions from Edwin Hubble (1889-1953) and Albert Einstein (1879-1955) suggested that the universe was not static but expanding and relative. This would have serious consequences for both the traditional concepts of time and space. Although Lemaître held that the mass within the universe is constant and distributed in a nonuniform manner, the expansion of the universe would indicate that the velocity of expansion will change in time and space. Insofar as the origin of the universe, Lemaître suggested, was based on quantum theory, the quanta would decrease in number and increase in the amount of energy. When reduced to a few quanta or a single quantum whose atomic weight would reflect the total mass of the universe, the concepts of both time and space would be devoid of meaning. This primeval atom would contain the undetermined nature of the present universe; whereas spatiotemporal reality did not begin until the disintegration of this primeval atom.
Lemaître’s theory, though speculative, had a profound impact on traditional cosmology. Philosophically and theologically, the beginning of the universe would call into question previous human ontology and teleology. The existence of God, the concept of the void, the stability of the universe, and humankind’s place in nature would conflict with traditional perspectives. Lemaître, a proponent of dissonance, never acknowledged this conflict between science and religion, for he held that science and religion were two separate and different types of knowledge. However, an exact epistemological synthesis—understanding and blending the temporal nature depicted by science and what is stated in scripture—was never stated, and thus the two accounts remain irreconcilable.
Although problematic, Lemaître’s contribution to science and cosmology remains as important as it is controversial. According to Lemaître, the universe, like the planets, had a definite beginning. Time and space, in relation to the newly “created” universe, would provide the unwritten basis for the development of preexisting matter in the universe. Humankind, a minute part in this cosmological unfolding of time and space, would not only ponder the evolution of our species but also the evolution of the universe.
David Alexander Lukaszek
See also Big Bang Theory; Black Holes; Cosmogony; Einstein, Albert; Gamow, George; Singularities; Universe, Contracting or Expanding; Universe, End of
Lemaître, G. (1931). The beginning of the world from the point of view of quantum theory. In M. Bartusiak (Ed.), Archives of the universe. New York: Vintage Books.
Lemaître, G. (1931). A homogeneous universe of constant mass and increasing radius accounting for the radial velocity of extra-galactic nebulae. In M. Bartusiak (Ed.), Archives of the universe. New York: Vintage Books.
Lemaître, G. (1949). Beaumarchais. New York: Knopf.
Lemaître, G. (1950). The primeval atom. New Jersey: Van Nostrand.