Google Doodle Honours Georges Lemaître

The Google doodle on 17/7/18 honours Fr Georges Lemaître for his 124th birthday: Fr Lemaître was a Catholic priest and astronomer and professor of physics at the Catholic University of Leuven. He held a number of innovative views in physics, but what he is rightly well known for is his proposal of the primeval atom which later became known as the big bang theory of the origin of the universe.

Fr Lemaître originally studied civil engineering, and after the first world war began studying physics and mathematics. At this same time he began his studies for the priesthood (during these studies he came into contact with Desiré Mercier, the well known philosopher working in Leuven at the time). He obtained his doctorate in 1920 and was ordained a priest in 1923. He also became a graduate of astronomy at Cambridge.

After his studies he began lecturing at the Catholic University and publishing articles on various topics, in particular on the expanding universe. It was while in London in 1930 that he proposed the primeval atom theory for the origin of the universe, and he developed the view in a 1931 article in Nature, ‘The Beginning of the World from the Point of View of Quantum Theory’, a theory that we have noted later became known as the big bang theory. In 1936 Lemaître was elected a member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and in 1941 he was elected to the Royal Academy of Sciences and Arts of Belgium.

Towards the end of his life he remained devoted to thinking through issues in physics and mathematics, and this despite the attempt to appoint him to the papal commission exploring the issue of contraception (an appointment that he did not think he was able for given his lack of expertise in moral philosophy or theology). Fr Lemaître died on 20th June 1966, just after the discovery of the cosmic microwave background radiation which provided evidence for his theory of the origin of the universe.

Lemaître received a number of honours in his life, rightly so given his brilliant career. Today the international space station is named after him, and he is an important figure in 20th Century physics, astronomy, and cosmology.

It is good to see an example of the unity of faith and reason in the life of this priest and scientist. The unity is such because what is sought after in both is truth, and it is by means of both that one can arrive at truth. As Fr Lemaître himself states: ‘I was interested in truth from the point of view of salvation just as much as in truth from the point of view of scientific certainty. It appeared to me that there were two paths to truth, and I decided to follow both of them’.

Dr Gaven Kerr