The influence of savants

Arthur S. Eddington

Lettre à Arthur Eddington

Over time, his relationshipwith Eddington went beyond the strictly scientific context and was marked by mutual respect. Lemaître kept him up to date on his career and research work.

Georges Lemaître's religious convictions evolved. The first change dates from his stay at Cambridge University in 1923-1924. He was then a student-researcher for Eddington, himself an astronomer and physicist. Eddington was more than Georges Lemaître's professor: the two men spent time together and discussed extensively. Eddington contributed to launching Lemaître's career by attracting the scientific world's attention to his theory and by inviting him to the Fourth General Assembly of the Cambridge International Astronomical Union (in the United States) from September 2nd - 9th 1932. 

Exchanges between the two men also touched on the domain of faith. As a Quaker, seeing religion as a deeply personal conviction, Eddington had already envisaged a possible relationship between science and faith. His positions were to have a great influence on Georges Lemaître. 

Eddington was also a Kantian: he differentiated science and religion which consequently could not come into conflict because they do not pursue the same goal. For him, the more or less latent conflict between science and religion which has existed since Galileo is ascribable to the fact that the borders between the two fields have not been sufficiently delimited. 

Lemaitre nonetheless took some distance from some of Eddington's positions. Indeed Eddington thought that one could not speak about a primitive atom and go so far in that theory, because, according to him, “the beginning of things practically escapes scientific reasoning”. He was so adamant about separating science and religion that he was actually prevented from analysing the possibility of a natural and physical Beginning, thinking it similar toCreation. Hedid not take sufficiently into account the distinction founded by Thomas Aquinas, so dear to Lemaître, according to which “the two ways to Truthmeet in the unity of human activity”. A relationship between the two fields was essential for Lemaître. He wanted to prove that it is possible to think of a natural beginning without denying the existence ofCreation.

Georges Lemaître drew from Eddington the importance of the distinction between sciences and faith, distinct fields whose exact borders it is advisable to establish. But unlike Eddington, Lemaître maintained a relationship between them.

“We must maintain an attitude equi-distant between two extremes, one which would have us considering the two aspects of our lives as two isolated compartments whence we would alternatively draw according to the circumstances, one's science or one's faith. The other which would have us inconsiderately and irreverently mixing and confusing what must remain distinct.” - La culture catholique et les sciences positivistes,1936, p. 69.

Georges Lemaître and Arthur S. Eddington

Georges Lemaître and Arthur Eddington enthralled in discussion on the ship returning from the 6th general meeting of the International Astronomical Union held in Stockholm in 1938.

Albert Einstein

Texte manuscrit de Georges Lemaître concernant son intervention en tant que représentant de l’Académie royale à la soirée du Judaïsme belge en la mémoire d’Albert Einstein

A draft of his talk at theevening of Belgian Judaism held in honour of Albert Einstein.

Albert Einstein and Georges Lemaître met at the fourth Solvay Congress in Brussels in 1927. Einstein, who was already familiar with the article where Lemaître speaks of the expansion of the universe and explains Hubble's law, is said to have told him: “your mathematics is perfect, but your physics is abominable”. Lemaître was disappointed in not being taken seriously, for the 'priest image' he was relegated to took precedence over his scientific theory.

In 1933, the two savants met again in Pasadena on the occasion of a seminar directed by Lemaître on the formation of nebulae in an expanding universe. They discussed at length and held each other in mutual esteem as various anecdotes show. Einstein spent several months in Belgium in 1933. Attending conferences together, Einstein declares that nobody had understood the talk which had just been given, except perhaps Théophile de Donder (professor of physics at ULB) and Abbé Lemaître certainly. Einstein moreover supported Lemaître in obtaining the prestigious Francqui Prize.  

Despite their mutual esteem, Einstein did not want to accept the primitive atom, a concept with too much resemblance to Creation and thus to theological thinking. The famous physicist's position indubitably encouraged Georges Lemaître to accentuate the duality of the pathway towards Truth: science and faith. In contacting non-believing scientists, he would accentuate that differentiation in order that they might all be open to his theory, involving only a natural Beginning and notCreation.

At an evening of Belgian Judaism held in honour of Albert Einstein in 1955, Georges Lemaître, present as representative of the Royal Academy, described his meetings with the great scientist. He retraced their discussions, engendered by their various meetings, from 1928 to 1935, from the Solvay Congress, to their last meeting at Princeton. They had dealt with the cosmological constant, the origin of cosmic rays and, further, Euclidean space. 

Diplôme du Prix Francqui attribué à Georges Lemaître

Albert Einstein agreed to sponsor Lemaître's candidature for the Franqui Prize. His other sponsors were two academicians, Charles de la Vallee Poussinand Alexandre de Hemtinne. Among the international jury members, we note Arthur Eddington, Paul Langevin, Théophile de Donder and Marcel Dehalu.

His detractors

During his life Lemaître was also confronted with the Protestant, Marxist and anticlerical worlds. His greatest adversaries were Fred Hoyle, Thomas Gold and Hermann Bondi. Their hypothesis theorized the continuous creation of matter. Their universe was expanding and eternal, but, to mitigate the decreasing density, matter is continuously created. They disparaged Lemaître's theory of the unique atom and tried to ridicule it onthe BBCin dubbing it the “Big Bang”. For those scientists, the abbé just wanted to prove that it was God who created the world by means of his theory. They failed to understand the distinction established by Lemaître between Beginning and Creation. In dealing with those critics and such anti-clericalism, Lemaître understood that he must harden his position on the relationship between sciences and faith in order to keep his full credibility in scientific circles.

So it was that he made a point of explaining his position at the 11th Solvay Congress of Physics in Brussels in 1958. When he was accused by Hoyle of have elaborated a concordist theory. He defended himself in declaring:

“Personally, I consider that such a theory stays completely outside of any metaphysical or religious issue. It leaves the free materialist to deny any transcendent being. For the believer it excludes any attempt at familiarity with God.”

He thus always affirmed the distinction between faith and science in countering those who accused him of pursuing apologetic goals.