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Georges Lemaître 2.0. Project

From the restoration to the setting on a web portal: the archives of the Belgian scientist accessible to research and put on an exhibition for the general public

Since 1927 and the elaboration of the so-called ‘Big Bang’ theory, the universe has a history. Georges Lemaître poses two hypotheses that will upset cosmology: the universe is expanding and its birth is the result of the initial explosion of a concentrated energy. This leading Belgian scientist has left behind a unique archive, which this project intends to digitise and publish online for preventive conservation and recovery.

 

Georges Lemaître, father of the so-called ‘Big Bang’ theory

The Georges Lemaître archives (1894–1966) constitute a prestigious collection, which illuminates the many facets of this first-class scientist. He is under the academic responsibility of Professors Aurore François and Jan Govaerts.

 

Georges Lemaître, essential figure of modern cosmology

Known as the ‘father of the Big Bang’, Georges Lemaître is the model of the modern scientist, a passionate explorer of science and life and an inspired and applied researcher. After completing his studies in the sciences, physics and mathematics, he completed several research stays: in England, at Cambridge University (with Arthur Eddington) and in the United States, at Harvard College Observatory in Cambridge, then at MIT, where he defends his doctoral thesis in science. In 1927, he published his flagship article, ‘A homogeneous universe of constant mass and increasing radius accounting for the radial velocity of extragalactic nebulae’, which will be translated and commented in 1931 by Eddington, making visible the concept of ‘primitive atom’. ‘and the hypothesis of a singular beginning of the expanding universe. Lemaître’s theories spark debate and lively reactions from the scientific community. The Lemaître Archives, rich in notebooks, research notes, diagrams and graphs, allow us to follow his thoughts. Additions, corrections, erasures, testify to the complexity of a theory in construction.

 

Georges Lemaître, a network scientist

Throughout his career, he multiplies meetings and participations in symposiums. His archives allow him to follow his academic adventure as well as the construction of a real visible network through his notes, notebooks but also photographs and correspondence. Thus, e.a., Arthur Eddington who welcomes him in his laboratory; Albert Einstein who discusses his ideas while supporting his candidacy for the Prix Francqui; Edwin Hubble, Robert Milikan, but also William de Sitter, Erwin Schrödinger, Carl Störmer or Manuel Vallarta and, at Belgian level, Marc de Hemptinne, Charles Manneback, Rene de Vogelaere, Odon Godart.

 

Georges Lemaître today

Current research continues to refer to the scientist’s research and theories, which technological advances now allow to support through observation. Thus, in 1965, the existence of a fossil radiation confirming the “explosive” character of the beginning of the Universe is confirmed. Other models integrate his vision: Lemaître-Tolmann-Bondi model of inhomogeneous universes (1947); Penrose and Hawking’s work on the theorems of singularities (1966–1975) and inverse theory (Hawking 2005); two Nobel prizes awarded to Saul Perlmutter and Adam Riess as well as to Brian Schmidt “for the discovery of the accelerated expansion of the Universe” from the thesis proposed by Georges Lemaître in 1927.

 

Georges Lemaître, man of science and faith

Intensely scientific, he is also intensely religious. Ordained a priest, he clearly makes the distinction of his dual methodological approach, traversing “two paths to the Truth”. The reading of his correspondence, in particular as a member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, makes it possible to take note of criticisms or abusive uses which he will defend while remaining faithful to his functions and rank.

The Georges Lemaître archival funds is therefore exemplary because it consists of all the documents that make up a career (readings in the trenches, notebooks and research notes, successive versions of the articles, etc.) and a component photographic and instrumental giving body and life to the scientific network in which Georges Lemaître was a major figure.

 

Preservation and valorisation

The project, launched in January 2018, is part of a broader goal of preserving and enhancing online Georges Lemaître’s archives.

 

Preserve and document a single fund

It will ultimately be necessary to ensure the preventive conservation of this whole, via a repackaging, a partial restoration and a complete digitization, which will protect the archives of the progressive deterioration that entails the manipulations of the documents, regularly requested in consultation.

 

To make known an essential figure of our scientific history thanks to a multidisciplinary partnership

The uploading of scanned files and associated metadata will make the archives accessible to researchers and the general public alike. For the latter, virtual exhibitions and educational kits will make Lemaître and his work known through an innovative approach, starting from the archives, then contextualising and questioning them.

To support this multifaceted approach, the project benefits from multiple expertise. It is coordinated by the UCL Archives and the Georges Lemaître Archives (Liliane Moens), which are responsible for the preservation and opening of the archives, and is supported by the Institute for Research in Mathematics and Physics. UCL (Prof. Jan Govaerts), who helps to identify and understand documents. The archives Lemaître are the subject of a scripting within the module “Passion of the researchers” of the Museum L and a collaboration is already well settled with the teachers of the Master in History of the UCL (platform Clio2Web), for the creation of teaching modules and virtual exhibitions by students.

 

Contribute to the influence of the archives Georges Lemaître, Treasury of the Wallonia-Brussels Federation

By decision on December 13, 2017, the Wallonia-Brussels Federation voted in favor of classifying a part of the Lemaître archives with the qualification of treasure, because of its historical and scientific value and on the basis of the criteria of rarity, the link with the history of science, the interest of the whole and the recognition of Lemaître’s personality as an expression of his historical and cultural identity.

Unlike other scientific personalities of his time, Georges Lemaître proved quite discreet and insensitive to his media aura. As a result, today there is a wide gap between its impact on the history of science and the rather superficial knowledge of its work by the public, a gap that the project intends to overcome, notably by doubling the publication of its digital archives. an approach of cultural and pedagogical mediation.

 

Project team

The project is coordinated by the University Archives.

  • Aurore François (Director)
  • Caroline Derauw (project manager)
  • Véronique Fillieux

With the effective support of Fabian Boldrin

 

Partners

  • Georges Lemaître Archives
  • Research Institute in Mathematics and Physics (Uclouvain)
  • Digital University Strategic Plan
  • Wallonia-Brussels Federation