Monday, June 1, 2009

Between Science and Religion

The endless online debates on the origins of the universe almost always end up with someone spewing out the fact that a priest proposed the Big Bang theory. Yes. It's true. A Roman Catholic Priest DID propose the theory. Can't argue with the facts. But more often than not, when questioned about said priest, it's apparent that while they spout this fact with an air of superiority, they demonstrate a void of information. Most simply have no idea who he was. And I suspect that if he were alive today, he would be offended by the frivolity with which his scientific achievement is thrown about. If there ever was an advocate for the separation of science and religion, it was he.

[1]Monsignor Georges Henri Joseph Édouard Lemaître (1894-1966) had a classical education at a Jesuit secondary school (Collège du Sacré-Coeur, Charleroi), an afterwards began studying civil engineering at the Catholic University of Leuven at the age of 17. In 1914, he interrupted his studies to serve as an artillery officer in the Belgian army for the duration of WWI. At the end of hostilities, he received the Military Cross with palms. After the war, he studied physics and mathematics, and began to prepare for priesthood. He obtained his doctorate in 1920 with a thesis entitled l'Approximation des fonctions de plusieurs variables réelles (Approximation of functions of several real variables), written under the direction of Charles de la Vallée-Poussin. He was ordained a priest in 1923, and in the same year became a graduate student in astronomy at the University of Cambridge, spending a year at St Edmund's House (now St. Edmund’s College, Cambridge). He worked with Arthur Eddington who initiated him into modern cosmology, stellar astronomy, and numerical analysis. He spent the following year at Harvard College Observatory in Cambridge, Massachusetts with Harlow Shapley, who had just gained a name for his work on nebulae, and at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he registered for the doctorate in sciences.

Lemaître’s work put him in an impressive and exclusive league with brilliant minds such as Albert Einstein and Edwin Hubble. And in spite of his achievements, he still contended that cosmology and religion had no similarities. At the Solvay Conference it was suggested to him by theoretical physicist Paul Dirac that cosmology is the branch of science that lies closest to religion. In disagreement he suggested that psychology may be closest to religion. So strong was his conviction, that when Pope Pius XII in 1951 took the position that the Big Bang theory confirmed the biblical creation story, Lemaître was greatly embarrassed. He later met with the Pope and cautioned on drawing parallels between scientific theory and the book of Genesis. From then on he published no further research on the Big Bang.

What Georges Lemaître did was courageous and progressive. He maintained a rigid boundary between science and religion. Science asks how, religion asks why. He knew this and lived by it. He once said, “There is no conflict between science and religion”. If Webster defines science as “a system of knowledge covering general truths or the operation of general laws especially as obtained and tested through scientific method: concerned with the physical world and its phenomena”, and defines religion as “the service and worship of God or the supernatural”, then he is correct. The only conflict is the eternal one between people.

1. Georges Henri Lemaître from World of Physics. ©2005-2006 Thomson Gale, a part of the Thomson Corporation. All rights reserved

Additional source: The Pari Dialogues: Essays in Science, Religion, Society and the Arts, by F. David Peat

1 comment:

  1. Good article. I didn't know any of that. Now I will know what to say if I ever hear anyone make this argument. Thanks for the education.

    dusty Smith