Saturday, February 28, 2009

Big Bang, Lemaitre & scientific dogma

This semester the Angelicum's STOQ (Science, Theology & the Ontological Quest) program is offering a series of lectures entitled, "Considering Nature: from science to philosophy and theology."

The first three lectures were given by Belgian physicist and philosopher, Prof. Dominique Lambert on the basics of quantum mechanics and cosmology (general relativity, anthropic principle, etc.). During his lecture yesterday, he introduced us to an amazing Catholic priest-physicist named Georges Lemaitre.

Msgr. Lemaitre is the theorist who proposed the so-called "Big Bang theory" to explain the beginning of the universe and its subsequent expansion. He called his theory "the hypothesis of the primeval atom." Building on Einstein's discoveries and applying observational data from astronomers, Lemaitre proposed that the universe (space-time and all its material components) resulted from the explosion of a single quanta billions of years ago. Subsequent observational data from physicists and astronomers (especially Edwin Hubble) have confirmed the outlines of Lemaitre's theory. There is still debate on the particulars, especially on the nature and origin of the originating quanta.

What struck me is the history of Lemaitre's findings and Einstein's steadfast refusal to consider the theory b/c it contradicted his rather dogmatic Spinozaian notion of a closed, static universe. The story that we are usually told about science is that scientists explore all options in the pursuit of truth regardless of dogma, while the Church dictates Truth and refuses to explore options in order to defend dogma. How odd then that this century's greatest scientifc genuis is outdone by a priest!

Here's a good summary of Lemaitre's theory of the Big Bang (a label, by the way, derisively assigned by the astronomer, Fred Hoyle).