Priest of the Cosmos
The Day Without Yesterday: Lemaître, Einstein, and the Birth of Modern
reviewed by Guillermo Gonzalez & Jay W. Richards
Can a priest be a first-rate scientist? Doesn’t religion dull one’s scientific acumen, destroy one’s objectivity, and bind one to espouse unscientific doctrines? Such, at least, is the caricature. But in reality, most of the founders of modern science were Christians—a fact known to most science historians if not to science textbook writers.
So it should not be surprising to find that the first modern cosmologist, Georges Lemaître, was also a priest. And yet the false caricature probably explains why this book is the first biography of Lemaître, though he died forty years ago—an astonishing omission, since he hardly fits anyone’s stereotype.
The Day Without Yesterday is a mix of history, cosmology, and theology—topics that must be included if the reader is to understand Lemaître’s discoveries and beliefs. The book, an easy read, lacks equations but includes historical and technical illustrations and even a glossary. We would recommend it to anyone interested in religion and the history of modern cosmology.
The author, a Boston-based writer and producer, is not a newcomer to the science-faith dialog. In the early 1990s, for example, he reviewed Dreams of a Final Theory by Steven Weinberg and The Mind of God by Paul Davies for First Things.
Lemaître’s Finite Past
Soon after completing his studies in Belgium, Lemaître traveled to work for Sir Arthur Eddington at Cambridge University as a research student in astronomy. He then spent a year at Harvard and M.I.T. (from which he later earned his second doctorate) before returning to Belgium to teach at the University of Louvain.
Farrell spends a considerable amount of time describing Lemaître’s high-level interactions with the other leading astronomers and physicists of the day, such as de Sitter, Einstein, and Hubble. He also describes Lemaître’s “Primeval Atom” hypothesis for the origin of the cosmos, the precursor to the Big Bang theory, first published in 1931.
But Lemaître’s greatest scientific achievement was surely his 1927 publication of a dynamic solution to Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity, which applied Einstein’s theory to the whole universe. He predicted a relationship between the distance and velocity of galaxies that astronomer Edwin Hubble would confirm only two years later.
It was this evidence that first suggested an expanding universe, which itself implied a finite past. Eddington and Einstein both initially rejected the idea, though a few years later Einstein came to describe Lemaître’s theory as “the most beautiful and satisfactory explanation of creation to which I have ever listened.”
Lemaître’s theories would interest only specialists were it not for their obvious theological implications. After all, any theory that implies that the universe has a finite past fits better with theism than does the then-popular view that the universe is eternal. One can hardly blame Lemaître’s scientific colleagues, such as Fred Hoyle and William Bonner, for suspecting that his Christian faith inspired his radical break with prevailing assumptions.
Nevertheless, Lemaître vehemently denied such motivations, despite popular legends to the contrary. In his other bestseller, Angels and Demons, Dan Brown claims that Lemaître, whom Brown describes as a monk, proposed the Big Bang theory in 1927 to reconcile science and faith. Brown characteristically manages to be wrong on four points. Lemaître was not a monk; he did not propose the Big Bang theory—so he did not propose that theory in 1927 (or any other year)—and he did not propose his cosmological theories to reconcile science and faith.
The basic facts are more mundane. Lemaître was a priest (and later monsignor), a leading and devoted member of the Catholic Church, who was appointed to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences by Pope Pius XI in 1936 and elevated to its presidency by Pope John XXIII in 1960.
So far from integrating his science and his theology, however, Lemaître erected high barriers between them. As a result, he strongly objected when in 1951 Pope Pius XII connected his work to the doctrine of creation before the academy, declaring that
The pope clearly drew on Lemaître’s theories, yet he had not consulted with the cosmologist prior to the speech. As it happens, Lemaître denied any affinity between the origin of the universe implied by cosmology and the biblical doctrine of creation. As Farrell writes, “The embarrassment of having his cosmological work publicly held up as a proof of creation discouraged him even more [from further developing cosmological theory].”
To understand why Lemaître objected to Pius’s statement, one must understand his theology. Farrell quotes from a telling 1933 interview of Lemaître on this topic:
“The idea,” he concluded, “that because they were right in their doctrine of immortality and salvation they must also be right on all other subjects is simply the fallacy of people who have an incomplete understanding of why the Bible was given to us at all.”
So Lemaître maintained that God preserved those truths in Scripture related to salvation. But Scripture had nothing to say on specific scientific questions, and might even be full of scientific errors.
Anyone who has been accused of allowing his religion to cloud his scientific judgment will understand the pressure Lemaître was under. Nevertheless, he and Farrell seem overly zealous in denying any relationship between faith and science generally.
Scripture is obviously not a twenty-first-century science textbook, but that simple point hardly answers every question at the boundary of faith and science. For instance, surely some scientific evidence could have theological implications. And what could be more theologically suggestive than evidence that the universe had a beginning? Even atheists like Fred Hoyle saw this point clearly. What is perplexing is why it eluded both Lemaître and his biographer.
Letters Welcome: One of the reasons Touchstone exists is to encourage conversation among Christians, so we welcome letters responding to articles or raising matters of interest to our readers. However, because the space is limited, please keep your letters under 400 words. All letters may be edited for space and clarity when necessary. firstname.lastname@example.org
“Priest of the Cosmos” first appeared in the November 2006 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
An introductory subscription (six copies for one year) is only $29.95.