A Day Without a Yesterday: The Genius of Georges Lemaitre

A Day Without a Yesterday: The Genius of Georges Lemaitre

The third chapter of Hearts Set Free introduces Tim Faber and Joan Reed, who are producers for Science Cable T.V. They’re arguing over whether or not to do a story about a man who has been one of my heroes for many years—a real-life character who plays an important role in the novel:

“This is a story about one of the greatest advances in human thought in all of history,” said Joan, “and yet most people know nothing about it. A young man challenges Einstein, sets him straight, and utterly changes how we understand the universe!  He proves that there was a day when yesterday didn’t exist! You just can’t stand the fact that he was a priest. And then that narcissistic jerk, Hubble, gets all the credit and has the space telescope named after him. Oh, we’re doing this story, sweetheart.”

Who was the man, and what exactly did he discover? That’s the subject of the following excerpt, which is all a matter of historical fact.

Chapter Four
The Physicist Priest

The young man at the center of Joan’s story was Georges Lemaître, a Belgian who, fresh from the battlefields of World War One, became both a physicist and a Roman Catholic priest. He was fascinated with understanding how the equations that Albert Einstein had recently set forth in his general theory of relativity could be used to understand the universe. Ever since the time of the ancient Greeks, Western philosophers and scientists had believed in an unchanging cosmos that had always been and would always be. Aristotle wrote of the perfection of crystal spheres, one nestled within the next, and Newton saw the heavens as an infinite and eternal expanse of comets, planets, and stars. Even Einstein, who had astounded the world with his radical ideas—parallel lines meeting on the curved surface of spacetime!—had a deep affinity for the idea of a universe without beginning or end, and even modified one of his most famous equations so that it described the world in just that way.

But Georges Lemaître was coming to a very different conclusion. The more he studied them, the more Einstein’s equations told him that the universe was changing, evolving—from what, at first he wasn’t sure. Eager to see if astronomers were finding any evidence to support what his calculations implied, Lemaître traveled to England and America and found bits and pieces of tantalizing evidence that other galaxies were speeding away from our own. That was exactly what he expected; for, by 1927, the thirty-three year-old Lemaitre was the only man in the world who knew the truth: the reason those galaxies appeared to be moving away was that spacetime itself was expanding.

The universe was growing larger by millions of miles per day!

Lemaître published his revolutionary findings that year, turning twenty-five hundred years of Western thought upside down. His paper, however, appearing only in an obscure Belgian journal, caused not even a ripple. The young priest met his idol, Albert Einstein, in Brussels that fall, but their meeting was to no avail. “Your calculations—they’re all correct,” Einstein told him. “But your physics—achh! Abominable!” Theories should be beautiful, the great man insisted, and the thought of an expanding universe was grotesque! No matter; Georges Lemaître was unfazed.

Meanwhile, fifty-five hundred miles away, atop a peak in the San Gabriel mountains near Pasadena, California, two astronomers were meticulously documenting the rate at which other galaxies—or nebulae, as they called them—appeared to be fleeing from Earth. They were Edwin Hubble, an Oxford-educated American with pretentious British mannerisms and a monstrous ego, and his assistant, Milt, an eighth-grade dropout and former mule skinner and janitor who did much of the actual work using Mt. Wilson’s 100-inch telescope. In 1929, only months before an epic stock-market crash would usher in the Great Depression, Hubble published his findings, which decisively validated Lemaître’s theory.

But his paper contained no mention of the Belgian priest. Nor did Hubble put forth any ideas of his own about why the nebulae were receding before his eyes. Lemaître had already shown that the expansion of the universe was a consequence of Einstein’s equations. But no one knew!

At least not until 1930, when Lemaître’s mentor, Sir Arthur Eddington, a brilliant physicist and a Quaker whose pacifism had nearly landed him in jail during the war, found himself and the rest of the physics world perplexed at how to reconcile Hubble’s findings with Einstein’s theories. When his former protégé, hearing of his confusion, explained that he had already solved the problem three years before, Sir Arthur was both mortified—Lemaître’s paper had been languishing at the bottom of a towering stack on his desk—and electrified. The world must know! An English translation should be prepared forthwith!

In 1931, as Depression deepened in America and construction began on a colossal dam where the Colorado River cut through the desert of Nevada, the English translation of Lemaître’s paper finally appeared. Two years later, Einstein traveled to Pasadena and announced he’d been mistaken; the Belgian priest had been right all along!

But there was something mysterious about that English translation, something Joan felt a keen desire to understand: the paragraph containing what had come to be known as Hubble’s Law—that the more distant a galaxy, the faster it appears to be fleeing from us—and the rate at which the universe was expanding, which became known as the Hubble Constant—was missing! The evidence that Lemaître had been the first to establish that the universe was expanding—surely one of the most momentous scientific breakthroughs in all of history!—had been erased.

But by whom? And why?

If his 1927 paper had been Lemaître’s only contribution to science, Joan thought it would still be shameful that he was unknown compared to Hubble. But the young Belgian had only just begun. In the early 1930s, he concluded that all the matter in the cosmos must once have been compacted into something he called “the primeval atom,” which then began to disintegrate. Joan was struck by one of his quotes, describing what came next:

“The evolution of the world can be compared to a display of fireworks that has just ended: some few red wisps, ashes, and smoke. Standing on a cooled cinder, we see the slow fading of the suns, and we try to recall the vanished brilliance of the origin of the worlds.”

Lemaître was the father of what came to be called the “Big Bang.” He had laid out a convincing scientific argument that there was, in fact, a beginning of time itself. A day without a yesterday! A moment when the universe, as we know it, began to take shape!

But wait a minute, thought many a skeptical mind: isn’t it just a bit much that this outlandish theory, which smacked of the Biblical story of Creation, was the invention of a priest? It made atheists like astronomer Fred Hoyle gnash their teeth! But the priest, who in fact never mixed his science with his faith, would be proven correct.

And hardly anyone outside of the astrophysics community had even heard his name! This, thought Joan, was positively a crime. Who was responsible for Lemaître’s anonymity? Hubble had always been hungry for glory; over the years, some scientists whispered that he or one of his minions had been the culprit responsible for the missing language in that English translation, ensuring that the credit for the discovery of the expanding universe would go to him alone. Well, if there was a way to prove that, Joan was going to find it.

Jess Lederman