Msgr. Georges Lemaitre - Priest of Heroic Virtue


Killer Strangelet Could Turn Earth into a Lump of Strange Matter

This month the Large Hadron Collider (aka Big Bang Machine) is scheduled to resume testing after undergoing safety and power supply enhancements.  Located on the French-Switzerland border, the LHC is the world's largest particle accelerator.  It is believed that this underground facility could unlock the mysteries surrounding the origin of the universe by recreating the conditions that might have existed one billionth of a second after the Big Bang began.

These experiments were nearly halted after a lawsuit was filed against the European Center for Nuclear Research (Cern) over the fear that the colliding protons could produce a tiny black hole, called a strangelet particle, that would inevitably consume the earth.  Such claims are said to be utter nonsense.

In September of 2008 the LHC fired its first proton beam to give credibility to a theory that was first proposed by a Catholic priest teaching at a the University of Leuven in 1931.

Horrific War Alters Young Man's Career

Georges Lemaître (pronounced like “playmate” without the “P”) was born in 1894.  At an early age he desired to become both a priest and a scientist.  He attended university in Leuven where he studied engineering.  When World War I broke out he volunteered  in the Belgian army and served as an artillery officer.  This first world war was one of the most horrific wars in history and Belgium was at the center of conflict. Georges fought bravely and was awarded the Military Cross but the carnage on the battlefields and in the trenches influenced his decision to leave engineering after the war ended and study mathematics instead.

Lemaître received his doctorate in 1920 and upon his graduation decided to enter the seminary in Malines.  It was here that he became familiar with Einstein's theory of relativity.  Between 1920 and his ordination in 1925 he studied the sciences in the finest universities of his time.  He did research in Cambridge, Harvard and MIT, and was appointed professor at his alma mater at the University of Leuven.

A Priest Challenges Commonly Held Scientific Beliefs

His own theories became controversial when he developed a model of creation commonly referred to as the Big Bang.  It was based on the observation that the universe is expanding and must have originated at a central point in space and time.  The implications were at odds with a scientific community that held the widely accepted belief that the universe was infinite both in time and in space.  Einstein praised Lemaître for his mathematical abilities but called his grasp of physics abominable.

It was not until 1929 when the American astronomer Edwin Hubble provided considerably more evidence of an expanding universe that Lemaître's explanation gained acceptance.  In 1933 Einstein retracted his original assessment  and called the theory “the most beautiful and satisfactory explanation of creation to which I have ever listened.”

Lemaître attracted great attention from the media and world at large.  People were fascinated that this theory of creation was the product of a leading mathematician who also happened to be a Catholic priest.  In this man the debate between science and religion had no substance.  He had developed a theory on a controversial subject that could be accepted by Christians and non-Christians alike.  It was a great source of pride for Abbe Lemaître.  He said, “As far as I see, such a theory remains entirely outside any metaphysical or religious question.  It leaves the materialist free to deny any transcendental Being.”   At the same time it was a theory that coincided with Biblical teachings on a finite, created universe.

Lemaître's work and fame brought him many prestigious scientific awards and he was inducted into the  Pontifical Academy of Science where he served as president from 1960 to 1966.  The same year he was elected president of the Academy, he was granted the honorary title of monsignor by Pope John XXIII. 

In his lifetime he saw his theories challenged by other great scientists and supported by subsequent discoveries.  As the Large Hadron Collider resumes tests to discover how such vast amounts of speed and energy could be created within fractions of a second, we are reminded that science and religion are are not two opposing foes locked in an eternal conflict.  Rather, they are like two beacons pointing towards one source from which everything emanates.

This article brought to you by Aquinas and More Catholic Goods.  Written by James Rutherford.

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