Commonweal published a great article on the history of the Big Bang theory a while back called ‘A Day Without Yesterday’: Georges Lemaitre & the Big BangI had a dozen years of Catholic schooling, and don’t ever remember learning about Georges Lemaitre.

And if I don’t remember learning about the origins of the Big Bang theory and its Catholic developer during my Catholic school years, I’d guess it probably wasn’t taught in the typical public school, either:

Georges Lemaitre (1894-1966) [was] a Belgian mathematician and Catholic priest who developed the theory of the Big Bang. Lemaitre described the beginning of the universe as a burst of fireworks, comparing galaxies to the burning embers spreading out in a growing sphere from the center of the burst. He believed this burst of fireworks was the beginning of time, taking place on “a day without yesterday.”

After decades of struggle, other scientists came to accept the Big Bang as fact. But while most scientists — including the mathematician Stephen Hawking — predicted that gravity would eventually slow down the expansion of the universe and make the universe fall back toward its center, Lemaitre believed that the universe would keep expanding. He argued that the Big Bang was a unique event, while other scientists believed that the universe would shrink to the point of another Big Bang, and so on. The observations made in Berkeley supported Lemaitre’s contention that the Big Bang was in fact “a day without yesterday. …

In January 1933, both Lemaitre and Einstein traveled to California for a series of seminars. After the Belgian detailed his theory, Einstein stood up, applauded, and said, “This is the most beautiful and satisfactory explanation of creation to which I have ever listened.” Duncan Aikman covered these seminars for the New York Times Magazine. An article about Lemaitre appeared on February 19, 1933, and featured a large photo of Einstein and Lemaitre standing side by side. The caption read, “They have a profound respect and admiration for each other.” …

It took a mathematician who also happened to be a Catholic priest to look at the evidence with an open mind and create a model that worked. Is there a paradox in this situation? Lemaitre did not think so. Duncan Aikman of the New York Times spotlighted Lemaitre’s view in 1933: “‘There is no conflict between religion and science,’ Lemaitre has been telling audiences over and over again in this country ….His view is interesting and important not because he is a Catholic priest, not because he is one of the leading mathematical physicists of our time, but because he is both.”

A fascinating article for understanding how one man’s ideas (initially derided by the scientific establishment) came not only to win the praise of luminaries like Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking, but ultimately to transform our understanding of the universe. Like so much else with scientific discovery, I’d bet someday we’ll realize that this theory is terribly wrong in important ways.