In 1931, a Belgian cosmologist named Georges Lemaître shocked the world of astronomy.
Perhaps, he reasoned in a provocative article, our absolutely massive cosmic expansion could have started as a singular, tiny point some 14 billion years ago. However, he continued, this point probably exploded and eventually spread out into the vast realm we call the universe, a realm that is still exploding in all directions like an unstoppable balloon.
If this were true, it would mean that our universe did not always exist. It would mean that it must have had a beginning.
Then, in 1965, a year before Lemaître’s death, scientists used the discovery of cosmic microwave background radiation to finally present undeniable evidence for this theory.
Today, we call it the Big Bang.
And on December 31, the national public service broadcaster of the Flemish Community of Belgium, Vlaamese Radio-en Televisieomroeporganisatie, or VRT, recovered something quite remarkable.
It is believed to be the only extant video of Lemaître.
Better yet, this treasured reel of footage, which aired in 1964, is an interview with the esteemed physicist where he discusses what he calls the “primitive atom hypothesis,” also known as the basis for his iconic Big Bang theory.
“The film archive turned out to be misclassified and Lemaître’s name was misspelled,” Kathleen Bertrem, a VRT archives member, said in a statement. “As a result, the interview remained untraceable for years.” But one day, while a staff member was scanning some rolls of film, she suddenly recognized Lemaître in the images and realized that he had struck gold.
The interview itself was conducted in French, and is available with Flemish subtitles if you want to watch it online, but in an effort to make the film more widely available, the experts published an article this month which provides an English translation of the nearly 20-minute clip.
“Of all the people who came up with the cosmology framework we’re working with now, there are very few recordings of how they talked about their work,” said Satya Gontcho A Gontcho, a scientist at the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Berkeley Lab, which led the translation, in a statement. “Hearing the turns of phrase and how things were discussed…it feels like looking through time.”
Reading the entire discussion is pretty mind blowing. It’s amazing to see what a scientist said, word for word, about the ideas that would eventually change the course of history, physics, and even the human perspective.
It’s also quite amazing how clear, convincing and modern the discussion sounds. Almost like a podcast.
Here are some highlights
“A long time ago, before the theory of the expansion of the universe (about 40 years ago),” Lemaître tells an interviewer, according to the transcript, “we expected the universe to be static. We expected nothing would change.”
He goes on to call such a concept an a priori idea, meaning that no one actually had any experimental ideas. evidence to prove how the fabric of space and time was truly static. However, as Lemaître says (and we now know for sure) many evidential facts confirm the expansion of the universe.
“We realized that we had to accept the change,” he said. “But those who wanted no change…in a way, would say, ‘While we can only admit that it changes, it should change as little as possible.'”
On this front, Lemaître highlights the beliefs of astronomer Fred Hoyle, who at the time had strongly promoted the fact that our universe is “unchanging,” or static. Fascinatingly, Hoyle was also the first person to use the term “big bang” to describe what Lemaître was proposing, but he did it with the cadence of mockery. However, the name stuck.
This is not to say that no one supported the theory of the expansion of the universe.
A solid number of physicists did, including the most notable Albert Einstein and Edwin Hubble (yes, the namesake of the Hubble Space Telescope). In fact, it was Hubble who showed the scientific community why the universe must be expanding in all directions. He had used a massive telescope in California back in 1929 to record how distant galaxies receded further and further from us as time progressed.
Along with Hubble’s observations, a 1927 paper by Lemaître finally helped convince most astronomers that our universe is absolutely expanding outward.
“Lemaître and others gave us the mathematical framework that forms the basis of our current efforts to understand our universe,” said Gontcho A Gontcho.
For example, Gontcho A Gontcho also points out how knowing the expansion rate of the universe helps us study more elusive aspects of the cosmos, such as the great dark energy mystery.
Strangely, dark energy seems to be forcing our universe to expand much faster than it should, even making it go faster and faster as time goes on.
The second half of Lemaître’s interview does not focus on the scientific implications of his theory but on the philosophical, even religious, implications. In addition to being a well-known cosmologist, Lemaître was a renowned Catholic priest.
The interviewer asks, for example, if the idea that the universe must have a beginning has any religious significance. Lemaître, in response, simply says: “I am not defending the primitive atom for any ulterior religious reasons.”
At this point, however, the cosmologist says more elaboration on the subject can be found in a separate interview. The interviewer insists a bit and asks Lemaître a question about how the religious authorities might react to his theories.
To this, Lemaître basically touches on how questions about the importance of when, why and how the beginning of time came to be, religious or not, are somewhat moot. “The beginning is so unimaginable,” he said, “so different from the present state of the world that no such question arises.”
Even if God exists theoretically, he says he doesn’t think the existence of a deity interferes with the scientific nature of astronomical theory.
“If God supports galaxies, act like God,” Lemaître said. “He doesn’t act like a force that would contradict everything. It’s not Voltaire’s watchmaker who has to wind his watch from time to time, is it… [laughs]. Over there!”
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