(This post needs a disclaimer, so here it is. It’s a post about science and one of its heroes. It’s a story I can’t tell without a heavy dose of science, so please bear with me. I read the post to my friends Pornchai, Joseph, and Skooter. Pornchai loved the math parts. Joseph said it was “very interesting,” and Skooter yawned and said, “You CAN’T print this.” When I told Charlene about the post, she said, “Well, people may never read your blog again.” Well, I sure hope that’s not the case. I happen to think this is a really cool story, so please indulge me this few minutes of science and history.)
The late Carl Sagan was a professor of astronomy at Cornell University when he wrote his 1980 book, Cosmos. It spent 77 weeks on the New York Times Best Seller List. Later in the 1980s, Dr. Sagan narrated a popular PBS series also called “Cosmos,” based on his book. Sagan was much imitated for his monotone intonation of “BILLions and BILLions of stars.” I taped all the installments of “Cosmos,” and watched each at least twice.
More than once, I fell asleep listening to Sagan’s monotone “BILLions and BILLions of stars.” I hope you’re not doing the same right now. Science was my first love as a geeky young man. Religion and faith eventually overtook it, but science never left me. Astronomy has been a lifelong fascination, and Carl Sagan was one of its icons. That’s why I was enthralled 25 years ago to walk out of a bookstore with my reserve copy of Sagan’s first and only novel, Contact (Simon & Shuster, 1985).
Contact was about radio astronomy and the SETI project – the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. It wasn’t science fiction in the way “Star Trek” was science fiction. Contact was science AND fiction, a novel crafted with real science, and no one but Carl Sagan could have pulled it off. The sheer vastness of the Cosmos unfolded with crystal clarity in Sagan’s prose, a vastness the human mind can have difficulty fathoming. Anyone who thinks we are visited by aliens from other planets doesn’t understand the vastness of it all.
The central theme of Contact was the challenge astronomy poses to religion. In the story, SETI scientist Eleanor Arroway – a wonderful character portrayed in the film version by actress Jodie Foster – becomes the first radio astronomer to detect a signal emitting from another civilization. The signal came from a planet orbiting Vega, a star, not unlike our own, about 26 light years from Earth. The message of the book (and film) is clear: if another species like us exists, and we are ever to have contact, it will be in just this way – via radio waves moving through space at light speed.
Here comes the geeky part. For those who never caught the science bug, a “light year” is a unit of distance, not time. Light moves through space at a known rate of speed -about 186,000 miles per second. At that rate, light travels through space about 5.86 trillion miles in one year. That’s a “light year,” and in numbers it represents 5,860,000,000,000 miles. In the vacuum of space, radio waves also travel at the speed of light.
The galaxy in which we live – the one we call “The Milky Way”- is a more or less flat spiral disk comprised of about 100 billion stars. The Milky Way measures about 100,000 light years across. That’s a span of about 6,000,000,000,000,000,000 miles, give or take a few. Please don’t ask me to convert this to kilometers!
This means that light – or radio waves – from across our galaxy can take up to 100,000 years to reach Earth. One of The Milky Way Galaxy’s approximately 100 billion stars is shining in my cell window at this moment. Our galaxy is one of about fifty billion galaxies now known to comprise The Universe. The largest known to us is thirteen times larger than The Milky Way. You get the picture. The Universe is immense.
IF E.T. PHONES HOME, MAKE SURE IT’S COLLECT!
In a recent post (“A Prisoner, A Professor, A Prelate, Two Priests and a Poet“) I made a cynical comment about UFOs. I wrote, “The real proof of intelligent life in The Universe is that they don’t come here.” It was an attempt at humor, but the problem with searching for extraterrestrial intelligence is one of practical physics. The limit of our ability to “listen” is a mere few hundred light years from Earth, a tiny fraction of the galaxy – a mere survey of our own backyard. If there is another civilization out there, we may never know it.
Even if we hear from them some day, it will be a one-sided conversation. The signal we may one day receive might have been broadcast hundreds – perhaps thousands – of years earlier. If we respond, it will take hundreds or thousands of years for our response to be detected. We sure won’t be trading recipes, or asking, “What’s new?” If there’s anyone out there – and so far we know of no one else – we can forget about any exchange of ideas, let alone ambassadors.
Still, I devoured Contact twice in 1985, then I wrote Carl Sagan a letter at Cornell. I understood that Sagan was an atheist, but the central story line of Contact was the effect the discovery of life elsewhere might have on religion, especially on fundamentalist Protestant sects who seemed the most threatened by the discovery.
I thought Carl Sagan handled the controversy quite well, without judgments, and even with some respect for the religious figures among his characters. In my letter, I pointed out to Dr. Sagan that Catholicism, the largest denomination of Christians in America, would not necessarily share in the anxiety such a discovery would bring to some other faiths. I wrote that if our galactic neighbors were embodied souls, like us, then they would be in need of redemption in the same manner in which we have been redeemed.
Weeks later, when an envelope from Cornell University’s Department of Astronomy and Space Sciences arrived, I was so excited my heart was beating BILLions and BILLions of times! Carl Sagan was most gracious. He wrote that my comments were very meaningful to him, and he added, “You write in the spirit of Georges Lemaitre!”
I framed that letter and put it on my rectory office wall. I wanted everyone I knew to see that Carl Sagan compared me with Georges Lemaitre! I was profoundly moved. But no one I knew had a clue who Georges Lemaitre was. I must remedy that. He was one of the enduring heroes of my life and priesthood. He still is!
FATHER OF THE BIG BANG
Georges Lemaitre died on June 20, 1966 when I was 13 years old. It was the year “Star Trek” debuted on network television and I was mesmerized by space and the prospect of space travel. Georges Lemaitre was a Belgian scientist and mathematician, a pioneer in astrophysics, and the originator of what became known in science as “The Big Bang” theory -which, by the way, is no longer considered in cosmology to be a theory.
But first and foremost, Father Lemaitre was a Catholic priest. He was ordained in 1923 after earning doctorates in mathematics and science. Father Lemaitre studied Einstein’s celebrated general theory of relativity at Cambridge University, but was troubled by Einstein’s model of an always-existing, never changing universe. It was that model, widely accepted in science, that developed a wide chasm between science and the Judeo-Christian understanding of Creation. Einstein and others came to hold that The Universe had no beginning and no end, and therefore the word “Creation” could not apply.
Father Lemaitre saw problems with Einstein’s “Steady State” theory, and what Einstein called “The Cosmological Constant” in which he maintained that The Universe was relatively unchanging over time. From his chair in science at Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium from 1925 to 1931, Father Lemaitre put his formidable mind to work.
He developed both a mathematical equation and a scientific basis for what he termed the “primeval atom,” a sort of cosmic egg from which The Universe was created. He also concluded that The Universe is not static, as Einstein believed, but expanding at an ever increasing rate, and he put forward a mathematical model to prove it. In 1998, Father Lemaitre was proven to be correct.
Einstein publicly disagreed with Lemaitre’s conclusions, and the priest was not taken seriously by mainstream science largely because of that. In his book, The Universe in a Nutshell (Bantam Books, 2001), mathematician and physicist Stephen Hawking addressed the controversy:
“If galaxies are moving apart now, it means they must have been closer together in the past. About fifteen billion years ago, they would have been on top of each other, and the density would have been very large. This state was called the “primeval atom” by the Catholic priest Georges Lemaitre, who was the first to investigate the origin of the universe that we call the big bang. Einstein seems never to have taken the big bang seriously.” (The Universe in a Nutshell, p. 22)
Stephen Hawking actually calculated the density of Father Lemaitre’s” Primeval Atom” just prior to The Big Bang. It was 1, 000,000,000,000,000,000,000, 000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000, 000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000, tons per square inch. I haven’t checked this math myself, so we’ll take Professor Hawking’s word for it.
Though Einstein disagreed with Father Lemaitre at first, he respected his brilliant mathematical mind. When Einstein presented his theories to a packed audience of scientists in Brussels in 1933, he was asked if he thought his ideas were understood by everyone present. “By Professor D, perhaps,” Einstein replied, “And certainly by Lemaitre, as for the rest, I don’t think so.”
When Father Lemaitre presented his concepts of the “primeval atom” and an expanding universe, Einstein told him, “Your mathematics is perfect, but your grasp of physics is abominable.”
They were words Einstein would one day have to take back. When Edwin Hubble and other astronomers read Father Lemaitre’s paper, they became convinced that it was Einstein’s physics that was flawed. They could only conclude that the priest and scientist was correct about the creation and expansion of The Universe from the “primeval atom,” and the fact that time, space and matter actually did begin at a moment of creation, and that The Universe will end.
It’s an ironic twist that science often accuses religion of holding back the truth about science. In the case of Father Lemaitre and The Big Bang, it was science that refused to believe the evident truth that a Catholic priest proposed to a mathematical certainty: that the true origin of The Universe, and of time and space, is its creation on “a day without yesterday.”
For his work, Father Lemaitre was inducted into the Royal Academy of Belgium, and was awarded the Franqui prize by an international commission of scientists. Pope Pius XI applauded Father Lemaitre’s view of the creation of the universe and appointed him to the Pontifical Academy of Science. Later, Pope Pius XII declared that Father Lemaitre’s work was a vindication of the Biblical account of creation.
The Pope saw in Father Lemaitre’s brilliance a scientific model of a created Universe that bridged science and faith and halted the growing sense that each must entirely reject the other.
Einstein finally came around to endorse, if not openly embrace Father Lemaitre’s conclusions. He admitted that his concept of an eternal, unchanging universe was an error. “The Cosmological Constant was my greatest mistake,” he said.
In January, 1933, Father Georges Lemaitre traveled to California to present a series of seminars. When Father Lemaitre finished his lecture on the nature and origin of The Universe, a man in the back stood and applauded, and said, “This is the most beautiful and satisfying explanation of creation to which I have ever listened.” Everyone present knew that voice. It was Albert Einstein, and he actually said the “C” word so disdained by the science of his time: “Creation!”
“I want to know how God created this world. I am not interested in this or that phenomenon, in the spectrum of this or that element. I want to know God’s thoughts; the rest are details.” Albert Einstein
“The more we know of the universe, the more profoundly we are struck by a Reason whose ways we can only contemplate with astonishment” … Albert Einstein once said that in the laws of nature, ‘there is revealed such a superior Reason that everything significant which has arisen out of human thought and arrangement is, in comparison with it, the merest empty reflection.’ In what is most vast, in the world of heavenly bodies, we see revealed a powerful Reason that holds the world together.” Pope Benedict XVI, In the Beginning, (Eerdmans, 1986).
“In the Beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters.” (Genesis 1:1)
“Live long and prosper.” Mr. Spock
For Further Reading: