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Georges Lemaître

1894 - 1966

Georges Lemaître

Georges Lemaître, 1894 - 1966, was a Belgian astrophysicist, best known for being the originator of the Expanding Universe theory, and the Big Bang origin of the universe.

  • Nationality
  • Belgian

  • Subject
  • Astronomy

  • Fields
  • Cosmology, Astrophysics, Big Bang Theory

  • Distinctions
  • Francqui Prize, 1934. the highest Belgian award for scientific endeavour.

    Eddington Medal, 1953. Despite his own reservations, Eddington had been a key champion of Lemaître's work, was was not finding easy acceptance until Hubble's observational evidence validated it.

  • Publications
  • The gravitational field in a fluid sphere of uniform invariant density according to the theory of relativity, 1927, doctoral thesis (MIT).

    Paper on the Expansion of the Universe, Annales de la Société scientifique de Bruxelles, 1931.

    Quaternions et espace elliptique, 1948, a paper which developed ideas of the metric geometry of elliptic space.

  • Theories
  • Expanding universe: Lemaître describes the origin of the universe as the primeval atom, "a cosmic egg, which exploded at the moment of the creation of the universe".

    Lemaître was probably the first to suggest that the universe was not only expanding, but accelerating. The observational (Hubble Space Telescope) discovery of evidence of this acceleration shook the scientific world in the 1990s.

    Lemaître was an early adopter of computing technology, and in 1958 was one of the inventors of the Fast Fourier transform algorithm.

  • Equations
  • Lemaître coordinates

    Lemaître-Tolman metric: an inhomogeneous solution to Einstein's field equations, which describes a spherical dust cloud.

Despite his unpromising beginning as a Catholic priest, he was able nevertheless to develop an interest in science. After serving in the Belgian army in the First World War, he went to study Stellar Astronomy and Numerical analysis at the University of Cambridge, 1923-4, where one of his teachers was none less than Arthur Eddington.

He then went to MIT, 1924, where he undertook a PhD, and 1925 began as a part-time professor at the Leuven University, Belgium. It was in this period that he began to write up his radical ideas about the expansion of the universe, appearing in print in 1927 (Annales de la Société scientifique de Bruxelles).

Till recently, he has been neglected by history as the probable first creator of the Expanding Universe theory (which incorporates the concept of the Big Bang, although he himself did not coin the term, which was invented by Fred Hoyle in the 1950s), primarily because he chose not to translate his thesis with the passages in which he describes the constant which now bears Edwin Hubble's name (Hubble's constant describes the relationship between the distance of a galaxy and its speed of recession from the observer). Lemaître had also approached Albert Einstein with his theory, but Einstein failed on this occasion to recognise its importance, but later acknowledged his mistake and extolled Lemaître for his work.

In 1951, he intervened when Pope Pius XII attempted to claim Lemaître's theory was proof of the Catholic Church's archaic creation legend. Lemaître had come to the conclusion that science and religion should not be mixed, and no validity for religious views would be found in scientific understanding.

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