God and/or the Big Bang?


Not too long ago I heard someone on the radio come out with an either/or statement that went: "Some say God created the universe, while others say it all came from a Big Bang -- but I don't know which." But need it be an either/or proposition? Why not both?     

In fact, much of the Big Bang theory of the origins of the universe had its beginning in the speculations of the Belgian Catholic priest and mathematical physicist, Georges Lemaître (1894-1966). Back in 1927, after studying math and physics at Cambridge University, Lemaître first published his idea of the universe expanding from a "primeval atom", showing how Einstein's general theory of relativity contradicted the then current belief (including Einstein's own convictions) in a stable, unchanging universe. Einstein told Lemaître that his math was correct, but that his grasp of physics was "abominable". In the meantime, in Russia, Aleksandr Friedmann came to much the same conclusions as Lemaître, but Einstein ignored him as well.

But then, in 1929, the American astronomer Edwin Hubble began to publish his own observations that not only proved the existence of other galaxies than our own Milky Way, but also indicated, through measurement of the "redshift" in the light from these other galaxies, that we live in an expanding universe. In 1933 both Einstein and Lemaître met with Hubble in California where Einstein admitted to Hubble that in fudging some of his equations (namely, holding for a "cosmological constant" to allow for a steady-state, non-expanding universe) he'd made "the biggest blunder" of his career. Next, after hearing Lemaître explain his own theory further, Einstein exclaimed that "this is the most beautiful and satisfactory explanation of creation to which I have ever listened!"

Yet much of the scientific world remained unconvinced. Sir Arthur Eddington (one of Lemaître's mentors at Cambridge) thought that the idea that the universe actually had a beginning was "repugnant". Another Cambridge astrophysicist, Fred Hoyle, has spent most of his scientific career trying to prove that Lemaître was wrong. In fact, it was Hoyle who derisively dubbed Lemaître's idea "the Big Bang" -- admitting that he found its religious overtones rather unsettling. That Pope Pius XII eventually appointed Lemaître to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences probably didn't help.

Since then however, almost every new astronomical discovery has continued to confirm as well as refine Lemaître's original ideas. Gamow and Alpher, in particular, developed the current "inflationary" version of the theory which has been further confirmed in recent years by the detection of the background radiation left over from the initial stages of the Big Bang. So too, astronomers have just about given up the intense search for enough "dark matter" to reverse the Big Bang or even to cause it to repeat itself, and even more lately have come close to concluding that the expansion rate of the universe, which they generally thought had to be slowing down, may actually be speeding up!

If so, then not only will Lemaître's idea that the universe began with a "primeval atom" be vindicated, but also his description of the universe as being like a burst of celestial fireworks -- but now, it seems, with the dying embers of creation growing dimmer as they expand into the nothingness of empty space. So too, perhaps, we might hope that long before then much of the long-standing tension between modern science and religion will evaporate.


R W Kropf    June 27, 2000                                                     Bigbang.doc     00-06-27.htm