In 1931, a Belgian cosmologist named Georges Lemaître shocked the world of astronomy.
Perhaps, he reasoned in a provocative article, our utterly massive cosmic expanse might have begun as a tiny, singular point some 14 billion years ago. Yet, he continued, that point probably exploded, eventually expanding into the gigantic realm we call the universe – a realm that always explodes in all directions as if it were a balloon. unstoppable.
If that were true, it would mean that our universe hasn’t always existed. That would mean it had to have a beginning.
Then, in 1965 – a year before Lemaître’s death – scientists used the discovery of cosmic microwave background radiation to finally put forth undeniable evidence for this theory.
Today it is called the Big Bang.
And on December 31, the national public service broadcaster of the Flemish Community of Belgium – the Vlaamese Radio- en Televisieomroeporganisatie, or VRT – picked up something quite remarkable.
It is believed to be the only Lemaître video in existence.
Even better, this series of valuable footage, broadcast in 1964, is of an interview with the esteemed physicist where he discusses what he calls “the primitive atom hypothesis”, i.e. the basis of his iconic Big Bang theory.
“The file for the film turned out to be misclassified and Lemaître’s name had been misspelled,” Kathleen Bertrem, member of the VRT archives, 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, he suddenly recognized Lemaître in the footage and realized he had struck gold.
The interview itself was done in French – and is available with Flemish subtitles if you want to watch it online – but in a bid to make the film more widely available, experts released this month an article that provides an English translation of the nearly 20-minute excerpt.
“Of all the people who came up with the framework of cosmology that we are currently working with, there are very few records of how they talked about their work,” said Lawrence Berkeley scientist Satya Gontcho A Gontcho. National Laboratory of the Department of Energy. Berkeley Lab, which led the translation, said in a statement. “Hearing the turns of phrase and the way things were discussed…it’s like taking a peek back in time.”
Reading the whole discussion is actually quite trippy. It’s amazing what a scientist said, verbatim, about the ideas that would ultimately change the course of history, physics, and even human perspective.
It’s also quite striking how clear, compelling, 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 to change.”
He continues to call such a concept an a priori idea, which means no one actually had any experience evidence to prove how the fabric of space and time was truly static. Yet, as Lemaître says (and we now know for sure), plenty of evidence backs up the expansion of the universe.
“We realized we had to embrace change,” he said. “But those who wanted there to be no change… in a way, they would say, ‘Although we can only allow it to change, it should change as little as possible.'”
On this front, Lemaître recalls the beliefs of astronomer Fred Hoyle, who at the time had strongly promoted the fact that our universe is “immutable”, or static. Hoyle, fascinatingly, was also the first person to use the terminology “big bang” to describe what Lemaître was proposing, but he did it with the cadence of mockery. Nevertheless, the name stuck.
That’s not to say that no one supported the expanding universe theory.
A good number of physicists have done this, including Albert Einstein and Edwin Hubble (yes, the namesake of the Hubble Space Telescope). It was, in fact, Hubble that showed the scientific community why the universe should expand in all directions. He had used a huge telescope in California in 1929 to record how far distant galaxies were receding from us over time.
In conjunction with the Hubble observations, a 1927 paper written by Lemaître finally helped convince the majority of astronomers that our universe is ballooning.
“Lemaître and others gave us the mathematical framework that forms the basis of our current efforts to understand our universe,” Gontcho A Gontcho said.
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 mystery of dark energy.
Oddly, dark energy seems to be forcing our universe to expand much faster than it should, even causing it to grow faster and faster over time.
The second half of Lemaître’s interview is not about the scientific implications of his theory but about the philosophical, even religious implications. Besides being a well-known cosmologist, Lemaître was a renowned Catholic priest.
The interviewer asks him, for example, if the idea that the universe must have a beginning has a religious significance. Lemaître, in response, simply said: “I do not defend the primitive atom in the name of any religious ulterior motive.
At this point, however, the cosmologist says specifics on the subject can be found in a separate interview. The interviewer pushes a bit, asking Lemaître a question about how religious authorities might react to his theories.
To this, Lemaître essentially addresses the fact that questions about the significance of when, why, and how the beginning of time appeared – religious or not – are somehow debatable. “The beginning is so unimaginable,” he said, “so different from the current state of the world that such a question does not arise.”
Even though God theoretically exists, he says he doesn’t believe the existence of a deity would interfere with the scientific nature of astronomical theory.
“If God sustains the galaxies, he acts like God,” Lemaître said. “He doesn’t act like a force that contradicts everything. It’s not Voltaire’s watchmaker who has to wind his clock from time to time, is it… [laughs]. The!”