The Big Bang has captured the scientific and popular mind as the spectacular beginning of the entire universe. There is even an eponymous sitcom which, to judge from what is available on airplanes, might just be the most popular television program ever made.
The Big Bang. At one moment there was nothing and then the next moment – bang! – it was there, an explosive mix of all that would become, slowly but inexorably, all that is.
There is a certain romance in the tale, confirming the intuition that the grandness of all that exists – the grandness of existence itself – must have had a magnificent beginning, a moment of unsurpassed power, a sudden appearance glorious and radiant. In order to be an account of the origin of everything, it would have to appear suddenly, immediately, instantly.
That imaginative allure and scientific solidity of the Big Bang got a big boost with empirical results announced March 17 by astronomers in Cambridge, Mass., using results from an Antarctic telescope.
The theory holds that after the Big Bang, the universe expanded within moments to perhaps 100 trillion times in size. Hence the bigness of the bang.
The rapid – near instantaneous – expansion of the universe explains how something so unimaginably large behaves in a rather uniform way. It explains, in short, why astrophysics is possible, why the laws of physics operate in one place as they do in another.
The researchers reported that they discovered gravitational waves, analogous to "ripples" in space that are the consequence of the massive expansion that took place at the Big Bang.
The science of the Big Bang is appealing for those who read Genesis with both a biblical imagination and mind for scientific data. The "rapid inflation" that astronomers speak of in the initial expansion of the universe sounds a lot like an instantaneous appearance of things that might be poetically captured in a simple command – fiat lux! Let there be light!
After all, what would it have looked like – had there been anyone with corporeal eyes to see – when there was just light? Perhaps something like what astronomers are now able to glimpse with their telescopes.
All of which brings to mind the great astronomer Georges Lemaître, the Belgian Catholic priest who first developed the Big Bang theory. Like the great clerical scientists before him – for example, Albert the Great, Copernicus – Lemaître's faith in the divine logos provided the context in which he sought the order of the created universe.
Without such a premise – that there is an order to be discovered in the material universe – it is not possible to do science. Genesis gives one account of where that premise comes from. Without that, or a similar account of supernatural origins, scientists simply have to assert their foundational premise, or reason circularly, that there is order because we observe that order.
It was a happy coincidence that the recent discoveries were announced on March 17, the anniversary of Lemaître receiving the Francqui Prize 80 years ago from King Leopold III of Belgium. Lemaître won the highest prize in Belgian scholarship, having been proposed for the prize by Albert Einstein and other leading astronomers of the day.
Lemaître's work in the 1920s proposed not only the Big Bang, but the expansion that explains the universe's accelerating expansion. Lemaître first proposed the idea, but it got wider attention in the work of astronomer Edwin Hubble, after whom the famous Hubble Telescope is named.
Historical justice would give credit where credit is due, and it should be the Father Georges Lemaître telescope that peers into the depths of space and the earliest days of history.
Lemaître is an important figure today when many gifted scientists and intelligent lay people share a historical ignorance and current prejudice against religion in scholarship in general, and as an enemy of science in particular. It is just that, ignorant prejudice, but it is widespread.
The truth is that the more we learn from science about the earliest moments of the universe, the more astonishing it is to read what Genesis proposes not as an astronomical chronology but as a lyrical rendering of the creative power present at the beginning.
For no matter how powerful our telescopes, they can only see what can be seen, namely the energies, waves and particles of the first moments. They cannot see what was there before whatever went bang went bang. And where did that "whatever" come from?
A telescope cannot measure what was present before there was anything to measure. So the power of today's science brings us to the same threshold as ancient metaphysics. What existed before anything existed? How then did anything come to exist?
Lemaître would be pleased that his scientific sons are learning more about the beginning. He would be grateful that his fathers in the faith taught him about the logos before the beginning.
Fr. Raymond de Souza - firstname.lastname@example.org