Lost and found: a 1964 interview with Georges Lemaitre, the Father of the Big Bang theory

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The Vlaamse Radio- en Televisieomroeporganisatie (VRT), the national public-service broadcaster for the Flemish Community of Belgium, has found in its archives an interview with Georges Lemaître that was thought to be lost. The cosmologist from Leuven was the founder of the big bang theory in the 1920s and 1930s. He was interviewed about it in 1964, but until recently it was thought that only a short excerpt had been preserved. Now the entire 20-minute interview has been found and published in the original French with Flemish subtitles. It is wonderful to listen to it! In addition, a transcript in English has now been published by the Journal for History of Astronomy.

Lemaitre explains that the big-bang is the beginning of multiplicity, the beginning of space and time, and the big-bang is not “Creation out of nothing” as Christian philosophy has it. He emphasized that:

And the beginning is not a place where you would touch God as a hypothesis, where if you like, I’ll talk about Laplace’s initial flick [*], since we’re now talking about conferences in English… I recall Jeans [Sir James Hopwood Jeans, Fellow of the Royal Society] words ”the finger of God agitating the ether” [dramatic voice], that was the beginning. Well, that’s not… that’s not a pleasant idea for a religious mind. It’s an idea that brings God down into the realm of primary causes, and I think one of the contributions that a theory like mine can make is to avoid just such difficulties.

[*] the transcript’s authors indicate “It seems that the term chiquenaude, translated as flick, is being misattributed to Laplace in this interview. The term was used by Blaise Pascal to refute René Descartes’ form of theism. In his book Thoughts (Pascal 1670), Pascal says: ”Je ne puis pardonner `a Descartes: il aurait bien voulu, dans toute sa philosophie, pouvoir se passer de Dieu ; mais il n’a pu s’empecher de lui faire donner une chiquenaude pour mettre le monde en mouvement.” In English: ”I cannot forgive Descartes: he would have liked, in all his philosophy, to be able to do without God; but he could not help to have him give a flick to set the world in motion.” [1]

Written words may reflect Lemaitre’s thought even better than an verbal presentation, as seen in this text:

“We may speak of this event as of a beginning. I do not say a creation. Physically it is a beginning in the sense that if something happened before, it has no observable influence on the behavior of our universe, as any feature of matter before this beginning has been completely lost by the extreme contraction at the theoretical zero. Any preexistence of the universe has a metaphysical character. Physically, everything happens as if the theoretical zero was really a beginning. The question if it was really a beginning or rather a creation, something started from nothing, is a philosophical question which cannot be settled by physical or astronomical considerations.” [2]

And he concludes:

That is to say if God supports the galaxies, he acts as God, he does not act as a force that would contradict everything. It’s not Voltaire’s watchmaker who has to wind his clock from time to time, isn’t it. [1]

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Thankful to the Society of Catholic Scientists for spreading the news!

Interview: La VRT a retrouvé dans ses archives une interview de 1964 de Georges Lemaître, le père du Big Bang (vidéo)

[1] Satya Gontcho A Gontcho, Jean-Baptiste Kikwaya Eluo and Paul Gabor, Resurfaced 1964 VRT video interview of Georges Lemaitre, Journal for the History of Astronomy XX(X):1–7. Please note: emphasis in bold is mine.

[2] Godart and Heller, Cosmology of Lemaître, p. 172, see my previous blog post: Georges Lemaitre, the Big Bang Cosmology and its metaphysical implications I

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