In 1931, A Belgian cosmologist named Georges Lemaitre Astronomy shocked the world.
Perhaps, he argued in a provocative paper, our entire vast cosmic expansion began as a single, tiny speck about 14 billion years ago. Still, he continued, this point has probably exploded, eventually expanding into what we call the universe—a realm that’s still blowing up in every direction as if it were an uninflated balloon.
If this is true, it means our universe did not always exist. This means it must have a beginning.
Then, in 1965—a year before Lemaitre’s death—scientists used the discovery Cosmic microwave background radiation Finally presenting irrefutable evidence of this theory.
Today, we call it the Big Bang.
And on December 31, the national public-service broadcaster for the Flemish community in Belgium — the Flemish Radio-en Televisiomro-Organisati or VRT — Some pretty remarkable rescues.
It is believed to be the only video of Lemaître in existence
Even better, this precious roll of footage, broadcast in 1964, is of an interview with the revered physicist in which he discusses what he calls the “primordial atom hypothesis,” aka the basis of his iconic Big Bang theory.
“The film’s file was misclassified and Lemaitre’s name was misspelled,” VRT Archive member Kathleen Bertram said in a statement. “As a result, the interview went undiscovered for years.” But one day, as a staff member was scanning a few rolls of film, he suddenly recognized Lemaitre in the footage and knew he’d struck gold.
The interview itself was conducted in French — and is available with Flemish subtitles if you want to watch it online — but in an effort to make the film more widely available, experts published a paper this month It provides an English translation of the approximately 20-minute clip.
“Of the people we’ve come up with now with frameworks for cosmology, there are very few recordings of how they talked about their work,” said Satya Gontcho A Gontcho, a scientist at the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory at Berkeley Lab who led the translation, in a statement. Dr. “To hear the turns of phrase and how things were discussed… it feels like a peek through time.”
Reading through the whole discussion is actually quite trippy. It’s incredible what a scientist says, verbally, about ideas that will eventually change the course of history, physics, and even human perspective.
It’s also quite interesting how clear, concise and modern the discussion sounds. Almost like a podcast.
Here are some highlights
“A very long time ago, before the theory of the expansion of the universe (about 40 years ago),” Lemaitre told an interviewer, according to the transcript, “we expected the universe to stay the same. We expected nothing to change.”
He goes on to call such ideas a priori ideas, meaning that none have actually been experimental Evidence to prove that the fabric of space and time was indeed static. Yet, as Lemaître says (and we now know for sure) much of the evidence confirms the facts expansion of the universe
“We realized we had to embrace change,” he said. “But those who want there to be no change… in a way, they say: ‘Even if we can only accept that it changes, it should change as little as possible.'”
On this front, Lemaitre echoed the beliefs of astronomer Fred Hoyle, who at the time strongly promoted the fact that our universe was “immutable” or fixed. Hoyle, interestingly, was also the first to use the term “big bang” to describe what Lemaître proposed, but he did ridicule. Still, the name stuck.
This does not mean that no one supported the theory of the expansion of the universe.
A solid number of physicists did, most notably Albert Einstein and Edwin Hubble (yes, the namesake of the Hubble Space Telescope). In fact, it was Hubble who showed the scientific community why the universe must be expanding in all directions. He used a huge telescope in California In 1929 To record how distant galaxies were moving farther and farther away from us over time.
Together with Hubble’s observations, a 1927 paper by Lemaitre finally convinced most astronomers that our universe was ballooning outward.
“Lemaitre and others gave us the mathematical framework that forms the basis of our current efforts to understand our universe,” said Gontcho a Gontcho.
For example, Gontcho A Gontcho also points out how knowing the expansion rate of the universe helps us study more elusive aspects of the universe, such as the great The secret of dark energy.
Strangely, dark energy seems to be causing our universe to expand much faster than it should, even making it faster and faster over time.
The second half of Lemaitre’s interview focuses not on the scientific implications of his theory but on the philosophical, even religious, implications. In addition to being a well-known cosmologist, Lemaître was a famous Catholic priest.
The interviewer asks him, for example, whether the idea that the universe had a beginning has any religious significance. Lemaître, in response, simply said, “I am not defending the primitive atom for whatever religious purpose.”
At this point, though, the cosmologist says more details on the matter can be found in a separate interview. The interviewer pressed a bit, asking Lemaître a question about how religious authorities might react to his theory.
For this, Lemaître essentially touches on the question of when, why and how time began – religious or not – as a kind of confusion. “The beginning is so unimaginable,” he said, “so different from the present state of the world that such a question does not arise.”
Although God theoretically exists, he states that he does not believe that the existence of God would interfere with the scientific nature of astronomical theory.
“If God supports the galaxy, he acts like God,” Lemaître said. “He does not act as a force that will oppose everything. It is not Voltaire’s watchmaker who has to wind his watch from time to time, so… [laughs]. There!”
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