The Path of Totality

08-27-2017Fr. John LettersFr. John Bonavitacola

Dear Friends,

I found it a bit amusing how Americans can figure out ways to make a profit off a Solar Eclipse! Hotels, restaurants, and businesses along the path of totality all saw their business ledgers turn as black as the eclipsed light of the sun. Still, it was good for us to look up for a change and not down at our phone screens and to consider a subject that we give so little thought to in our times: cosmology. With each new change in understanding of the world at large, from the Copernican revolution to Newtonian physics to Einstein’s theory of Relativity, comes a change in the way we understand ourselves as well. When it comes to faith and science, way too many people remember the Galileo affair, but few know that Einstein’s theory of Relativity was given its biggest boost by a Catholic priest: Fr. Georges Lemaitre, a Belgian priest and mathematician. (what follows is from a wonderful blog that I encourage you to read: These Stone Walls: http://thesestonewalls.com/gordonmacrae/science-faith-big-bang-theory-creation/ .

Fr. Lemaitre used mathematics to present a model of the Universe based on Einstein’s own Theory of General Relativity which proposed that mass and energy create the curvature of space-time causing particles of matter to follow a curved trajectory. Gravity, therefore, would bend not only matter but light and even space itself. This had profound implications for science and was radically different from the reigning Newtonian physics which held that space is absolute and linear.

Even while demonstrating relativity, Einstein held to a “Steady State” theory of the Universe as being eternal, without beginning or end, and static. Using Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity, Father Lemaitre created a mathematical model for the origin of the Universe concluding in 1927 that the Universe – including space and time – came into existence suddenly, some 13.7 billion years ago, from an explosive expansion of a tiny singularity that he called the “Primeval Atom.” The Universe and time were born on a day without yesterday. Suddenly, a created Universe was back on the scientific table.

Father Lemaitre conceived of nothing in existence but a tiny speck into which was contained all matter and energy that we now know as the Universe, and in a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second, the Universe came into being in a moment of immeasurable heat and light. The resistance to this view within the scientific community was enormous. Einstein studied Lemaitre’s 1927 paper intensely but could find no fault in the mathematics behind his proposal. Einstein would not be a slave to mathematics, however, and simply could not conceive of his instinct about the mechanics of the Universe being wrong. “Your mathematics is perfect,” he told the priest, “but your physics is abominable.” Einstein would one day take back those words.

Two years later, in 1929, the astronomer Edwin Hubble – in whose honor is named the Hubble Space Telescope – demonstrated that the Universe was, in fact, not only not static, as Einstein insisted, but expanding. This lent scientific weight to Father Lemaitre’s primeval atom because if the Universe is expanding, then logic held that in the far distant past, it must have been much, much smaller while containing the same matter, mass, and energy. Lemaitre’s model traced the origin of the Universe back 13.7 billion years to a point of immeasurable mass and density that suddenly expanded giving birth not only to matter but to the space-time continuum itself. Appearing at a symposium with Father Lemaitre in 1933, Einstein stood and applauded the priest declaring that his view – which is today called the Standard Model of cosmology – “is the most beautiful explanation of creation I have ever heard.”

All this is a long way of saying that the universe had a beginning, something that prior to the Big Bang Theory was rejected by many scientists. What Fr. Lemaitre showed was that the Book of Genesis was accurate: In the Beginning… But more importantly, he showed that the alleged conflict between faith and science was another cosmological misinterpretation, much as was the sun revolving around the earth. The real path of totality includes reason and faith. They are not opposites but partners that allow the full light of truth to light up the world around us. We should all look up a little more often.

Love,
Fr. John B.

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