May 16, 2017

Astronomer explores interaction of life and faith

Pursuing a life of science and a life of faith is not incompatible, said astronomer Jonathan Lunine at the St. Albert the Great Forum on Science and Religion April 26. As proof, Lunine offered the example of Catholic priest George Lemaître, who first identified what became known as Hubble’s Constant, invented the Big Bang theory and first described what we now call dark energy.

“The dialogue between science and religion has become something of a wrestling match, thanks to the amplifying effects of the internet,” said Lunine, the David C. Duncan Professor in the Physical Sciences and director of the Cornell Center for Astrophysics and Planetary Science. He noted that Cornell has a distinguished history in this dialogue; Andrew Dickson White, Cornell’s first president, wrote a well-known treatise, “The History of the Warfare of Science With Theology and Christendom.”

Born in 1894 in Belgium, Lemaître earned a Ph.D. in mathematics in 1920 from the University of Leuven, then earned a Ph.D. in physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1927; he was ordained in 1923. He modestly declined to claim credit for having first discovered Hubble’s Constant, so no equation bears his name. He was nominated for the Francqui Prize – the second most lucrative scientific prize after the Nobel – by none other than Albert Einstein, receiving it in 1934.

But Lemaître eventually stopped working in cosmology, in part because of the societal fallout from the Big Bang theory, said Lunine, co-founder of the Society of Catholic Scientists. “A number of astronomers absolutely hated the idea that the universe would have a beginning – it just sounded so biblical,” he said.

The steady state theory, with no beginning, was proposed by Hermann Bondi, Fred Hoyle and Thomas Gold, a professor at Cornell (he created the modern Department of Astronomy at Cornell and what is known today as the Cornell Center for Astrophysics and Planetary Science) to counter Lemaître’s model, which Hoyle saw as “corrupted” by the Book of Genesis. Hoyle actually invented the name “Big Bang” as a way to ridicule Lemaître’s idea.

Lemaître insisted his theory was based on data, not religion. For Lemaître, science was the way to understand the material world, while the Bible was a doctrine of the salvation of humankind. In a 1934 interview, Lemaître said, “It is utterly unimportant that errors in historic and scientific fact should be found in the Bible. … The idea that because they were right in their doctrine of immortality and salvation that they must also be right on all other subjects is simply the fallacy of people who have an incomplete understanding of why the Bible was given to us at all.”

Lunine said, “Lemaître’s life to me illustrates that the modern view that somehow science and belief in God are incompatible, which is a very new view, makes no sense. ... It also serves as a warning for those who would over-interpret what science can do for us. There are simply questions that can’t be answered in an empirical way because they don’t have to do with the material universe that we are actually in and that we experience.

“I hope that Lemaître’s life is a cautionary lesson both to those who would get overenthusiastic about their science, but also to those who would get overenthusiastic about their religion: As thinking, self-aware beings, we walk a very fine line in the way that we know things,” concluded Lunine.

The talk was hosted by the Cornell Catholic Community and Chesterton House.

Linda B. Glaser is a staff writer for the College of Arts and Sciences.