The idea that the universe originated from a tiny object in the form of an egg appears in The Rigveda, a collection of Hindu hymns from the 12th century BCE. However, there were few scientific clues to the universe’s true origins until Albert Einstein provided a new way of conceiving time and space with his general theory of relativity in 1915. Einstein’s insight led many to revisit the idea that the universe started small, among them the Belgian priest Georges Lemaître, whose 1931 proposal would carry echoes of The Rigveda.
In the 17th century, Johannes Kepler, observing that the night sky is dark, argued that the universe cannot be infinite in both time and space, as otherwise the stars shining from every direction would make the whole sky bright. His argument was restated in 1823 by German astronomer Wilhelm Olbers and became known as Olbers’ paradox. Despite this problem, Isaac Newton stated that the universe was static (not getting any bigger or smaller) and infinite in time and space, with its matter distributed more or less uniformly over a large scale. At the end of the 19th century, this was still the prevailing view, and one that Einstein himself initially held.
An unchanging universe?
Einstein’s general theory of relativity explains how gravity works at the largest scales. He realized that it could be used to test whether the Newtonian model of the universe could exist long-term without becoming unstable, and to explore which other types of universe might be feasible. The exact relationship between mass, space, and time was explained in a series of 10 complex equations. These were called Einstein’s field equations. Einstein found an initial solution to his equations that suggested the universe is contracting. Since he could not believe this, he introduced a “fix”—an expansion-inducing factor called the cosmological constant—to balance the inward pull of gravity. This allowed for a static universe.
In 1922, Russian mathematician Alexander Friedmann attempted to find solutions to Einstein’s field equations. Starting with the assumption that the universe is homogenous (made of more or less the same material everywhere) and spread out evenly in every direction, he found several solutions. These allowed for models in which the universe could be expanding, contracting, or static. Friedmann was probably the first person to use the expression “expanding universe.” Einstein first called his work “suspicious,” but six months later acknowledged that his results were correct. However, this was Friedmann’s final contribution as he died two years later. In 1924, Edwin Hubble showed that many nebulae were galaxies outside the Milky Way. The universe had suddenly become a lot bigger.
The expanding universe
Later in the 1920s, Lemaître entered the debate about the large-scale organization of the universe. He had worked at institutions in the United States, becoming aware of Vesto Slipher’s work on receding galaxies and Hubble’s measurements of galaxy distances. A competent mathematician, he had also studied Einstein’s field equations and found a possible solution to the equations that allowed for an expanding universe. Putting these various threads together, in 1927, Lemaître published a paper that proposed that the whole universe is expanding and carrying galaxies away from each other and from Earth. He also predicted that galaxies that are more distant from us would be found to be receding at a faster rate than closer ones.
Lemaître’s paper was published in an obscure Belgian journal, and as a result, his hypothesis failed to attract much attention at the time. He did, however, communicate his findings to Einstein, telling him of the solution he had found to the field equations allowing for a universe that expands. Einstein introduced Lemaître to Friedmann’s work, but remained ambivalent about Lemaître’s idea. Famously, Einstein is said to have said: “Your calculations are correct, but your grasp of physics is abominable.” However, the British astronomer Arthur Eddington later published a long commentary on Lemaître’s 1927 paper, describing it as a “brilliant solution.”
In 1929, Hubble released findings showing that there was indeed a relationship between the remoteness of a galaxy and how fast it was receding, confirming for many astronomers that the universe was expanding, and that Lemaître’s paper had been correct. For many years the credit for the discovery of the expansion of the universe was given to Hubble, but today most agree it should be shared with Lemaître and possibly also with Alexander Friedmann.
The primeval atom
Lemaître reasoned that, if the universe is expanding and the clock is run backward, then far back in time, all the matter in the universe must have been much closer. In 1931, he suggested that the universe was initially a single, extremely dense particle containing all its matter and energy—a “primeval atom” as he called it, about 30 times the size of the sun. This disintegrated in an explosion, giving rise to space and time on “a day without yesterday.” Lemaître described the beginning of the universe as a burst of fireworks, comparing galaxies to the burning embers spreading out from the center of the blast.
The proposal initially met with scepticism. Einstein found it suspect but was not altogether dismissive. In January 1933, however, Lemaître and Einstein traveled together to California for a series of seminars. By this time, Einstein (who had removed the cosmological constant from his general theory of relativity because it was no longer needed) was in full agreement with Lemaître’s theory, calling it “the most beautiful and satisfactory explanation of creation to which I have ever listened.”
Lemaître’s model also provided a solution to the long-standing problem of Olbers’ paradox. In his model, the universe has a finite age, and because the speed of light is also finite, that means that only a finite number of stars can be observed within the given volume of space visible from Earth. The density of stars within this volume is low enough that any line of sight from Earth is unlikely to reach a star.
“The radius of space began at zero, and the first stages of the expansion consisted of a rapid expansion determined by the mass of the initial atom.” Georges Lemaître
Refining the idea
Compressed into a tiny point, the universe would be extremely hot. During the 1940s, Russian-American physicist George Gamow and colleagues worked out details of what might have happened during the exceedingly hot first few moments of a Lemaître-style universe. The work showed that a hot early universe, evolving into what is observed today, was theoretically feasible. In a 1949 radio interview, the British astronomer Fred Hoyle coined the term “Big Bang” for the model of the universe Lemaître and Gamow had been developing. Lemaître’s hypothesis now had a name.
Lemaître’s idea about the original size of the universe is now considered incorrect. Today, cosmologists believe it started from an infinitesimally small point of infinite density called a singularity.
“A parallel exists between the Big Bang and the Christian notion of creation from nothing.” George Smoot
Georges Lemaître was born in 1894 in Charleroi, Belgium. Following distinguished service in World War I, in 1920 he was awarded a doctoral degree in engineering. He subsequently entered a seminary, where, in his leisure time, he studied mathematics and science.
After his ordination in 1923, Lemaître studied mathematics and solar physics at Cambridge University, studying under Arthur Eddington. In 1927, he was appointed professor of astrophysics at the University of Leuven, Belgium, and published his first major paper on the expanding universe. In 1931, Lemaître put forward his theory of the primeval atom in a report in the journal Nature, and his fame soon spread. He died in 1966, shortly after learning of the discovery of cosmic microwave background radiation, which provided evidence for the Big Bang.