Most of us picture inventors as awkward nerds in lab coats surrounded by test tubes and toiling away with obscure instruments until they birth an entirely new concept from the ether of their genius. But great inventions can come from anywhere. Even the last place you would ever expect ...
5The Big Bang Theory Was Invented by a Catholic Priest
Georges Lemaitre was a Belgian Catholic priest and a professor of physics who received a doctorate in mathematics and studied astronomy at Harvard and MIT. And the early 20th century turned out to be a hell of a time for studying astronomy. Scientists had just begun observing distant objects with strange colors, which suggested that they were moving away from us at incredible speeds. What was going on? Were these objects actually much closer than we thought, but somehow tiny? Were they "island universes" (a term that meant "galaxies," which was actually a pretty revolutionary concept at the time)? Had the drunken jerks over in biology been sticking colored gel on the telescope lenses again?
Lemaitre had an idea. And he, unlike most of the others, also had an explanation: The universe has a constant, homogenous mass but is constantly expanding. A little bit later, he refined this theory to say that the universe had always been expanding, ever since its earliest point, when it sprung from a single "primordial atom."
It was the most pregnant thing that ever existed.
Many scientists disagreed: Einstein said the universe was static. ("Your calculations are correct," he told Lemaitre, "but your physical insight is abominable." That's pretty much the nerd equivalent of getting served.) Others were even more dismissive and called Lemaitre, strangely, a religious nut. That's right: As counterintuitive as it seems now, the big bang theory was originally viewed as a religious description of creation.
Think about it: Creationists say that there was originally nothing, but then God created the heavens and the Earth, and light, and BBQ Pringles, and everything else worthwhile. If you squint your brain real hard, it sounds a bit like the modern big bang theory, doesn't it? Science, at the time, said that this was nonsense. The universe had always been and always would be; it had never been created. The idea that one little "atom" started it all at a defined point in history sounded a hell of a lot like a priest spouting pseudo-science to back his own beliefs.
Digital Vision./Photodisc/Getty Images
At least it makes Genesis a little more interesting.
But that was OK, because at least somebody believed in Lemaitre's scientific theory: the Vatican. The Catholic Church elected Lemaitre to its Academy of Sciences in Rome, and he became its president in 1960. And the pope happily declared that the man's big bang discovery was proof of creationism and validated Catholicism, but Lemaitre told him to hold back on this last pronouncement. Lemaitre liked science. Lemaitre liked religion. But he said that, much like the Ghostbusters' streams, you shouldn't ever cross them. Because that would cause total protonic reversal. Or a bunch of pointless arguments. Whichever.