May 2020 Print

Einstein and the Priest

By Fr. Frank Riccomini

In an irony that will echo through the centuries, early in his professional career (ca. 1900), the brilliant but unemployed theoretical physicist, Albert Einstein, could not find a teaching position at any school or university in Switzerland, not even for teaching high school math. Burdened by a well-founded reputation as a non-conformist, so unforgivable to Swiss society and to academia, he was, at first, barred from the lecture hall and the professor’s podium. Consequently, he sat, a condemned and unrecognized genius, in his cramped, third-tier Swiss patent examiner’s office in downtown Bern, dedicating a dreary eight hours per day to sifting through patent applications, the majority of which proposed ways to synchronize train station clocks. Perhaps in this confined and somewhat penitentiary section of the universe, he first devised that quote so often attributed to him: “Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I’m not sure about the universe.”

A Humble Frame of Mind

The condemnation was a kindness, actually. Besides putting food on his table and a roof over his head, two commodities he was sometimes in danger of forfeiting, it put him in a more humble frame of mind, the best understructure for the framing of great discoveries. Materially, it put him in the mental habit of contrasting objects in motion, such as trains, with stationary objects, such as clocks, in the context of space-and-time “thought experiments,” which naturally bred in a mind such as his a purpose far more impactful than keeping trains on time. It inspired his special theory of relativity, expanded later into a general theory of relativity, an idea so brilliant and revolutionary that it single-handedly derailed the Newtonian train of thought regarding the physical world, a train that had been running regularly for almost three centuries, with a great number of passengers in tow. This cosmic and revolutionary shift was so popular that more than 600 books and articles were written about it before six years had passed, and, well before Twitter and YouTube revolutionized the universe even further, it went “viral,” so to speak, as the favorite topic of casual conversations among common folk such as waiters and actresses.

After the publication of his theory, along with the elegant mathematical equations that proved it possible, came a frenzied effort on the part of experimental scientists to gather evidence that would prove it “factual.” Out of the whirlwind of scientific activity that it unleashed, characterized by the writings, the personality, and, in later life, the hair of Albert Einstein, there emerged a lesser-known, better-groomed and clerical complement to the scientific genius: the soft-spoken, brilliant, Belgian-born Fr. Georges Lemaître. His own academic background as a mathematician, astrophysicist and theoretical cosmologist led him to consider and develop certain of those Einsteinian equations in a way that would create a special and distinct piece of scientific history. Applying the logic of the theory’s math, taken together with observable shifts in the light spectra surrounding galaxies far, far away, he calculated that the universe is in a continual state of expansion from a single point, or singularity, the “hypothesis of a primeval atom,” as he called his theory. Later it was popularized both by the pejorative expression of scientists who first scorned it (Einstein was among the scorners), then by the eponymous TV program that glorifies a distorted vision of it, as the so-called “Big Bang Theory.”

Fr. Lemaitre and Einstein

Lemaître’s own professional inceptions were more auspicious than Einstein’s. He graduated early from high school studies with the prospect of the priesthood in front of him and a serious grasp of science inside of him, and, although the Great War sidelined both paths for a while, military service helped to develop his deeper moral qualities. Serving with great bravery and distinction during the Belgian resistance, he won three separate citations for gallantry in action and earned his nation’s military equivalent of the American Silver Star. After the war, he began his studies for the priesthood under the guidance of Cardinal Mercier, who, for all Belgians, had personified national resistance to the German invader, and then, for the young former soldier, served as a spiritual director in a different kind of warfare. Doubtless this giant among Catholic educators provided for both the spiritual and intellectual proclivities of his gifted charge. In 1923, Lemaître received Holy Orders from the very hands of his director, and, thanks to his personal support, won a scholarship to study astronomy at St. Edmund’s College, Cambridge. One year later he transferred to Harvard, and, the year after, to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where, in 1926, he earned his doctorate. Finally, in 1927, he published his famous theory on the ever-expanding universe. Unfortunately, it was not famously received—the journal in which it was printed never expanded beyond the frontiers of Belgium, nor was it translated outside of the langue Français.

An Important Meeting

In October, 1927, Fr. Georges Lemaître met Dr. Albert Einstein for the first time. Both of them, along with Marie Curie, Niels Bohr, Max Born, Erwin Schrödinger and other famous physicist of the day, were invited to the Fifth Solvay Congress of Physics in Brussels. The organizers were most likely influenced to invite Lemaître by one Théophile de Donder, founder of the Université libre de Bruxelles, by whose intervention four years earlier Lemaître had been granted his Cambridge scholarship. Either de Donder or a mutual friend, Arthur Eddington, Lemaître’s professor at Cambridge and the chief English interpreter of Einstein, had seen to it that Einstein read Lemaître’s ingenious paper. This, in turn, precipitated the first meeting of the non-practicing German-Jewish physicist with the ardently Catholic clerical cosmologist, and their famous walk through Parc Léopold in Brussels, where Einstein, with his wanted and summary bluntness, told the young priest that, while his math calculations were correct, “from the point of view of physics, this [theory] is atrocious!”

As violent (some would say rude and condescending) as it was, his reaction belied a relevant and human character trait in Einstein—at times his “beliefs” were even stronger than his science. It seems that, even as a revolutionary free-thinker, Einstein always regretted the devastation done to classical Newtonian physics by his relativity theory and other speculations in the realm of quantum physics. The stable-universe conception was one of the last major features in that familiar and traditional world, and Einstein could not bear the thought of seeing it marred by the consequences of his own work. In his book, Einstein, His Life and Universe, Walter Isaacson reveals that Einstein, in a way, felt isolated from some of his most fervent disciples and even from a significant portion of the scientific world, not just because he towered above them as a celebrity scientist, but because he could never approve their enthusiasm to disdain classical physics, an enthusiasm, he recognized, his own discoveries had served to ignite. In fact, to Newton, whom he had idolized from boyhood, he issued a public “apology” in the course of a lecture, and, later, when writing his memoirs, he would address him in a similar vein: “Newton, forgive me. You found the only way which, in your age, was just about possible for a man of highest thought and creative power.” Did he feel some penitential urge to atone for the disrespect of his life-long hero? If so, who was a young, 33-year old priest, of all people, to stand in the way of it with his ridiculous theory?

If either sense, one for tradition or one for atonement, were not compelling enough for Einstein, he had another reason for rejecting Lemaître… a surprisingly theological reason. Although his displaced, non-observant, Germanic-Jewish ancestry hadn’t boasted anything remotely close to religion for at least two centuries, and although Einstein had declared himself an ardent non-believer in any “personal God who concerns Himself with the fates and actions of human beings,” nonetheless, Einstein could never appreciate the universe better than when he saw it as an expression of God. To the German physicist, Max Born, who insisted too strongly on the randomness at the heart of quantum physics and the absence of determinate causality in nature, he piously and justifiably flared: “God does not play dice!” Isaacson notes, further to this point, that Einstein was influenced by Spinoza, one of the few philosophers he read and liked, and by his perspective of the “eternally fixed will of God,” a fixed and stable notion quite naturally reflected in a fixed and stable universe, as opposed to an expanding, dynamic one. If such were the case, who was a young, 33-year old priest, of all people, to stand in the way of it with his ridiculous theory?

Steadfastness, Not Discouragement

For his part, thankfully, Fr. Lemaître was not discouraged. Perhaps his experience throughout the Great War and already steeled him against blunt, irrational, Teutonic onslaughts. Perhaps some more priestly instinct warned him of a moral conflict inside the soul of the giant genius. Certainly, he knew better than Spinoza about the beauty and dynamism of the creative will of God. In any event, he held his ground and waited for a better opportunity to win a blessing from Einstein.

Fortunately, some friends arranged for a follow-up discussion. During round two, Lemaître was surprised to learn that Einstein did not seem so well informed about the some of the astronomical data of certain galaxies that Lemaître had used to give his theory weight. There’s no exact record of how the conversation proceeded from there, or of what, if anything, Einstein was willing to concede at that time, or whether there was ever, in fact, a private intellectual reconciliation between the two. What is certain is the public and exceptionally dramatic nature of their next reunion, a few years later, when the whole world would know that Einstein had a change of heart. In a simple, spontaneous and magnificent gesture, Einstein, never one to shy away from the sketching of historical moments, created the “stuff of legends” for history books of science and of religion alike.

In January, 1933, during a series of seminars hosted in Pasadena, California and graced by the august presence of the world’s leading scientist, Fr. Lemaître once again delivered an exposé of his expanding universe concept. Author Mark Midbom, in A Day without Yesterday, describes what happened next: “After the Belgian priest had detailed his theory in full, Einstein stood up, applauded, and said, ‘This is the most beautiful and satisfactory explanation of creation to which I have ever listened.’”

If we were to postulate a theory—not a scientific one but a psychological one—to explain the acceptance of Lemaître by Einstein, it would be this: the one-dimensional theology of a scientist was helped by the clear-sighted science of a cleric. This just goes to show that irony is not measured relative to where you stand or how fast things are moving. Einstein may have put considerable faith in the stupidity of mankind—can we blame him?—but he had the wisdom and humility not to place himself outside of it. He was, after all, as he frequently stated, “not sure about the universe.” According to friend and fellow physicist George Gamow, Einstein called his attempts to reject an expanding universe “the biggest blunder of my life.” As for Fr. Lemaître, he is not known to have spoken about it again.