Big Bang: Who’s the Daddy?

Time, I think, for a frivolous Friday poll.

I stumbled across a post on the Physics World Blog concerning a radio broadcast about Georges Lemaître.

Here’s a description of said programme:

Few theories could claim to have a more fundamental status than Big Bang Theory. This is now humanity’s best attempt at explaining how we got here: A Theory of Everything. This much is widely known and Big Bang Theory is now one of the most recognisable scientific brands in the world. What’s less well known is that the man who first proposed the theory was not only an accomplished physicist, he was also a Catholic priest. Father Georges Lemaître wore his clerical collar while teaching physics, and not at Oxford, Cambridge or MIT but at the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium. It was this unassuming Catholic priest in an academic backwater who has changed the way we look at the origins of the universe. His story also challenges the assumption that science and religion are always in conflict. William Crawley introduces us to the “Father” of the Big Bang.

The question is whether the word “Father” in the last sentence should be taken as anything more than a play on the title he’d be given as a Catholic priest?

Lemaître’s work was highly original and it undoubtedly played an important role in the development of the Big Bang theory, especially in Western Europe and in the United States. However, a far stronger claim to the title of progenitor of this theory belongs to Alexander Alexandrovich Friedman, who obtained the cosmological solutions of Einstein’s general theory of relativity, on which the Big Bang model is based, independently of and shortly before Lemaître did. Unfortunately the Russian Friedman died in 1925 and it was many years before his work became widely known in the West. At least in my book, he’s the real “father” of the Big Bang, but I’m well aware that this is the source of a great deal of argument at cosmology conferences, which makes it an apt topic for a quick poll:

P.S. I prefer to spell Friedman with one “n” rather than two. His name in his own language is Алекса́ндр Алекса́ндрович Фри́дман and the spelling “Friedmann” only arose because of later translations into German.


16 Responses to “Big Bang: Who’s the Daddy?”

  1. Mark Hindmarsh Says:

    Can I vote for both?

    If you want to be faithful to the Russian Фри́дман, surely Fridman would be more correct? Any, I bet his [great^n]-grandfather was Friedmann and came from Germany, so I’m happy to stick with that.

    Yours in a Friday afternoon kind of way,


    • telescoper Says:


      I’d go for the “ie” because it’s a phonetic translation, and “i” wouldn’t be pronounced “ee” in that context in English. It’s not a big deal, though.


  2. Anton Garrett Says:

    What’s the argument about at conferences Peter? Surely everybody agrees with what you’ve said above?

  3. This seems a somewhat biassed poll, since you have give your answer already! Can you also give the case for Lemaitre? (He was a beautiful writer, if that counts). Should ‘both’ be an allowed option (two fathers – why not). And shouldn’t Hoyle be one of the options? Or de Sitter?

    • telescoper Says:

      There’s a whole radio programme about Lemaitre…my point is that they ignored Friedman!

      • Monica Grady Says:

        Does it matter who proposed the theory first? Surely what matters is that the proposal was made, discussed, evaluated and now provides a framework for future advances?


      • telescoper Says:

        I think it matters, in the sense that history has never given Friedman the credit he really deserved.

        However, it is also true that the history of science offers many examples of discoveries made independently by more than one person and things rarely progress in a neat line even if there is only one starting point.

  4. Louise A Says:

    I’ve listened to the Radio 4 documentary and Friedman is certainly mentioned in the story.

  5. Brian Schmidt Says:

    Peter – Push polling – shame!
    So Фри́дман Didn’t describe the Universe starting as the primeval atom – which I believe Georges Lemaître did – he did do the first comprehensive set of solutions – but even de Sitter’s 1916 work had the idea of expansion in it. So I think the idea of the Big Bang goes to Georges Lemaître – One other piece of history update. In 1927, when Lemaître showed his work to Einstein, and Einstein told him his mathematics was fine, but his physics was Abominable, he reportedly told Lemaître of Фри́дман work, which Lemaître had duplicated. So I think Фри́дман was known by everyone. e.g. Robertson 1929 ( cites Фри́дман and admits to not citing Lemaître in his earlier work.

  6. Anton Garrett Says:

    One man deserves the credit
    One man deserves the fame
    And Alexander Friedman or Georges LeMaitre is his name…

  7. I basically agree with Brian, mainly because Lemaitre emphasized the hot-big-bang-aspect. Yes, Friedmann had the first solution with a big bang (unless you count de Sitter with the big bang in the infinite past). Friedmann is certainly well known today, perhaps more so than Lemaitre. (Lemaitre was also initially overlooked until Eddington called the world’s attention to him.)

  8. Bernard Jones Says:

    Nobody pushed as strongly for the “HOT” big bang than George Gamow. Gamow might be said to have put the physics into cosmology (see his Vistas in Astronomy 1956 article). Before that he had used the idea of cosmic nucleosynthesis to predict the temperature of the CMB, an idea taken up later by Smirnov who was apparently commanded by Zeldovich to get it right (the key was the nuclear reactions).

    We all have one father and two grandfathers (at least most of us do) so perhaps Friedman and Lemaitre should be viewed as grandfathers, with Gamow and Zeldovich as the fathers of modern cosmology. Weren’t they somehow associated with Friedman?

    • telescoper Says:

      George Gamow went to the University of Petrograd in 1923; the city’s name was changed to Leningrad in 1924 and had been called St Petersburg until 1914. Gamow definitely studied under Friedman, but Friedman died in 1925 so they didn’t have a long connection at the institute which is now called St Petersburg State University.

      I know that Zel’dovich was born in Belarus, but his family moved to St Petersburg (Petrograd) in 1914 when he was just a few months old. He would have been just 11 when Friedman died so I doubt if they ever met, especially since Zel’dovich never took an undergraduate degree. He did work as a lab assistant at Leningrad State University from 1931 until 1941, whereupon the war caused his evacuation eventually to Moscow, but this was in Chemical Physics and he didn’t start until 6 years after Friedman died.

  9. Friedmann in 1922 introduced the idea of an expanding universe while Lemaitre independently reached the same conclusion in 1927. They can both be credited for the idea of an expanding universe. However, it was Lemaître who introduced the theory of a ‘primeval atom’. He advanced the revolutionary idea that universe began with a ‘single quantum’. His explanation was described as ‘most beautiful’ by Einstein. The “Big Bang theory” is a pejorative term coined after Lemaitre’s description of the universe as a Cosmic Egg exploding at the moment of the creation.
    On the other hand, it was the ancient Hindu text Rigveda that first postulated that the universe began from a point or bindu, through the power of heat. Notably, ancient Hindus cosmologists also calculated the age of the universe to be 4.32 billion years. Einstein once quoted “When I read Gita and reflect about how god created the universe everything else seems so superfluous”

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