Georges Lemaître: Google Doodle Poll


I noticed this morning that today’s Google Doodle (above) features none other than Georges Lemaître. That reminded me that a while ago 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 indeed 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 (especially when Russian cosmologists are present), 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.

42 Responses to “Georges Lemaître: Google Doodle Poll”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    As they derived the solutions independently and at roughly the same time it should clearly be called the Friedman-Lemaitre model, with Friedman coming first because he got it first. The word “father” (or progenitor) is loaded because it implies children, and clearly Friedman had ‘children’ who took up the solution from him in Russia whereas Lemaitre had ‘children’ who took it up in the West. Eventually these children met.

    If a poll about this, how about one for Newton and Leibniz re the differential calculus?

  2. “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.”

    Or vice versa. Friedmann is a German name, which got transliterated into Russian, losing an “n”. One could argue that the correct transliteration back should reproduce the original.

    If you want a literal transliteration from Russian, then Aleksandr Aleksandrovich Fridman.

  3. I think “Friedman-Lemaitre model” gives the correct credit, as Anton pointed out. However, Lemaître discussed much more than just the solutions of Robertson-Walker models based on GR, e.g. the primeval atom and so on.

  4. As an outside observer, a problem I have with using Einstein’s Theory of Relativity to explain cosmic redshift is that if the light is redshifted, obviously it is not Constant to the cosmic frame. In fact two metrics of space are being assumed from the same intergalactic light.
    One, based on the spectrum, that is expanding and one, based on the speed, being used as a denominator.
    What is the “vacuum” through which light travels at C, if it is distinct from intergalactic space? Is there some underlaying, extra-universal vacuum? Given both these metrics are based on the same light, it seems far fetched.
    To use the inchworm and inflating balloon analogy, it seems to me that if the pace of the inchworm doesn’t increase as the balloon expands, how is it relative? Isn’t the premise that in an accelerated frame, both distance and duration are dilated equally, so if it is turned around and used for expanding distance, why doesn’t duration increase as well?

    We are the center of our point of view, so an optical cause would explain why we appear as the center of this effect. If redshift is optical, then the cosmic background radiation would be the solution to Olber’s paradox. The light of infinite stars, shifted into the radiological spectrum. Also, if this effect compounds on itself, this would explain why redshift goes parabolic, without having to invoke dark energy.

    I mostly run up against a brick wall when I raise these questions in polite company, but I figure cosmology is still a science, not a popularity contest, so other views might get some feedback eventually. There are only so many generations willing to devote their careers to the multiverse.

    • Yes, it is a science, not a popularity contest. In fact, many of the ideas of the current standard model were originally not popular at all.

      As to your other comments, you need to show, in mathematical detail, where standard cosmology is wrong, and also show what your theory can do which standard cosmology cannot.

      I’m also not sure what you mean by redshift going parabolic. We also don’t have to invoke dark energy, as the cosmological constant has always been there in relativistic cosmology, even in the very first paper, more than 100 years ago.

      • Phillip,

        Thank you for the reply.

        I did try to make my points as clear as possible.

        Given the original premise of the Cosmological Constant was to balance gravity and gravity is modeled as the effectively inward curvature of space around mass, so logically a counterbalancing effect would be the outward curvature of space, in the absence of mass. Such that space “expands” between galaxies, in inverse proportion to the rate it contracts into them.

        To use the rubber sheet and ball analogy of the curvature of space around mass, imagine the sheet is over water, such that it is pressed upward between gravity wells to the degree the mass presses down.

        So it would seem to me that what Hubble discovered was evidence of this CC, not an origin myth of the cosmos.

        Given the two balance out, in theory and observation, “Omega=1,” wouldn’t that describe more of a cosmic convection cycle, of expanding radiation and coalescing mass, given that is actually what is being observed and measured, not the math abstracted from it?

        So if the intergalactic expansion is balanced by intragalactic contraction, why assume the entire universe expands? Space is overall flat!

        As for dark energy, what appears to be observed is the rate of redshift did not drop off evenly from the very edge of the observed universe, where it appears sources are receding at close to the speed of light, to the faint redshift of closer galaxies, but that it dropped off fairly rapidly, then evened out. Which posed a problem for Big Bang theory, given the original assumption was the expansion was entirely due to the initial event and so this energy would have dissipated evenly.

        To use a ballistics analogy, it was as if the universe was shot out of a cannon, but then after it slowed, a rocket motor kicked in and kept it going at a steady rate. That being the presumed “dark energy.”

        Now if we were to look at it from our point of view, outward, rather than assuming from the edge inward, what we do see is a redshift that starts off slowly, but then seems to compound on itself, eventually going parabolic and sources receding at the speed of light, which necessarily creates a horizon line for visible light, though not radio waves.

        Which all goes to optics and the conclusion the only way for it to be redshifted is the doppler effect.

        Now single spectrum light will only redshift due to recession, but here is an interesting paper, pointing out that multi spectrum light “packets” do shift due to distance;

        Click to access 2008CChristov_WaveMotion_45_154_EvolutionWavePackets.pdf

        Which then raises the question of whether light exists as irreducible photons, or are these quanta of light a function of emission and reception. Such that what we see from distant galaxies are a sampling of a wave front.

        Which then gets into the “loading” theory of light and further controversy.

        I would point out though, that if light traveled only as specific photons for billions of years, rather then being a sampling of a wave front, it would seem we would only be able to extract the tiny amount of information of particular photons, given very little light is actually received from those most distant sources. Yet we do seem to extract a broader amount of information.

        Having bumped my head against this wall and followed the various cosmology wars for several decades, I’m really just waiting for the James Webb telescope to find evidence of ever further sources buried in the cosmic background radiation, rather than evidence of a singularity.

      • Let me sigh before Telescoper does. 😐

      • Phillip,

        Not to offend your sensibilities too much, but I remember a time when experiment disproved prediction, the theory was brought into question, not just adding enormous new forces of nature to fill the gap. Nowadays it seems one is not truly a member of the cosmology community, unless they willingly espouse multiverses.
        What will be the next patch? Say the James Webb discovers ever further sources buried in the background radiation, are we treated to the discovery the edge of the universe is mirrored, creating the illusion of infinity?
        It’s not as though people are not extremely susceptible to group think and bubbles, just look at the stock market, but they tend not to last forever. While this model seems likely to survive this generation of cosmologists, eventually dissension will build, when there are too many patches and not enough answers for what is discovered.

      • telescoper Says:

        What experiment do you think brings the Big Bang theory into question? Certainly not the Planck satellite…

      • Not sure what you are referring to, but science is an interplay of theory and observation/experiment. Without observations/experiments disproving predictions, science would be difficult if not impossible. This happens all the time. But you seem quite off the mark here.

        The amazing thing about the la(te)st Planck results is that a 6-parameter model (the parameters having been around since long before Planck and indeed most if not all CMB observations) still fits all the data.

        Yes, there are some things which are not completely clear. But it is doubtful that this will lead to an overthrow of the whole paradigm (which almost never happens in real science anyway).

        As George Efstathiou, defending the status quo (there was a time when he was a champion of radical ideas, but they turned out to be right and are now part of the standard model) at a cosmology conference said, find an alternative which does nothing more than fit all known data at least as well as the standard model (a really low bar for a new model) and he will give you a job. I don’t think that he has hired anyone as a result, even though the room was full of people working on alternatives (the topic of the conference, Beyond LambdaCDM), many without permanent jobs.

      • telescoper,

        “What experiment do you think brings the Big Bang theory into question?”

        I was primarily referring to the addition of dark energy. Considering 70% of the content of the universe is invisible to everything but a discrepancy between theory and observation does suggest to someone outside the field a certain degree of hubris in not going back and seriously reviewing all aspects of the theory, before proposing some enormous force of nature.
        Inflation would be another patch on the original theory, to explain a uniformity that would be quite natural in an otherwise infinite universe.
        Also the point I first raised, about using spacetime to explain redshift, while ignoring the obvious fact that the speed of light cannot be constant to this frame, if it is being redshifted. The speed of light does measure out a metric of space. How can it coherently be argued this metric is not the same as one based on the spectrum of the very same light.
        Why is it professionally impossible to consider redshift might be an optical effect, like gravitational lensing? The paper I linked points out one significant factor in it.
        Some years ago Zeeya Merali was nice enough to put up a forum topic on issues with the Big Bang for me and I’ve been adding to it haphazardly over the years.
        Mostly observations that really have to be shoehorned to fit into the supposed timeframe, along with links to commentary etc. So I am quite used to the sorts of sighs of disbelief Philip added, without much real argumentation in return. Having pretty much filed all this in the back of my mind, given the degree cosmology and theoretical physics is caught up in its mathematical platonism, I’m certainly not going to get my feelings hurt by being told off, but I do think there are some basic issues being overlooked, that adding ever more layers of complexity is not going to solve, only put off facing.

      • telescoper Says:

        The cosmological constant was introduced with the very first relativistic theory in 1916.
        Also your comments about the constancy of the speed of light betray a basic misunderstanding of the theory. Have you even read a textbook on it? I suggest trying Ted Harrison’s book to start with. It’s a good entry for a serious student.
        In my opinion there’s nothing more hubristic than criticism of a subject you don’t understand even at a basic level.

      • Couldn’t have said it better myself, and strongly second the Harrison recommendation.

        To be fair, there are tenured professors at major universities who also believe that the cosmological constant is some sort of fudge factor, or epicycle, or patch. When will they ever learn?

      • Telescoper,

        I know when the CC was first introduced and the subsequent uses its been used for. As I said, My impression is that Hubble actually discovered evidence of the CC, with redshift. Rejecting it in favor of recession was the original mistake, in my book.
        Unfortunately I don’t have a lot of extra time and as cosmology is rocketing off into multiverses, I have no desire to follow it there.
        I’ll wait to see when it crashes and burns. I’m guessing with the JWST, but then I thought it would happen with the Hubble.
        Thank you for the time and replies.

      • “Rejecting it in favor of recession was the original mistake, in my book.”

        Has your book been published?

      • Phillip,

        Lol. No. Unfortunately I seem motivated more by curiosity than ambition.

  5. Yes, it’s easy to forget that Friedman talks about an origin for expanding models in his 1922 paper (‘m always surprised at the number of people who have never read this paper). However, the paper does read more as a mathematical exercise than a model of the physical universe, it could be argued that Lemaitre 1931 is the first to introduce the concept of a physical origin for the universe. Then again, no-one subscribes to Lemaitre’s actual model, the exploding atom, nowadays. In fact, most of us understand the ‘big bang’ model as a theory of cosmic evolution rather than a theory of cosmic origins. My own beef is the way most historians and science writers continually confuse the concept of cosmic expansion with the concept of origins grr

  6. P.S. My group use single n for Friedman, based on the 1922 paper. I thought we were the only ones!

  7. John Peacock Says:

    I used to agree with the above comments proposing equal weighting in the form “Friedmann-Lemaitre”, feeling that poor Lemaitre had been under-recognised for having had the bad luck to repeat Friedmann’s work independently but later (in the same way that Igor Novikov should be lauded for having derived the Kerr metric without knowing of Kerr’s work, or so I understand). But after attending a 2012 conference on the Centenary of the expanding universe (i.e. Slipher’s work), I learned that this is wrong and that “FLRW metric” is not appropriate. The reason is simple: the most radical feature of the FRW metric is that it allows for spacetime curvature of either sign. But the possibility of open negatively curved universes was never independently appreciated by Lemaitre. To Friedmann, and to Friedmann alone, belongs the credit for obtaining the general form of cosmological spacetime. It’s fair to add RW, as they showed that the metric arose via symmetry, whereas Friedmann obtained it as a solution of Einstein’s equations. But Lemaitre did not obtain this general form, and to add L to FRW is to give him credit for something that he didn’t do (or at least did only in part).

    • It’s historically completely wrong, but some people use “Friedmann model” to mean a RW model based on GR without a cosmological constant, and “Friesmann-Lemaître model” to mean one with a cosmological constant. Lemaître did, though, drum up interest in the cosmological constant, influencing Eddington, among others (who quipped “I would as soon think of reverting to Newtonian theory as of dropping the
      cosmical constant”).

      Lemaître was the first to discuss a physical origin of the universe in a modern context, the first to calculate the value of the Hubble constant, and, since Friedmann died young, kickstarted modern relativistic cosmology. (He also advised Sandage to change fields when the latter, quite young, answered “no” to the question of the former, then a senior scientist, “Young man, do you really think that you can comprehend the curvature of space?”, as related by Sandage in his 1993 Saas-Fee lectures.)

      While we’re correcting historical inaccuracies, I vote for publicly chiding all who claim (usually repeating someone else’s claim) that Lemaître was a Jesuit. 🙂

  8. JP: I remember the Slipher conference, I think it was the first historical conf I attended. If memory serves, Peter was there too!

    • telescoper Says:

      Yes, I was there. I spoke about the Eddington Eclipse expeditions. I’ll never forget it. I was the most scared I’ve ever been giving a talk because it was the first presentation I’d done after having a nervous breakdown.

    • Yes, he was there, but you wouldn’t know it from reading the proceedings. 🙂 He did blog about it here, though. I should have gone; it seems to have been a great conference. The proceedings are one of the few which I have read cover-to-cover, and they are excellent.

  9. Anton Garrett Says:

    I’ve just looked up Wikipedia on LeMaitre and Friedman, and would like to make several comments.

    First, religious. Those who call LeMaitre a Jesuit are presumably getting confused by the fact that he went to a secondary school run by Jesuits.

    He was ordained a Catholic priest in 1923 (although according to the New Testament all Christians are priests of God – 1 Peter 2:9). He never went on to join the Jesuits.

    Next, I believe that Friedman’s surname should be spelt in the Latin alphabet as it was spelt in those of his papers which were published first in that alphabet, eg Zeitschrift für Physik vol. 21, p.326. I haven’t checked what spelling that is.

    According to Wikipedia on Friedman, Friedman did the same work in 1922 that LeMaitre did in 1927, but Wikipedia does not give any reference to where Friedman published this work. Wikipedia does state that Friedman published in 1924 in Zeitschrift für Physik (vol. 21, pp.326ff) a paper setting out positive, zero and negative curvature models. If this work makes clear (even if only en passant and in the list of references) the results that LeMaitre later derived, I believe that LeMaitre should gain no credit, as Zeitschrift für Physik would be readily available in Belgium and I would expect LeMaitre to be able to read it. Whether or not he did so, access is an important criterion.

    Some obvious courses of action so as to settle these matters follow from what I have said. But I’d expect that this path has been trod before…

    • Where do you get the spelling LeMaitre?

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        “Spelling” isn’t quite the right word, but I know what you are asking! (Is there a noun for a combination of capitals and lower case?) I invented it but I’ll bet that it was something like that a few generations back.

      • Strange that you think that Friedmann’s spelling should follow that on his papers but that Lemaître’s “spelling” shouldn’t. 😐

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        I’m in a strange mood today!

    • “Those who call LeMaitre a Jesuit are presumably getting confused by the fact that he went to a secondary school run by Jesuits.

      He was ordained a Catholic priest in 1923 (although according to the New Testament all Christians are priests of God – 1 Peter 2:9). He never went on to join the Jesuits.”


    • John Peacock Says:

      Anton: You say “If this work makes clear (even if only en passant and in the list of references) the results that LeMaitre later derived, I believe that LeMaitre should gain no credit”. I disagree in two different ways. (1) Failing to notice a relevant paper is no sin (I at least do it far too often), and one should get intellectual credit for independent rediscovery of something important. (2) But as I said earlier, I think it’s the case that Lemaitre never independently rediscovered the negative curvature possibility, and only learned about it from Friedmann’s 2nd paper (see Belenkiy’s article in the abovementioned Slipher proceedings:

      As for Friedman vs Friedmann, you make a reasonable case, but both are just representations of the Russian original, so it would be equally good to call him Fred as long as everyone agreed on that convention. It’s been Friedmann in just about every book and article as long as I’ve been in cosmology, so we should just stick with a status quo whose meaning is clearly understood.

      • I agree with both points (1) and (2). The interesting question is a) whether Lemaître had access to Friedmann’s paper and b) whether he could read German.

        ADS doesn’t seem to have a generally available scan of the paper.

        The ADS citations of this paper are interesting: several hundred, but more than half or so in the last 20 years. How many have actually read the paper (or a translation)?

        Some of the citations are good suggestions for further reading (and most of the authors of those papers have probably read Friedmann’s paper).

        With regard to the name, yes, one could argue that both versions are acceptable transliterations from Cyrillic, but since it is originally a German name, it seems strange not to write it that way in Latin letters.

        One occasionally sees “Shternberg Astronomical Institute”. Apart from the fact that it is a good name for such an institute (“Sternberg” means “star mountain” (though in the context of city names it can referred to a fortified hill, not to be confused with “Burg”, which means castle), which is similar to some of Tycho Brahe’s names for his institutes), it obviously derives from German, and is now usually written that way.

        In standard German, and in all dialects except some in the far north, “s” is pronounced “sh” before “t” or “p” at the beginning of a word or syllable, which explains how this came about. (In some southern dialects, including Einstein’s (note the correct pronunciation in all German dialects: eye n sht eye n), “s” before “t” or “p” is always pronounced “sh”, even when not at the beginning of a word or syllable.)

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        Those of Friedmann’s publications which appeared first in Latin-alphabet journals evidently show how he himself wanted his name to be spelt in that alphabet, and I believe his wishes should be respected. I know what I’d expect to find, but let it be checked.

        Failing to notice a relevant paper is no sin (I at least do it far too often), and one should get intellectual credit for independent rediscovery of something important.

        The only sin is clandestine plagiarism, and nobody is accusing Lemaitre of that. But there is a grey area over the assigning of credit. When we were learning physics as undergraduates we derived many results that were once novel as exercises without knowing the answer in advance. We don’t try to publish those even though they constitute independent rediscovery! Suppose that researcher ‘A’ derived a result first, and ‘B’ second. In deciding whether B deserves credit along with A, one has to estimate how difficult it would have been for B to get hold of A’s result. If it was easy then, even if B didn’t do so (and we have only B’s word for that), B should not get credit. If it was impossible then B deserves credit.

        On top of that grey area is the fact that the content of no two papers is scientifically identical, as you correctly point out in the present case.

      • Though not at ADS, one can check the spelling of his name on a publicly available copy of one of Friedman’s [sic] papers.

  10. The book “Discovering the Expanding Universe” by Nussbaumer and Bieri is a very nice tour through the early papers and debates. Summary in arXiv:1107.2281

  11. Shantanu Says:

    John : First time I am hearing that Novikov had derived Kerr metric before Kerr. Do you have a reference or link?

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      He didn’t. A close reading suggests that John Peacock is saying Novikov got it independently but later.

  12. John Peacock Says:

    Shantanu, Anton: Indeed, the story I recall was that Novikov derived the Kerr solution, unaware of Kerr’s 1963 paper. But I’ve known this factlet for so long that I can’t now remember where I first heard it. I googled around, and can’t find anything definite to back it up. But there is a paper submitted at the end of 1964 “Gravitational Collapse of Nonsymmetric and Rotating Masses” by Doroshkevich, Zel’dovich & Novikov, which shows that he was thinking about such matters around the right time. So I can’t be certain the story is true. But it still works as a hypothetical example: any scientist who derived the metric of a rotating black hole independently and close to Kerr in time would deserve major Kudos. For example, we talk about the Einstein-Hilbert Lagrangian to honour Hilbert’s independent work, even though Einstein got GR first.

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