Monday, March 6, 2017

Physicist Georges Lemaitre

Georges Henri Joseph Édouard Lemaître Associate RAS; 17 July 1894 – 20 June 1966) was a Belgian priest, astronomer and professor of physics at the Catholic University of Leuven. He proposed the theory of the expansion of the universe, widely misattributed to Edwin Hubble. He was the first to derive what is now known as Hubble's law and made the first estimation of what is now called the Hubble constant, which he published in 1927, two years before Hubble's article. Lemaître also proposed what became known as the Big Bang theory of the origin of the universe, which he called his "hypothesis of the primeval atom" or the "Cosmic Egg.”


                                                          Georges Lemaître circa 1933
Summary of his Work

Lemaître was a pioneer in applying Albert Einstein's theory of general relativity to cosmology. In a 1927 article, which preceded Edwin Hubble's landmark article by two years, Lemaître derived what became known as Hubble's law and proposed it as a generic phenomenon in relativistic cosmology. Lemaître also estimated the numerical value of the Hubble constant. However, the data used by Lemaître did not allow him to prove that there was an actual linear relation, which Hubble did two years later.

Einstein was skeptical of this paper. When Lemaître approached Einstein at the 1927 Solvay Conference, the latter pointed out that Alexander Friedmann had proposed a similar solution to Einstein's equations in 1922, implying that the radius of the universe increased over time. (Einstein had also criticized Friedmann's calculations, but withdrew his comments.) In 1931, his annus mirabilis, Lemaître published an article in Nature setting out his theory of the "primeval atom."

Friedmann was handicapped by living and working in the USSR, and died in 1925, soon after inventing the Friedmann–Lemaître–Robertson–Walker metric. Because Lemaître spent his entire career in Europe, his scientific work is not as well known in the United States as that of Hubble or Einstein, both well known in the U.S. by virtue of residing there. Nevertheless, Lemaître's theory changed the course of cosmology. This was because Lemaître:

  • Was well acquainted with the work of astronomers, and designed his theory to have testable implications and to be in accord with observations of the time, in particular to explain the observed redshift of galaxies and the linear relation between distances and velocities;
  • Proposed his theory at an opportune time, since Edwin Hubble would soon publish his velocity-distance relation that strongly supported an expanding universe and, consequently, the Big Bang theory;
  • Had studied under Arthur Eddington, who made sure that Lemaître got a hearing in the scientific community.

Both Friedmann and Lemaître proposed relativistic cosmologies featuring an expanding universe. However, Lemaître was the first to propose that the expansion explains the redshift of galaxies. He further concluded that an initial "creation-like" event must have occurred. In the 1980s, Alan Guth and Andrei Linde modified this theory by adding to it a period of inflation.

Einstein at first dismissed Friedmann, and then (privately) Lemaître, out of hand, saying that not all mathematics lead to correct theories. After Hubble's discovery was published, Einstein quickly and publicly endorsed Lemaître's theory, helping both the theory and its proposer get fast recognition.

Lemaître was also an early adopter of computers for cosmological calculations. He introduced the first computer to his university (a Burroughs E101) in 1958 and was one of the inventors of the Fast Fourier transform algorithm.

In 1933, Lemaître found an important inhomogeneous solution of Einstein's field equations describing a spherical dust cloud, the Lemaître–Tolman metric.

In 1931, Lemaitre was the first scientist to propose the expansion of the universe was actually accelerating which was confirmed observationally in the 1990s through observations of very distant Type IA supernova with the Hubble Space Telescope.

In 1948 Lemaître published a polished mathematical essay "Quaternions et espace elliptique" which clarified an obscure space. William Kingdon Clifford had cryptically described elliptic space in 1873 at a time when versors were too common to mention. Lemaître developed the theory of quaternions from first principles so that his essay can stand on its own, but he recalled the Erlangen program in geometry while developing the metric geometry of elliptic space. H. S. M. Coxeter, another contributor to elliptic geometry, summarized Lemaître's work for Mathematical Reviews.

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