Georges Lemaître and the IRMP – The latest highlights for 2019 and 2020

Fonds Wernaers

- The Big Bang Route opened in 2019 is awarded the Wernaers Prize in 2020

- Georges Lemaître’s 1923 Mémoire La Physique d’Einstein, has been translated and published for the first time ever in English late in 2019


The latest award of the Georges Lemaître International Prize to Professor George Ellis (University of Cape Town, South Africa) took place a little more than a year ago, on 22 May 2019, [More] [More]

following up on the previous such award over two years earlier to Professor Kip Thorne (Caltech, USA; Nobel Prize in Physics 2017 [More]) on 18 October 2016. [More] [More].

The latter event was part of a whole streak of happenings that took place all throughout the year 2016-2017 [More] to commemorate and honor the scientific legacy of Monsignor Georges Lemaître who passed away fifty years earlier, on 20 June 1966, who was a professor at the Université catholique de Louvain (UCLouvain), and who is considered by most as the “Father of the Theory of the Big Bang”, with in particular the recession law of galaxies having been renamed as the Hubble-Lemaître Law by the International Astronomical Union on 29 October 2018. Indeed, Lemaître had predicted that very law already in 1927 in the first of his groundbreaking papers that have laid the foundations of modern physical cosmology, thus before Edwin Hubble published his astrophysical observations in 1929.

The next day, namely 23 May 2019, still saw two other events inspired by Georges Lemaître’s legacy to modern cosmology, jointly organized with the Katholieke Universiteit te Leuven (KU Leuven). The first was the inauguration, in Louvain-la-Neuve and opened by George Ellis, of the Big Bang Route [More], a thematic and pedagogical touristic cycle route connecting the two Lemaître sculptures at the two universities of UCLouvain and KU Leuven, the two twinned Cities of Ottignies-Louvain-la-Neuve and Leuven, and the two Provinces of Brabant. Along two proposed journeys in the beautiful and hilly countryside, and in 8 episodes that narrate the history of the universe with explanations accessible to all through QR codes as well as a dedicated website, this cycle path traces out the scientific story of the evolution of the universe from the Big Bang until the emergence of life on Earth, and further with the future fate of humankind on Earth and of the universe.

This first event was then followed still on the same day and in Leuven, in the evening of 23 May 2019, by the unveiling of an European Physical Society (EPS) plaque conferring to the Heilige Geestcollege the award of a EPS Historic Heritage Site [More].

Indeed, it was in that College that from 1925 until early 1933 Lemaître lived and pursued his research, as a priest and a young professor (for its French speaking section) at the then unitary Université de Louvain. These are precisely the years when he conceived and published his revolutionary proposals that have laid the foundations of modern physical cosmology, not only those – in 1927 – of an expanding Universe with a positive cosmological constant, but perhaps even importantly still, then in 1931, of a quantum origin to both time and space as continuous geometric entities that must have emerged, through a truly quantum gravitational dynamics, out of what Lemaître dubbed then as being “the primeval atom”, and known today as being “the Big Bang”.

On the occasion of this EPS event, which was initiated by the Belgian Physical Society (BPS) and its President, Dr. Jozef Ongena, and co-organised with the KU Leuven and the UCLouvain, another project was then officially announced. Namely, the publication for the first time ever of an English translation, together with a newly historically edited version in French – including further highlights and documents having been discovered in the Archives Georges Lemaître that are under the care of UCLouvain and have the status of a Treasure of the French speaking community of Belgium – of the original Mémoire of 1923, in French, that Lemaître wrote up while at the seminary studying towards his priesthood, La Physique d’Einstein. With this thesis Lemaître won the two Fellowships that launched him onto his scientific path, thus enabling him to spend the year 1923-1924 at the University of Cambrige (UK) with Sir Arthur Eddington, and the next year at Harvard and MIT (USA) where he earned a (second) PhD, in astronomy, in 1927. That specific volume, published by Springer, has appeared at the very end of 2019 under the title, “Learning the Physics of Einstein with Georges Lemaître – Before the Big Bang Theory” (ISBN 978-3-030-22030-3) [More].

Following up still on these events of 23 May 2019, this 25 June 2020 the F.R.S.-FNRS has just announced that the Big Bang Route has been distinguished with the “Prix Wernaers pour la Vulgarisation scientifique – 2020” for “La Route du Big Bang – de Georges Lemaître à la vie sur Terre”, with the award of that Prize [More] to the two coordinators of the Big Bang Route project, namely Professors Jan Govaerts (UCLouvain) and Mark Huyse (KU Leuven). This is the first time ever that this Prize, in principle reserved only to members of the institutions of higher education of the French speaking community in Belgium, is being shared by two members of two universities that belong to the two different linguistic regions of the country. These institutions specifically being furthermore those two sister universities that share such a long and rich common history dating back to their foundation in 1425, almost 600 years ago, namely the KU Leuven and the UCLouvain, that parted their ways in 1968 onwards their henceforth separate and yet parallel futures.

Fietsers aan het standbeeld van Georges Lemaitrefigurefigurefigure