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Is the Beginning Physics or Religion?

The universe’s first few minutes are well-understood, or so it seems. A wealth of evidence tells physicists that, after one minute (some 13,780,000,000 years ago), it was very hot and rapidly cooling, very dense and rapidly expanding, a condition known as the Big Bang. Yet most physicists are curiously incurious about how it got to be that way. What happened before the Big Bang? How did it begin? And why don’t they want to know?

Einstein’s equations of general relativity work well for most times and most situations. But not for when and how the universe began. There’s a general consensus among physicists that this will need a brand new quantum theory. There is also a general consensus that it’s bad form to say anything about the universe beginning. It has long been seen as a religious subject, the more so after 1927, when Georges Lemaître became “the father of the Big Bang theory” with his solution of Einstein’s equations. Monsignor Lemaître was a priest and teacher at a Catholic

Lemaître soon took his solution to its logical conclusion with a version of the beginning he called The Primeval Atom. It was swiftly labeled as religion by physicists including Einstein. Lemaître fought the long defeat, telling all who’d listen that it is pure physics. His scientific hopes for it were buried when in a public speech in 1951 Pope Pius XII told the Pontifical Academy (of which Lemaître was a member) that Big-Bang physics and the church’s view of Genesis were in accord.

Stephen Hawking takes an open approach to this issue. Early in his career he said:

Many people would regard … the question of the initial conditions for the Universe as belonging to the realm of metaphysics or religion. In a way this attitude is similar to that of those who in earlier centuries discouraged scientific investigation by saying that all natural phenomena were the work of God and should not be inquired into.  I think that the initial conditions of the Universe are as suitable a subject for scientific study and theory as are the local physical laws.

In other words, he says physics can consider the beginning. Few of his colleagues heed this view. I think Hawking’s right. I would take his thinking one step further: The ‘initial conditions of the Universe’ (a fancy physics phrase meaning exactly how the universe began) are where the roots of physics may be found. They are an essential subject for scientific study and theory, in my respectful view.

Too bad for physics and for all of us that most physicists neglect and even avoid it.

Coming: Should we care?


Georges Lemaître (1946), L’Hypothèse de L’Atome Primitif, Bruxelles: O. Godart; (1950) The Primeval Atom: A Hypothesis of the Origin of the Universe, Betty & Serge Korff (tr.), New York: D. van Nostrand Company, Inc.

Pope Pius XII (1951), ” Discorso di Sua Santità Pio XII ai Cardinali, ai Legate delle Nazione Estere e ai Soci della Pontificia Accademia delle Scienze”, Acta Apostolicae Sedis, Roma: Tipografia Poliglotta Vaticana, vol. 44, p. 31;

Stephen Hawking (1980), “Is the end in sight for theoretical physics?”, Lucasian inaugural lecture, April 29, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 3; reprinted in Stephen Hawking (1993), Black Holes and Baby Universes, New York: Bantam Books, ch. 7,

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Other reading:

Steven Soter & Neil deGrasse Tyson (eds.) (2000), “Georges Lemaître, Father of the Big Bang”, in Cosmic Horizons: Astronomy at the Cutting Edge, New York: The New Press;

Stephen Hawking (2007), “The Origin of the Universe”, lecture at Zellerbach Hall, University of California, Berkeley, March 13,

Colin Gillespie (2013), “The Primeval Atom”, in Time One: Discover How the Universe Began, New York: RosettaBooks, p. 103,, excerpted at

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