From the Big Bang to black holes: Vatican, scientists to explore questions of the universe

From the Big Bang to black holes: Vatican, scientists to explore questions of the universe

Massimo Bianchi and Cristiane Murray address attendees at a June 11, 2024, Vatican press conference regarding the upcoming Vatican Observatory conference to take place June 17–24, 2024. / Credit: Daniel Ibanez/CNA

Rome Newsroom, Jun 11, 2024 / 13:45 pm (CNA).

In 1931, when astrophysicist Father Georges Lemaître proposed the Big Bang theory — the idea that the universe expanded from the massive explosion of a “primordial atom” — some scientists “hated it, because it was too religious,” according to Jesuit Brother Guy Consolmagno.

“A lot of people said, ‘Oh, you’re just trying to reproduce Genesis,” Consolmagno, director of the Vatican Observatory, said in comments to EWTN News on June 11.

In recently recovered footage of a 1964 interview, Lemaître explains that the theory of the expansion of the universe was not accepted at first because it made the idea of a creation necessary.

Consolmagno added that “[Lemaître] was very careful to say [the Big Bang] is not the same thing as the creation in Scripture. It’s our best description of what happens after that creation.”

An assembly of experts discusses the upcoming workshop on astrophysics and cosmology at the Vatican, Tuesday, June 11, 2024. Credit: Daniel Ibanez/CNA
An assembly of experts discusses the upcoming workshop on astrophysics and cosmology at the Vatican, Tuesday, June 11, 2024. Credit: Daniel Ibanez/CNA

Dozens of astrophysicists and cosmologists will explore the Big Bang and other topics of the universe next week at a conference hosted by the Vatican Observatory in Castel Gandolfo, Italy.

Titled “Black Holes, Gravitational Waves, and Space-Time Singularities,” the June 17–21 workshop is the second international conference in celebration of the legacy of Lemaître, who is called the father of the Big Bang theory.

“The Big Bang is our best understanding today of what happened once the universe had been created,” Consolmagno said at a June 11 press conference at the Vatican.

“But perhaps the result of meetings like this [will be that] next year, or in a hundred years, or in a thousands years’ time, we may find a theory better than that.”

“What the creation point in Genesis describes is the creation of the laws of physics themselves, the laws we are still attempting to discover,” he added.

While the Big Bang theory was originally received with skepticism by the scientific community, there was no great opposition from the Church, Consolmagno said.

“Ironically, the pope was too enthusiastic,” he continued. “In 1951, [Pope Pius XII] had an audience with the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and, in passing, said, essentially, ‘Isn’t it wonderful that scientists are talking about the beginning of the universe? But we could have told them that.’ And when Lemaître heard that he said, ‘No, you can’t make that conflation.’”

Emphasizing that science and religious belief are not opposed, Consolmagno and conference organizer Jesuit Father Gabriele Gionti said there is a very good “accord” between scientists and those who work at the Vatican Observatory.

“They feel more able to speak freely at the Vatican Observatory,” Gionti said.

A practical reason for the respect, Consolmagno said, is because “we do not compete with them for positions or for money ... This, as Father Gionti said, makes us a ‘neutral ground,’ where they can come, in a beautiful setting in Castel Gandolfo, and know that we don’t have an agenda.”

According to organizers, 40 scientists will participate in the conference in person, and another 150 will join online. Conference attendees expect to have an audience with Pope Francis during the week if the pontiff’s schedule allows.

Fabio Scardigli, a theoretical physicist from Italy who helped organize the conference in Castel Gandolfo, said they have assembled a “dream team” of scientists and thinkers from two different communities: cosmology and astrophysics.

Hopefully, he said, through open discussion and debate, there can be “a small step forward” in bringing these two groups into dialogue.

Father Matteo Galaverni, a cosmologist of the Vatican Observatory, said they want the conference “to bring forth new points of view” and to create a “healthy optimism for those who believe in research.”

Consolmagno referenced the opening of St. John Paul II’s encyclical Fides et Ratio (Faith and Reason), in which the pope says that “faith and reason are the two wings that bring us to the truth.”

“That image,” the brother said, “reminds us that faith is not the goal, reason is not the goal, the Church is not the goal, science is not the goal. Truth is the goal. And for those of us who believe that God is truth, then exploring the truth brings us closer to God.”

Cosmologists, he added, “are so aware of how much we do not know that there is a great openness to the need to accept a way of addressing the fundamental question from [the philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm] Leibniz: Why is there something instead of nothing?”