Cornell planetary scientist discusses the compatibility of faith and reason

The Inaugural Gold Mass for scientists and engineers, named for the color of the hoods worn by individuals graduating with a Ph.D, was held in the Basilica of the Sacred Heart on the Feast Day of Saint Albert the Great. The Gold Mass — an idea of Father Nicanor Austriaco, O.P. — stems from the Society for Catholic Scientists that was founded in June 2016.

Following Mass in the Basilica was a reception and lecture in the Jordan Hall of Science. Jonathan I. Lunine, professor in the physical sciences at Cornell University and a founding member of the SCS, delivered the Charles Edison lecture series talk entitled, “Lemaître, Modern Cosmology and the Compatibility of Science and Faith.”

Dean Kilpatrick introduced Lunine, explaining how this talk was associated with the first inaugural Gold Mass: it sought to bring together the notions of faith and science. Lunine is a “very distinguished planetary physicist, scientist,” Kilpatrick said. Lunine spent 25 years at the University of Arizona before moving to Cornell in 2010. He is also the recipient of the 2015 Cassini medal, which is “bestowed to scientists who have achieved exceptional international standing in planetary and space science,” according to the European Geosciences Union.

This was Lunine’s first visit to the University of Notre Dame. “It’s also a university I don’t need to give a talk on science and faith… it’s a little bit like preaching to the choir,” Lunine commented as he noted Notre Dame’s “vigor of science programs” during his visit. However, things are different beyond the walls of Notre Dame. There are many noted authors who “try to drive a wedge between science and faith, and it’s becoming successful,” Lunine warned.

“It requires some thought on the part of people to understand that those arguments really have no merit,” Lunine stated.

He then went over one argument that often leads students to abandon their faith when becoming scientists. In 2012, Austin Hughes in the New Atlantic Journal stated, “There is a growing tendency to treat as scientific anything that scientists say or believe.”

In The Grand Design, Stephen Hawking questioned, “What is the nature of reality? Where did all this come from? Did the universe need a creator? Traditionally these are questions for philosophy. But philosophy is dead… Scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge.” So according one of the world’s preeminent theoretical physicists, science is the only way to get to the truth.

Jerry Coyne said, “Nearly all scientists of the 18th and 19th century were believers only because everyone was or had to pretend that they were… But more accomplished scientists tend to be atheistic.”

This sort of reasoning is very persuasive to a lot young people. Lunine suggested, “I think the way to counter this is not the detailed, logical reasoning about the incoherence, for example, of materialism and naturalism… but to give counterexamples. One of the most interesting counterexamples is a man who lived as both a scientist and a Catholic priest.”

Father Georges Lemaître was born on July 17, 1894 in Charleroi, Belgium. His most significant work was done from 1925, while he was still a student, to the mid 30’s. In 1936 he was elected to the Pontifical Academy for Science (an organization which he later became president of in 1960 when he was named prelate of the papal household). On a local note, Fr. John O’Hara, president of the University of Notre Dame, hired Lemaître as a visiting professor in the same year.

“His great contribution is often said to be that he is the father of the big bang model of the origin of the universe. What I want to try to convince you of is that yes, he was that, but he actually did quite a bit more. One is to the outside world, his religious vocation was often interpreted to be part of the reason why he came up with the big bang model, which is almost certainly not true and he himself says is not true. But also there is a very contingent nature to discovery in science, and credited science, and Lemaître is one of the outstanding examples of this contingency,” said Lunine.

“At the beginning of the 20th century it actually wasn’t understood whether the entirety of the universe was confined to the stars that could be seen … the problem was that other galaxies could not be seen as clearly today with telescopes.” Hence, a commonly held belief for many scientists at the time was that the universe was static (not evolving, perhaps infinite in age).

Einstein found that a static universe would not fit his theory of general relativity, as his theory proposed that matter distorts space, and so would tend to pull everything together into a state of collapse. Thus, he avoided collapse of a static universe by introducing an extra term into his equations that would balance the effect of matter, called the cosmological constant.

Other scientists looked at alternatives after the theory of general relativity was introduced. Lemaître developed an expanding universe model where galaxies recede from us with a speed proportional to their distance. What was very important was that Lemaitre said the motion of galaxies away from each other were not fixed away but an expansion of space. It was Einstein’s field equations that gave him a universe that was expanding.

But the canonical story is that the speed-distance relationship was derived and published by Edwin Hubble in January 17, 1929, when Lemaître had published the same finding in a lesser known journal, the Annales de la Société scientifique de Bruxelles, two years prior. Arthur Eddington, Lemaître’s former boss, arranged for his former pupil’s findings to be published in English in 1930; but the key portion of the 1927 french text showing that Lemaître had come up with the velocity-distance relationship was missing from the English translation. After much speculation, in 2011, Mario Livio revealed that Lemaître had omitted it himself.

As counter to Lemaître’s primeval atom theory, in 1948, astronomers Tommy Gold, Hermann Bondi, and Fred Hoyle conceived the “steady state” model of the universe, which in part was a response to what Hoyle perceived as a religious bias towards creation; it purports that the universe is always expanding, there was no beginning, and matter is created. Fred Hoyle called Lemaître the “Big bang man”.

Pope Pius XII saw the book of Genesis in the Big Bang. When the Pope spoke of the creation of the universe as fiat lux being proven by science, it made Lemaître furious, as he had once wrote, “We may speak of this event as of a beginning. I do not say a creation. Physically it is a beginning in the sense that if something happened before, it has no observable influence on the behavior of our universe, as any feature of matter before this beginning has been completely lost by the extreme contraction at the theoretical zero. Any preexistence of the universe has a metaphysical character…The question if it was really a beginning or rather a creation, something started from nothing, is a philosophical question which cannot be settled by physical or astronomical considerations.”

“There [are] two ways of arriving at the truth. I decided to follow them both,” said Lemaitre, when questioned about his vocation as a priest and scientist. Nominated by Einstein, when accepting the Francqui prize in 1934, he said, “Science is beautiful; it deserves to be loved for itself, as it is a reflection of God’s creative thought”.

Lunine left advice for students: “You can be a scientist and believe in God. You can be a scientist and go to Mass. You can be a scientist and wear a cross. Yes, you may get comments, questions, and even spam, but Jesus said, “You will be hated because of me” (Matthew 10:22). You are part of a great tradition.”

Bea Cuasay is a freshman Philosophy and Theology double major minoring in Music. If you like papal latinists, you can contact her at