‘The Wildest Speculation of All’: Lemaître and the Primeval-Atom Universe

  • Helge Kragh
Part of the Astrophysics and Space Science Library book series (ASSL, volume 395)


Although there is no logical connection between the expanding universe and the idea of a big bang, from a historical perspective the two concepts were intimately connected. Four years after his pioneering work on the expanding universe, Lemaître suggested that the entire universe had originated in a kind of explosive act from what he called a primeval atom and which he likened to a huge atomic nucleus. His theory of 1931 was the first realistic finite-age model based upon relativistic cosmology, but it presupposed a material proto-universe and thus avoided an initial singularity. What were the sources of Lemaître’s daring proposal? Well aware that his new cosmological model needed to have testable consequences, he argued that the cosmic rays were fossils of the original radioactive explosion. However, this hypothesis turned out to be untenable. The first big-bang model ever was received with a mixture of indifference and hostility. Why? The answer is not that contemporary cosmologists failed to recognize Lemaître’s genius, but rather that his model was scientifically unconvincing. Although Lemaître was indeed the father of big-bang cosmology, his brilliant idea was only turned into a viable cosmological theory by later physicists.


Cosmological Constant Initial Singularity Closed Universe Relativistic Cosmology Cosmological Theory 
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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Centre for Science StudiesAarhus UniversityAarhusDenmark

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