The only known filmed interview with Georges Lemaître, the Catholic priest and physicist who originally proposed the Big Bang theory back in 1931, has finally been rediscovered – nearly 60 years after it was originally aired on Belgian TV.
“What a gem, this interview,” Thomas Hertog, cosmologist and professor of theoretical physics at KU Leuven, told Belgium’s Flemish-language broadcaster VRT. “The vision of what the Big Bang was and was not that Lemaître expresses in this interview is very fascinating and very deep.”
While a short clip of the footage has been widely available for decades, the full interview was thought to be lost shortly after it originally aired. In fact, it hadn’t gone anywhere – it was still in the VRT archives, just hidden under layers of administrative mishaps.
“Unfortunately, due to a number of factors, the interview went undiscovered: the film sheet was miscategorized and Lemaître's name was misspelled,” Kathleen Bertrem of VRT Archive told VRT. “At the broadcaster, every film received a film card after broadcast. Substantive and technical data were noted on this sheet and then added to the catalogue. In this way the film collection was searchable.”
“If there ever was a broadcast with Georges Lemaître, we should be able to find it in this paper catalogue,” she explained. “But no one knew about the incorrect classification and spelling error, so it [was] like looking for a needle in a haystack.”
Now found, the interview – originally conducted in French, with Flemish subtitles – has been transcribed and translated into English by physicists from the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) and the Vatican Observatory.
“Georges Lemaître is undeniably one of the key physicists of the th century and an important figure of the history of astronomy,” the researchers write. “A video interview of Georges Lemaître talking about his work is a historical gem. As such, we aim to make this recording as accessible as possible for the astronomy community, and the general public at large.”
“To our knowledge, it is the only video interview of Georges Lemaître in existence,” they add.
The 20-minute-long interview, featuring Lemaître discussing his ideas with Belgian journalist Jérôme Verhaeghe, was originally broadcast on February 14, 1964 – just three months before the discovery of cosmic microwave background radiation would confirm his theory as the best explanation of the origins of the universe.
But without this crucial smoking gun, physics in the early 1960s was still somewhat split between proponents of the Big Bang theory and the rival “Steady State” theory – the idea that the continuous creation of matter results in a constant density across the expanding universe. The contrast between the two cosmological models is a topic that Lemaître goes into in some depth in the interview, saying that he “cannot picture things working that way.”
“The principle of Steady State seemed to be in opposition to the Principle of Conservation of Energy. In opposition with basically the most secure and solid thing in physics,” he tells the interviewer. “[And] for my part […] I am opposed to [that static solution] in the sense that I don’t think that it is the tendency of modern physics to admit that there are global laws in the universe, absolute laws, laws that, in Hoyle’s expression, would imply a ‘design’, would imply a plan.”
Such a viewpoint might be surprising to those used to today’s sharp science-vs-religion divide – but Lemaître hardly shies away from discussing how his religious views coexist with his scientific theories. “It is […] very special to hear it here from his own mouth, including gestures, some hesitations, and a lot of expressive facial expressions,” said Hertog. “The way he unravels the knot of the Cause of All and creates space for a scientific as well as a religious or philosophical atmosphere is nothing short of sublime.”
While technically still incomplete – the very first question asked by Verhaeghe has been cut off, leaving only Lemaître’s response to begin the footage – the discovery of the interview is nevertheless an important and valuable find.
“Lemaître and others gave us the mathematical framework that forms the basis of our current efforts to understand our universe,” Satya Gontcho A Gontcho, a scientist at Berkeley Lab who worked on the translation of the interview, said in a statement.
“Of all the people who came up with the framework of cosmology that we’re working with now, there’s very few recordings of how they talked about their work,” Gontcho A Gontcho said. “To hear the turns of phrase and how things were discussed…It feels like peeking through time.”