Science Service, Up Close: Considering the Universe

Left to Right: astronomer and Catholic priest Georges Henri Joseph Édouard Lemaître (1894-1966

Whenever possible, Science Service director Watson Davis took advantage of his presence at a confluence of scientists to snap photographs of famous (and interesting) people. In 1931, at a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS), he posed together four men who were interested, from different perspectives, in the origin and evolution of the universe.

Abbé Georges Henri Joseph Édouard Lemaître (1894-1966), professor of physics at the Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium, was credited with first proposing the theory of an expanding universe, often called the "Big Bang" theory.

British physicist Oliver Joseph Lodge (1851-1940) was known for his interest in spiritualism as well as for his accomplishments in the development of wireless telegraphy. In 1921, as E. E. Slosson was searching for writers for the fledging Science Service operation, he had written to Lodge and the physicist had responded with characteristic aplomb that he could "see no good reason why I should not write articles for you."

British astrophysicist Edward Arthur Milne (1896-1950) had been appointed to a professorship at Oxford in 1928 but his earlier work had been in mathematical astrophysics. By 1931, Milne was focusing on the "expanding universe" and cosmology.

Trained as a mathematician, Ernest William Barnes (1874-1953) was the Anglican Bishop of Birmingham. Barnes's liberal political views had attracted considerable controversy and he was now turning his interest to the intersection of science and religion.

The four men were among invited participants in a September 27, 1931, symposium discussing the evolution of the universe, a session that provoked considerable intellectual fireworks. Two prominent British physicists, Sir James Jeans and Sir Arthur Eddington, declared that not only was the universe expanding but it was doing so at a rate that indicated "its days were numbered." Robert A. Millikan, the California Institute of Technology physicist, disagreed ("From my viewpoint...the evidence that cosmic rays furnish for annihilation is not worth a whoop."). Sir Oliver Lodge and Bishop Barnes lobbed similar attacks on the Jeans-Eddington prediction. Barnes even added that he had "no doubt that there are many other inhabited worlds and that on some of them exist beings immeasurably beyond our mental level."

Sir Oliver Lodge had the last word in the published proceedings, closing with an astute observation. In 1931, he said, scientists were turning their attention "from the particles of matter to the spaces between them, where all the activity resides. We have thus, with Einstein, begun a new era ... but when we attend to space properly we shall find that life and mind are not limited to the surface of lumps of matter. Intelligence can be found throughout space."

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