Who Discovered the Expanding Universe

Fr. Georges Lemaître, priest and physicist
Fr. Georges Lemaître, priest and physicist
  • Article
  • 22 pages
  • Level: university

Historians of science Helge Kragh and Robert W. Smith provide an overview of the discovery of the expanding universe and who might be credited with making that discovery.  They argue that, while Edwin Hubble is generally credited with the discovery of the expansion of the universe, and while a number of different scientists did in fact contribute to the discovery in significant ways, in fact Fr. Georges Lemaître discovered the expansion of the universe, insofar as he gave theoretical and observational reasons for it. (Lemaître would go on to become a member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in 1936, and to serve as its president from 1960 until his death in 1966). Hubble, meanwhile was ambivilant towards the whole concept of an expanding universe.

Kragh and Smith also discuss why Hubble is credited with the discovery. They trace the history of how Hubble’s role in the discovery was elevated, “at the expense of everyone else’s, most especially Lemaître’s, who until the 1980s was largely a forgotten figure among astronomers”.  This occurred thanks largely to articles in popular magazine and to textbooks. “Who Discovered the Expanding Universe”, published in 2003 in the journal History of Science, provides an excellent discussion of how popular history of science can end up presenting a story that is very different from the true history of the scientific discovery, to such an extent that the discoverer can become a largely forgotten figure.

Click here to access this article from NASA ADS (click here to download in PDF format).

Click here to access this article from History of Science.