16 January 2023

The Day Without Yesterday by John Farrell: introductory comments

Let's start with full disclosure. John Farrell is a good friend, and we met here at Quintessence of Dust more than 15 years ago. John was one of the first people to read and comment on (and link to) the blog. We share many passions: science, faith/science interactions, writing, the Boston Red Sox, Shakespeare, and Harvard Square. John plays pickup hockey (that's something we don't have in common) and more than once has reminded me (in pubs in Harvard Square) that we are both lucky to have all our hair.

And yet it was not until the last few months that I bought and read his (so far) masterpiece, The Day Without Yesterday. I don't know why it took so long. Surely one reason is that I've only in the last year and a half been reading more booksI've worked as an editor for more than a decade and that means many hours of intensive reading with attendant reading fatigue. But I think another reasonand this is embarrassing to admitis that I thought I knew the story. Father of the Big Bang, Catholic priest, yeah okay I got it.

I was wrong. And if you think you know the story without reading this book, then you're probably wrong too. The tale is inspiring and exciting, frequently frustrating, and ultimately awe-inspiring, not because of the Big Bang itself (ooooh aaaah) but because the long-overlooked main character, Georges Lemaître, is a hero of science. As I read John's book, I came to think that "Father of the Big Bang" (cutesy double entendre notwithstanding) partially obscures this man's stature as a scientist.

One great thing about the book is that John never wrote that himself. John explores the intellectual environment in which Lemaître worked and is evenhanded in his judgment of Lemaître's contributions. He comments on aspects of the story that are remarkable and even tragic, and provides ample color: on Lemaître's response to the pope's misrepresentation of the religious implications of the evolving universe: "This drove Lemaître crazy." But he didn't write a hagiography. In fact, he carefully corrects some of the myths and legends surrounding the people who developed Big Bang cosmology. What emerges is a story that is more human and, at least to me, far more interesting than those simplistic myths.

The book is part biography and part history, about the birth of modern cosmology (the subtitle is "Lemaître, Einstein, and the Birth of Modern Cosmology)". It is a story about spectacularly complex mathematics and rapidly developing technology in the early 20th century. A second impressive aspect of the book is John's skill in integrating a highly technical account with a focus on the people and the intellectual environment. If you, like me, need to skim an occasional paragraph about field equations, you will safely land in the ongoing human story on the other side. I thought John's timing and pacing were perfect in that regard.

But this is what I liked most about the book: John asks the really interesting questions about Lemaître, while placing Lemaître and his ideas into a singular historical and intellectual context. John is unsparing in his critique of that milieu, using words like "stubborn" and "conservative." And by doing that, he invites us to ask how Lemaître could see what others couldn't or wouldn't.

I loved the book. Buy it, read it, get the t-shirt. (There isn't one, darn it.) Even if you're an atheist like me, you are likely to be inspired by Lemaître as I was.

Now, back to the two themes I underlined above. Those are for the next two posts: the first about the conservatism that Lemaître confronted, and what I think it means for us today; and the second about what made Lemaître special.

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