Celebrating origins of the Big Bang Theory in Leuven

The city’s university was founded in 1425. Despite its venerable heritage the library was deliberately set alight, destroying tens of thousands of books and manuscripts


By Stuart Forster

Published: Thu 6 Jan 2022, 6:49 PM

Fans of American television comedies are likely to associate Big Bang Theory with Pasadena rather than a university city near Brussels, Belgium. After all, the Californian city was the setting in which Sheldon, Leonard and other characters hung out in the popular, critically acclaimed show. Yet Sheldon’s real-life counterparts are likely to be aware that the hypothesis about the origins of the universe, which gives the show its name, can be traced to the Belgian city of Leuven.

The term ‘big bang theory’ reflects initial scepticism towards the idea that everything in existence exploded from a ‘primeval atom’ approximately 13.8 billion years ago. Georges Lemaître developed his theory in the late-1920s. His paper suggesting that the universe burst forth on ‘the day without yesterday’ was published during 1931 in the scientific journal Nature. At that time, the prevailing view among scientists was that the universe had existed forever and was static. Lemaître, however, argued that it was continuing to expand.

Today, Lemaître is regarded as the founder of modern cosmology. Yet, it wasn’t until the mid-1960s that his revolutionary theory about the origins of the universe gained widespread acceptance. Though he encountered the likes of astronomer Edwin Hubble and physicist Albert Einstein during his career, Lemaître’s name is, by no means, as widely recognised as theirs among members of the general public. Continuing into January 2022, Leuven’s Bang! Big Bang City Festival goes some way to redressing that.

Born in the Belgian city of Charleroi in 1894, Lemaître proved himself to be a gifted mathematician. He served as an artillery officer during World War I, before resuming his university studies in maths and physics in Leuven, returning to a city devastated early in the war by rampaging German troops. Look up at facades in the heart of Leuven and you’ll see that many buildings are inlaid with stones indicating they were destroyed in 1914 and subsequently reconstructed.

The city’s university was founded in 1425. Despite its venerable heritage the library was deliberately set alight, destroying tens of thousands of books and manuscripts. Fire-damaged remains of books known as ‘snow whites’ are displayed in glass cases in the reading room of the grand, Gothic-influenced building that replaced the original. Designed by Whitney Warren — also the architect of New York’s Grand Central Terminal — the building hosts the exhibition To The Edge of Time as part of the festival. Straddling the boundary between art and science, the show includes hand-drawn graphs by Lemaître and the desk-sized Burroughs E101 computer that he purchased during the Brussel’s World Fair of 1958.

Displays within the library tower describe the impact of war of Leuven. Clomping up the spiral staircase leading to the outdoor observation platform brings you views over rooftops. Architectural highlights of the urban landscape include a spectacular 15th century city hall. In 1850, the municipal building was decorated with 236 statues of distinguished figures from the history of Leuven, including scholars such as the humanist philosopher Desiderius Erasmus who taught at the university’s Collegium Trilingue.

Nearby, the M Leuven museum features two exhibitions as part of the festival commemorating Lemaître’s famous theory. Contemporary artist Richard Long’s geometric sculptures and photography are displayed in one. The other, Imagining The Universe, features an array of subtly illuminated artifacts examining the origins and understanding of the cosmos, including beautifully illustrated Arabic manuscripts and astronomical instruments.

A further exhibition, An Eternal Gaze, is displayed in the Parcum museum at Park Abbey on the city’s southern outskirts. Dutch writer Marjolijn van Heemstra has created enchanting texts provoking reflection about the objects displayed. Set within what’s left of a once vast 12th century estate, the abbey’s watermill has been converted into the De Abdijmolen restaurant serving seasonally influenced dishes. It proves a pleasant location for lunch after consuming food for thought in the exhibition.

Park Abbey is less than 10 minutes’ easy pedalling from the heart of the city where Leuven Leisure rents out bicycles. Having a bike means you can ride by nearby Arenberg Castle, formerly a home of the Dukes of Arenberg, and park up at Great Beguinage Unesco World Heritage Site to view 16th century housing that formerly provided living space to a gated community of women.

On the way back into the city it’s possible to pause at Premonstreit College to see a bronze bust of the spectacle-wearing Lemaître gazing into the courtyard. Considering the impact of his work, it’s an unsubstantial tribute to the man. But, as he pointed out, great things can have small beginnings and, increasingly, people are beginning to recognise the name of Georges Lemaître.


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