Home Christian News Vatican Astrophysicists Offer New Way to Study Gravity After the Big Bang

Vatican Astrophysicists Offer New Way to Study Gravity After the Big Bang

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A long exposure at the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope in southeastern Arizona in 2014. Photo courtesy of Brother Guy Consolmagno

VATICAN CITY (RNS) — Two Catholic priests, both astrophysicists from the Vatican Observatory, have suggested a radically new mathematical approach to studying the initial moments following the Big Bang that gave birth to our universe.

Little is known about the first seconds of the universe’s existence, and one of the deeper puzzles is accounting for the role gravity played in those early moments. The Rev. Gabriele Gionti, a Jesuit, and the Rev. Matteo Galaverni, a priest in the Diocese of Reggio Emilia-Guastalla in Northern Italy, set out to propose a new technique that explains how gravity might have behaved as the cosmos expanded rapidly at its inception.

Their research, published in the prestigious Physical Review D journal on April 15, proposes an alternative to the Jordans-Brans-Dicke theory of gravitation, which solves difficulties with Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity in describing gravity after the Big Bang, but which has its own inconsistencies.

Einstein’s theory works well in explaining the way matter behaves on a large scale but clashes with the way quantum physics describes the gravity among the smallest observable particles. For years, Gionti has attempted to reconcile the two.

The priests’ work is “a tassel within this search that the scientific community has been conducting for many years on quantum gravity, meaning that gravity is capable of affecting (matter) even at a very, very small scale,” said Galaverni in a Zoom interview conducted by RNS with the two priests on Thursday (May 5).

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The Rev. Gabriele Gionti. Photo via Vatican Observatory

“We realized that within limits, when the gravitational constant is very high, it’s possible for the speed of light to go to zero, meaning that nothing propagates because gravity is too high,” said Gionti.

“This might be a way to explain what happened after the Big Bang,” he said.

In layman’s terms, Gionti said, “It’s like being in a theater, and until now we have seen the musicians and the orchestra with our eyes. Now with gravitational waves we can also hear the music.”

“This is revolutionizing and will revolutionize the next decades of astronomy,” he added.

Gionti clarified that their “research is based on a very speculative and theoretical mathematical approach,” which will have to be tested in its physical and observable consequences.

They wrote their theory at the Specola Vaticana, the Vatican Observatory in Castel Gandolfo, the pope’s summer residence, drawing up their abstract calculations both on computers and  blackboards as they compared and discussed their ideas.

Pope Leo XIII created the Specola in 1918 “in a time of modernism where society accused the church of obscurantism,” Gionti said. The Vatican trials against astronomers and thinkers like Galileo Galilei and Giordano Bruni in the 16th century had pegged the Catholic Church as a “determined opponent to scientific progress,” he explained.

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Claire Giangravé is an author at Religion News Service.