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Cosmology

Evolution Of Cosmological Thought, The Expanding Universe, The Big Bang, Implications Of The Big Bang

Cosmology is the study of the origin, structure and evolution of the universe.

The origins of cosmology predate the human written record. The earliest civilizations constructed elaborate myths and folk tales to explain the wanderings of the Sun, Moon, and stars through the heavens. Ancient Egyptians tied their religious beliefs to celestial objects and Ancient Greek and Roman philosophers debated the composition and shape of Earth and the Cosmos. For more than 13 centuries, until the Scientific Revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Greek astronomer Ptolemy's model of an Earth-centered Cosmos composed of concentric crystalline spheres dominated the Western intellectual tradition.

Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus's (1473–1543) reassertion of the once discarded heliocentric (Sun-centered) theory sparked a revival of cosmological thought and work among the astronomers of the time. The advances in empiricism during the early part of the Scientific Revolution, embraced and embodied in the careful observations of Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe (1546–1601), found full expression in the mathematical genius of the German astronomer Johannes Kepler (1571–1630) whose laws of planetary motion swept away the need for the errant but practically useful Ptolemaic models. Finally, the patient observations of the Italian astronomer and physicist Galileo, in particular his observations of moons circling Jupiter and of the phases of Venus, empirically laid to rest cosmologies that placed Earth at the center of the Cosmos.

English physicist and mathematician Sir Isaac New ton's (1642–1727), important Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (Mathematical principles of natural philosophy) quantified the laws of motion and gravity and thereby enabled cosmologists to envision a clockwork-like universe governed by knowable and testable natural laws. Within a century of Newton's Principia, the rise of concept of a mechanistic universe led to the quantification of celestial dynamics, that, in turn, led to a dramatic increase in the observation, cataloging and quantification of celestial phenomena. In accord with the development of natural theology, scientists and philosophers argued conflicting cosmologies that argued the existence and need for a supernatural God who acted as "prime mover" and guiding force behind a clockwork universe. In particular, French mathematician, Pierre Simon de Laplace (1749–1827) argued for a completely deterministic universe, without a need for the intervention of God. Most importantly to the development of modern cosmology, Laplace asserted explanations for celestial phenomena as the inevitable result of time and statistical probability.

By the dawn of the twentieth century, advances in mathematics allowed the development of increasingly sophisticated cosmological models. Many of advances in mathematics pointed toward a universe not necessarily limited to three dimensions and not necessarily absolute in time. These intriguing ideas found expression in the intricacies of relativity and theory that, for the first time, allowed cosmologists a theoretical framework upon which they could attempt to explain the innermost workings and structure of the universe both on the scale of the subatomic world and on the grandest of galactic scales.

As direct consequence of German-American physicist Albert Einstein's (1879–1955) relativity theory, cosmologists advanced the concept that space-time was a creation of the universe itself. This insight set the stage for the development of modern cosmological theory and provided insight into the evolutionary stages of stars (e.g., neutron stars, pulsars, black holes, etc.) that carried with it an understanding of nucleosythesis (the formation of elements) that forever linked the physical composition of matter on Earth to the lives of the stars.

Twentieth-century progress in cosmology has been marked by corresponding and mutually beneficial advances in technology and theory. American astronomer Edwin Hubble's (1889–1953) discovery that the universe was expanding, Arno A. Penzias and Robert W. Wilson's observation of cosmic background radiation, and the detection of the elementary particles that populated the very early universe all proved important confirmations of the Big Bang theory. The Big Bang theory asserts that all matter and energy in the Universe, and the four dimensions of time and space were created from the primordial explosion of a singularity of enormous density, temperature, and pressure.

During the 1940s Russian-born American cosmologist and nuclear physicist George Gamow (1904–1968) developed the modern version of the big bang model based upon earlier concepts advanced by Russian physicist Alexander (Aleksandr Aleksandrovich) Friedmann (also spelled as Fridman, 1888–1925) and Belgian astrophysicist and cosmologist Abbé Georges Lemaître (1894–1966). Big bang based models replaced static models of the universe that described a homogeneous universe that was the same in all directions (when averaged over a large span of space) and at all times. Big bang and static cosmological models competed with each other for scientific and philosophical favor. Although many astrophysicists rejected the steady state model because it would violate the law of mass-energy conservation, the model had many eloquent and capable defenders. Moreover, the steady model was interpreted by many to be more compatible with many philosophical, social and religious concepts centered on the concept of an unchanging universe. The discovery quasars and of a permeating cosmic background radiation eventually tilted the cosmological argument in favor of big bang-based models.

Technology continues to expand the frontiers of cosmology. The Hubble Space Telescope has revealed gas clouds in the cosmic voids and beautiful images of fledgling galaxies formed when the universe was less than a billion years old. Analysis of these pictures and advances in the understanding of the fundamental constituents of nature continue to keep cosmology a dynamic discipline of physics and the ultimate fusion of human scientific knowledge and philosophy.


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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Cosine to Cyano group