written by: Jason C. Chavis•edited by: RC Davison•updated: 7/30/2011
Cosmology is the study of the Universe and man's place within it. Human existence is intertwined with the understanding and existence of the Universe. Cosmology attempts to analyze this connection between what we know to be true and what we believe in. Science, religion and philosophy play a role.
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How Cosmology Fits with Science
Cosmology is the study of the Universe and humanity's place within it. The study has a long history, rooted in region, science, philosophy and esotericism. The first use of the definition was by Christian Wolff, a German philosopher who wrote Comologia Generalis in 1730. The term is derived from the Greek kosmos, meaning “universe," and logia, meaning “study."
Modern cosmology is an extension of physics and astrophysics. As the studies showed to play a central role in the fundamental understanding of the Universe, the two sciences became synonymous with cosmology. Mathematics and observational elements began to define the limits and expanses of the Universe as a whole. Scientist were able to understand the concept of the big bang and hypothesize about the expansion of space, determining that the Universe formed 13.7 billion years ago.
These discoveries led to the establishment of certain physical laws that exist today, and logically have always existed. Roger Bacon, persecuted by the Catholic Church, postulated during the 1200s the idea of a universe not centered around humans. This drew a stark contrast between religion and science.
Cosmology attempts to not only decipher the true nature of the Universe, but also man's place within its boundaries. This has led to the creation of a specific discipline within the cosmology field known as metaphysical cosmology. It attempts to answer the questions regarding natural boundaries and where the human being lies. It can also make determinations about God as a concept within the spacial construct of the Universe.
Ancient religions were tandem to the early studies of cosmology. Mythologizing and theorizing about the creation of the Universe, man's place and the ultimate destruction.
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Above: Ancient woodcarving of where heaven and earth meet. (Image credit: Heikenwaelder Hugo at Wikimedia Commons, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Universum.jpg, Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.5.)
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The establishment of the large scale nature of the Universe was one of the first successes of the early cosmologists. Ptolemy, an ancient Greek mathematician, proposed the theory that the Earth was the center of the Universe and all things flow around it. This model was called the geocentric system and stayed as the preferred truth about the Universe until the 16th century. Nicolaus Copernicus authored a book entitled On the Evolution of Celestial Spheres in which he claimed the Earth was not the center of the Universe and it orbited around the Sun. This made the Sun the center of the Universe and this was called the heliocentric system. Subsequent studies made by Johannes Kepler and Galileo Galilei also supported this theory.
However, critics of this idea questioned why the celestial bodies floated around the Sun. It wasn't until Isaac Newton established the law of universal gravitation that humans understood the principles that made the solar system function -- gravity was the cause of all motion.
During the 1900s, scientists like Albert Einstein pushed for greater understanding of the Universe. The Great Debate, a meeting of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences in Washington on August 26, 1920, established the modern principles that scientists follow today. The center of the debate was whether the Milky Way star system was the only true system and everything else orbited around it. Harlow Wilson was the champion of this theory, while Herber D. Curtis claimed that spiral nebulae were their own system, essentially island universes. Edwin Hubble solved the question by showing that the Andromeda galaxy possessed novae and that other galaxies did indeed exist.
This led to the big bang theory and the discovery of the red shift, how light shifts toward the red end of the spectrum as objects, like galaxies move away from us, and the cosmic microwave background radiation that fills the entire Universe - remnants of the Big Bang. This gave scientists a fundamental physical understanding of the Universe.
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Creation myths belong to nearly every conceivable culture on the planet. These theories are a part of the study of the cosmology in that they attempt to explain the beginnings of the Universe and human life. Much of these studies are held in dogma, but occasionally intertwine with a philosophical or metaphysical understanding of the Universe.
Many of these religions view creation as a direct act by one or many gods. Usually, these link with teachings of the origin of humanity. Other religious cosmologies also tell of the end of the Universe.
Biblical cosmology is understood from the Genesis section of the Bible in both Christianity and Judaism. Islam's universal origins stem from the Qur'an. Buddhism and Hinduism sometimes intertwine a mixture of gods with a cycle that the Universe passes through based on the lifespan of Brahma that last 331 trillion years.
Cosmology has also been used as the basis of many modern religious groups. A number of cult leaders have used certain aspects of physical cosmology to explain religious truths in an order to control small sects of people. Still, others adopted the scientific understanding to match religious beliefs such as intelligent design.
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Cosmology is also deeply rooted in philosophy and metaphysics. The totality of space and time is not fully understood by scientists, opening the doors to a more theoretical approach to humanity's place within the cosmos. This differs from religious cosmology in that it does not use principles of faith or belief, but rather the philosophical method such as dialectics, a method of argument. This attempts to answer questions such as, "Why is the Universe necessary?"
Nicolaus Copernicus created the modern concept of the solar system and changed cosmology forever. With his theory of a heliocentric model of the Sun and planets, the Copernican Revolution gave way to modern astronomy.