Foundations of Modern Cosmology

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Chapter 1: In the Beginning

Chapter Summary Our exploration of cosmology begins with a brief history of the human desire to understand the cosmos. Mythology, humanity's first attempt to grapple with cosmological questions, consists of narrative tales that describe the universe in understandable terms. The text briefly discusses the Tanzanian myth The Word as an example of a creation myth. Cosmology, particularly as expressed by a mythology, can influence a culture's or an individual's actions.

The big bang appears to the casual observer as just another myth, albeit without some of the more obvious anthropocentric characteristics. (We have written this new explanation in a form to mirror a mythological story.) The difference, however, is that modern cosmology is based upon the scientific method. The scientific method has very specific rules. It is based on objective data, observations that are independent of who made those observations. Once sufficient data are collected, a hypothesis is framed to explain and unify them. In order to be regarded as scientific, the hypothesis must meet at minimum five characteristics: it must be relevant, testable, consistent, simple, and have explanatory power. Of these, the quality of testability particularly defines the scientific method. A hypothesis that does not contain the potential to be falsified is not scientific. Once a hypothesis has met success at explaining data and has proven itself useful in predicting new phenomena, it is generally called a theory. Some particularly well established theories, especially those pertaining to a limited phenomenon or forming the foundation for a broader theory, are called laws. Hence we refer to the law of gravity, even though scientific "laws" are subject to modification as our understanding improves. Newton's law of gravity is extremely well verified for the regime in which it is applicable (weak gravitational fields and speeds small compared to the speed of light); but Newton's law must be superseded by Einstein's general theory of relativity.

Steps in the scientific method.

Points to Ponder
  • What are examples of cosmological questions?
  • What are common themes in mythology? Learn an example.

The gods did not reveal from the beginning
All things to us; but in the course of time
Through seeking, men find that which is better.
But as for certain truth, no man has known it
Nor will he know it. - Xenophanes (6th Century BC)
Potential Pitfalls

We begin with the mythological roots of cosmology, but our overriding theme will be that modern cosmology is not just today's creation myth. The historical development of the scientific method, the tremendous improvements in our data gathering abilities, and the development of physical theory set the modern cosmological picture apart.

Questions & Answers

Questions and Answers related to Chapter 1.

Web World

If you would like to see an extensive listing of various myths and legends, check the Myths and Legends page.

Go here to learn more about the El Caracol site in the Yucatan.

When learning about what science is it can be helpful to learn about what science is not. Here's a fun page that describes some bad science in popular culture:   Bad Astronomy