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The Cosmos in Western Culture

by Bob Joseph and Toni Cowie

During the spring 2007 semester, we introduced a new astronomy course about the history of Western cosmology, Astronomy 380, The Cosmos in Western Culture. Taking as its major theme the evolution of the concepts of space, time, and motion, the course traced the interaction between cosmological thought and the more general history of ideas in Western civilization. A key feature of the course was an emphasis on reading primary sources: students read and discussed what Aristotle, Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Newton, and others actually wrote, and traced for themselves how these remarkable thinkers modified our picture of the Universe and our place in it. By placing these texts in their historical context, the course examined the birth and development of scientific explanation and the relation of ways of knowing in science to ways of knowing in other aspects of human experience.

Books used in Cosmos in Western Culture class.

Books used in this course:

  • The Fabric of the Heavens, by Stephen Toulmin & June Goodfield

  • Discoveries and Opinions of Galileo, by Stillman Drake (Ed.)

  • Science and Technology in World History, An Introduction (2nd Edition), by James E. McClellan III & Harold Dorn

  • The Fabric of the Cosmos, by Brian Greene

The course began with astronomy in Mesopotamia, where there was excellent celestial forecasting but apparently no interest in explaining why the heavens move as they do. The birth and development of the idea of a scientific theory was then traced from the first recorded attempts by the pre-Socratic Greek philosophers to explain cosmic phenomena in naturalistic terms to Aristotle's ideas of space and motion and his geocentric model of the heavens, culminating in Ptolemy's model, which became the cosmology for the next 1,500 years. With the demise of the Greco-Roman empire, this tradition was lost to the West, but preserved and developed further in the Islamic world. Eventually, it was rediscovered in the Middle Ages in Europe, where it was integrated with Christian thought by people such as Thomas Aquinas.

The course then examined the overthrow of this remarkably successful and self-consistent geocentric cosmos. Copernicus introduced the idea of a heliocentric Universe, and it was promoted by Galileo, whose difficulties with the Roman Church were studied. Kepler's remarkable physical intuition and exemplary methodology provided the final blow to the geocentric model, summarized in his three laws of planetary motion, and Newton showed that with his new theory of dynamics and his law of gravitation, he could reproduce on paper Kepler's empirical laws and explain much more. Newton's achievement was enormously influential and stimulated the search for natural laws in other areas of human experience; examples in politics, economics, and biology were explored.

The final section of the course examined post-Newtonian cosmology, with an evolving "Big Bang" cosmos and the demise of absolute space and time. The course closed with hints of new directions in cosmology arising from the fusion of astronomy and particle physics that began in the late twentieth century.

We found the students who took this course to be exceptionally engaged and enthusiastic. The course also attracted a number of senior citizens who contributed a variety of backgrounds and lively opinions: discussions were sometimes difficult to bring to a close. The course will be offered again during the spring 2008 term.