Monday, August 25, 2008

post-Western cosmologies

This blog starts with SAGREDO’s text which questions key issues about the ‘scientific view of the origin and evolution of the universe’ while relating the topic of cosmology (cosmology defined here in a scientific minimalist approach limited to Western science i.e. physics and astronomy) within the Western scientific canon, to the possibility of claiming the ‘validity’ of the most recent cosmological models. And while he indicates Primak and Abrams' position on the topic, SAGREDO also expresses his own pedagogical concerns on how to popularize science and reach a general public in relation to a relevant cosmological model in these times.
I couldn’t agree more to those two big issues, and it is high time these topics be addressed in an interdisciplinary manner. As a social scientist I hope in our blog this will also require relating it to diverse peoples’ and cultures’ cosmologies and worldviews not only in the West, but also worldwide.
This is why it is so significant that SAGREDO then develops the question by taking a maximalist approximation of what is a cosmology about/ for/ etc etc and also refers to problems about ‘confusion and animosity (…) with regards to the planet, the environment and our place in the universe’, where a cosmology is not only of significance for scientists but to peoples as a template that allows interpretations about the role of humanity, ecosystems, and our planet, within it all. Indeed we are now in times of cosmologies at war over such issues -but more on that later-
Notably SAGREDO refers to Galileo and to the context when new cosmologies are created and the responses and critiques confronting those proposing an innovative cosmology which debunks a previous one. And how political it proved to be, for, as SAGREDO says, who ‘owns a cosmology’ that is to be mainstreamed is often linked to the control of power. Though Western science since then, was deemed to evolve by separating religion from science, and faith and truth claims from scientific knowledge, and also science was to investigate ‘nature’ in value-free terms, however there are still many uncanny links of science with ideology, power, etc which indicate, as Latour says, that we have ‘never been modern’ .
There are thus several directions and topics we can engage in, already indicated in the starting text made by SAGREDO in this blog; but they entail different approaches and will each take us a lot of time:
One is a discussion restricted to scientific cosmologies, and especially on the relevance of the most recent cosmological model, and of the importance to communicate it to a general public in a relevant manner. This will require mobilizing unprecedented means so people actually understand it and also relate it to their worldviews and daily life; but this also entails problems of reaching a critical mass of people with such scientific literacy, and engages a new approach to education in science and technology. Yet it can also include many other issues, including who and how would control this pedagogical process, hence the stakes in the huge interests and politics which could meddle with it all. If we chose the subject of pedagogy, maybe we could just stick to the issue of contemporary Western ‘scientific’ cosmology and the problems of its understanding and application among a general public for science education either only at a theoretical level, or we could try a case study, for example in a given country, culture, institution, etc, for example within the Western world initially to work out a model.
Another direction can be taken however, which is asking ourselves what is the link between ‘scientific cosmologies’ and other cosmologies and worldviews. We could consider the relevance of the cosmologies people actually have in the first place and how the recent scientific cosmology does fit or not, why, how etc and for what??? In this case, I suggest we can look at the West but also towards non-Western cultures i.e the rest of the world and their cosmologies, and also their own history of science-s, --while also reflecting on the relevance of modern ‘scientific cosmology’ for these cultures in the 21st century--.
Thus we could not only restrict the discussion to ‘Big Science’ cosmology, but to cosmology as for example defined by Anthropology where not only the scientists are investigating, interpreting, or pondering about the origins and evolution of the Universe, but all cultures and humans too, and in their own ways etc. Not only today, but for millennia, (I’d say for more than 100,000 years), thousands of human cultures, have engaged, and still do, in constructing, transforming, recreating, and innovating their own corpus of beliefs, ideas, practices etc about the origins and evolution of the universe, and of the meaning of their own society within the rest of humanity, the biosphere/life, planet Earth, and the universe or cosmos. In this later understanding of ‘cosmology’, where all cultures would have a cosmology –or more, or also hybrid versions--, and conflated or not with a ‘worldview’ , a cosmology is of relevance also for dealing with environmental and with social issues, and to debate relations between and among societies/cultures, and also regarding shared ideas about a common past, present and future or destiny.
If we consider that in this 21st century, at present worldwide there are 10,000 cultures and some 6,900 languages, as such at least 10,000 cosmologies exist; but if we add those of diaspora, hybrid cultures, virtual societies, and also the new forms of cultural expressions and diversity, there are many cosmologies and also types of cosmologies and worldviews. These cosmologies may be coherent and not, fragmentary or hybrid and not , etc etc. Some contain scientific corpuses, some not, but then again, that depends upon how one defines science; and some contain more religion than others, but that too depends upon what one defines as religion. But does anyone really know what is the relation between culture-s and cosmology-ies, and what theories have been proposed within the history of ideas and of sciences about this??? Do we know how cultures or cosmologies appear or disappear, or are transformed; and which cultures, societies, persons, and which collective or individual forces are mobilized or immobilized, in such processes? And why and according to which stakes? Many other questions are also relevant today: What are the cosmologies accompanying globalization nowadays? and for example in geopolitical, or nation-building dynamics in this century? And can they be compared if at all to cosmologies as defined by astronomers or physicists today??
All these latter topics as far as I know are not really the concern of Cosmologists from ‘Big Science’ who are delving with the laws and forces of the universe or cosmos, its origin (via big Bang) and evolution, and its future. Unfortunately these topics and other on comparative cosmologies are also not the concern of most anthropologists either. However, very recently there are some new reflections, websites, journals on related topics, for example on the relation between culture and cosmology for example from researchers of archeo or ethnoastronmy or of the history of astronomy. See for example the oncoming conference next September on ’Cosmologies Across Cultures' in:
Each of us participating in this blog have been pondering on issues related to cosmology for several decades, and as such the subject of this blog is most timely, to advance interdisciplinary and intercultural research and share our ideas on the so many subjects of common interest.
Maybe in this blog we can place our own definitions of COSMOLOGY, so we can all advance in proposing and improving a working definition of COSMOLOGY. If you agree, in my next text I’ll attach my anthropological definition of Cosmology which I wrote for an encyclopedia, and it would be relevant to have your own definitions too so we can have those of physics, astronomy and history and sociology of science as our starting point.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Big Bang Cosmology

SAGREDO: Question about the scientific view on the origin and evolution of the universe

Scientists that explore questions about the origin and evolution of the universe (aka cosmologists) have developed a cosmology based on theoretical developments of the past 80 or so years and very impressive experimental results from only few years ago. This theory of the origin and evolution of the universe, so called “the standard cosmological model” claims that we know what the universe is made of and to a large extent (except for the very first few fractions of a second) everything that happens in the universe can be explained by science. Some popularizes of science are asking the public to accept this model of the universe in the grounds that the evidence is overwhelming and very unlikely to be disproved [1]. However, many examples can be cited where scientists have made similar claims only to be withdrawn at the next experiment contradicting the claim. Despite the exuberance of scientists working in the field and at times overreaching conclusions, it does appear that new observations are solid, repeatable, and highly coherent (to the point that the most acerbic critics have conceded [2]). Question: Does experimental and observational evidence grants the scientific view of cosmology a platform to claim validity?


[1] Joel R. Primack and Nancy Ellen Abrams, “The View from the Center of the Universe”, (Riverhead Books, New York 2006),

[2] J.V. Narlikar, G. Burbidge, R.G. Vishwakarma, “Cosmology and Cosmogony in a Cyclic Universe”,

Observing the Universe


Why this blog?

Four hundred years ago Galileo Galilei turned his telescope to the heavens and for the first time humanity step out of its cozy earthly home. To the horror of the establishment, what Galileo observed did not conform to the orderly heavens that for more than a thousand years dictated how we should see and relate to the universe. Galileo’s observations started a dialogue that split the history of humanity in two. Today, with so much confusion and animosity among the different corners of society with regards to the planet, the environment, and our place in the universe and confronting the potential for irreversible damage to the conditions that sustain life itself, there is need for another cosmological dialogue. When it comes to cosmology we do not even know what the relevant questions to ask are. Scientists and academicians in the humanities not even agree on what cosmology is, not even how to approach it. This blog provides a space for a multidisciplinary dialogue between scientists, sociologists, historians, anthropologists, etc aimed at finding common ground, a point where researchers from disparate fields that bear on the topic of cosmology can find an intersection of ideas, approaches and concepts.

Cosmology is a field whose property is claimed by theologians, philosophers, sociologists, anthropologists and now scientists. Each side pulling towards their historic domain in a non-constructive, non-inclusive manner. Only few decades ago our knowledge of the universe stopped at the feeble nebulae that appeared like improbable ghosts imprinted on the finest photographic plates that technology could produce. Today the scientific community announces triumphantly and with much fanfare that the standard cosmological model is close to a ‘final’ answer, while philosophers and sociologists question the very premises under which science rests. In the mean time the public, ever more apathetic and aimless, is bombarded by confusing messages denying claims made by scientists in a number of areas ranging from human evolution to degradation of the environment. What can we make out if this confusing state of affairs? Are there any grounds to claim that certain approaches to cosmology have more value than others? Are there any meeting points where researchers from different disciplines interested in cosmology can meet? Who owns cosmology?

Motivated by an agreement that such questions require a multidisciplinary approach, a group of us (an anthropologist, a sociologist of science and an astrophysicist -- for now) decided to start an honest dialogue to explore the “big questions” in cosmology. This is an experiment and we do not know where it would lead us, but whatever that place might be one thing for sure can be stated which is that we all have something to learn from our colleague in the other department.

The Rules of the Game

1 - we are doing these for the shear interest we have on the subject of cosmology. Not for money or fame.

2 - The intellectual property of this material belongs to the authors (in common) such that whatever we decide to do later on with this material will be jointly decided.

3 - The format consists of one “big question” followed by the answers from the three perspectives of the authors. We’ll use pseudonyms (ETNY = antrophologist, XXX = sociologist of science/historian, SAGREDO = astrophysicist). Anyone can post questions. The dialogue is non-linear, one topic branches into another, one question generates others,…

4 - We are extremely busy and everyone knows that the amount of time we can devote to this activity is minimal, therefore this should not be extra load and does not represent any commitment of any kind. Anyone can write whenever.

... please indicate if we need to add more rules, etc