Cosmology and 21st-Century Culture

Essay by AmBeddUniversity, Bachelor's September 2003

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Nancy Ellen Abrams is a lawyer, writer, and performance artist, and her husband Joel R. Primack is a professor of physics at the University of California, Santa Cruz. They have been teaching a course at UCSC on Cosmology and Culture for 6 years. Primack currently serves on the executive committee of the American Physical Society Division of Astrophysics and chairs the advisory committee to the AAAS Program of Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion.



We like to think of our generation in this Information Age as the smartest and most knowledgeable that has ever lived. Yet most people in modern Western culture have no idea what our universe looks like or how to begin to think about the way we humans may fit into the cosmos. Every traditional culture known to anthropology has had a cosmology--a story of how the world began and continues, how humans came to exist, and what the gods expect of us.

Cosmology made sense of the ordinary world by defining a larger context and grounding people's sense of reality, their identity, and their codes of behavior in that grand scheme. Like modern science, it embedded everydayness in an invisible reality: Modern science explains by means of countless molecules; African cosmologies explain by means of countless spirits. Ordinary people in traditional societies accepted responsibility for maintaining the cosmos itself by ritually reenacting the creation stories for every generation. This is how they knew who they were. The absence of a cosmology was as inconceivable as the absence of language. Their pictures of the universe were not what anyone today would consider scientifically accurate, but they were true by the standards of their culture.

Science undermined all traditional pictures of the universe in the Renaissance, centuries before it was in a position to...