In this series of posts about the history of relativistic cosmology, I’ll provide an epistemological analysis of the developments of the field from 1917 to 2006, based on the seminal articles by Einstein, de Sitter, Friedmann, Lemaitre, Hubble, Gamow and other main historical figures of the field. It appears that most of the ingredients of the present-day standard cosmological model, including the accelation of the expansion due to a repulsive dark energy, the interpretation of the cosmological constant as vacuum energy or the possible non-trivial topology of space, had been anticipated by Lemaitre, although his papers remain mostly unquoted.
From Myth to Science
What are the origins of the universe, of the stars, of the earth, of life, of man? These questions have given rise to many different myths and legends, and today they are more than ever the subject of intensive research by astrophysicists, biologists and anthropologists. What were once fanciful stories are now scientific models; but whatever form they take, ideas about the origins of the universe both reflect and enrich the imagination of the people who generate them. Every society has developed its own stories to explain the creation of the world; all of them are ancient myths rooted in religion.
Whereas in monotheistic religions God is believed to have existed before the Creation, in most other kinds of religion the gods themselves are thought to originate from a creative element such as Desire, the Tree of the Universe, the Mundane Egg, Water, Chaos or the Void.
A belief in some such primordial element, of which there are traces in every culture, underlies man’s thinking about the history of the cosmos like a primitive universal symbol buried in the collective subconscious. This may explain the vague links that can always be discerned between this or that creation myth and modern scientific descriptions of the origin of the universe –for example, big bang theory. There is therefore nothing mysterious or surprising about these correspondences other than that certain ways of thinking about the world should be so ingrained in the human mind.
In fact scientific and mythical explanations of the origins are neither complementary not contradictory; they have different purposes and are subject to different constraints. Mythical stories are a way of preserving collective memories, which can be verified neither by the storyteller nor by the listener. Their function is not to explain what happened at the beginning of the world but to establish the basis of social or religious order, to impart a set of moral values. Myths can also be interpreted in many different ways. Science, on the other hand, aims to discover what really happened in historical terms by means of theories supported by observation. Often considered to be anti-myth, science has in fact created new stories about the origin of the universe: big bang model, the theory of evolution, and the ancestry of mankind. It is therefore hardly surprising that the new creation stories developed by scientists tend to be regarded by the general public as modern myths.