HONR 219Q:

Perspectives on the Cosmos - from the Ancient Philosophers to Modern Science

Tue. 2:00-4:30PM

Prof. Stacy McGaugh, Department of Astronomy


For all of recorded history, and presumably well before that, people have asked the Big Questions:  What is the nature of the Universe?  How big is it?  How old?  What is our place in it?  For just as long, we've been making up the answers. 


Cosmology is the subject that seeks to answer the big questions.  As such, it is the nexus where science, philosophy, and religion collide.  This course will explore the subject of cosmology, from both an historical and scientific perspective.  In the process, we will examine the roles of faith, philosophy, and empirical knowledge.  We will survey prevailing attitudes towards the nature of the world model over time, examining the impact of belief systems on the interpretation of physical evidence.  Subjects to be covered include the first vital steps of the ancient philosophers, the tension between geocentric and heliocentric world models at the time of Copernicus and Galileo, and the modern scientific world view.


Students will learn to critically examine evidence and its interpretation, learning to appreciate the strengths and shortcomings of various forms of human knowledge.  Emphasis will be placed on the importance and limitations of empirical evidence, and the dangers inherent in the interpretation of evidence within a preconceived framework.  The student will gain a detailed knowledge of modern cosmology, and develop an appreciation for both its strengths and inherent weaknesses.  In the process comes a respect for the diverse paths to knowledge followed by humanity.


Course work will include a midterm and final.  There will be weekly readings and written reading responses.  An essential part of the seminar will be lively discussion of the topic at hand; as such, class participation will constitute a portion of the grade.  Students will be responsible for researching and presenting an appropriate subject chosen in consultation with the instructor.  The presentation will take the form of a term paper and an oral presentation to the class.  Examples of potential topics and readings can be found at http://www.aip.org/history/cosmology/ideas/greekworldview.htm.