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PHSX 594: Cosmology and Culture

Escher Metamorphosis

We are beings who want, seek, and create understanding and knowledge with the same intensity that drives us to gather food, seek shelter and come together in love.

We organize our knowledge in narratives, stories we can tell ourselves and share with others. We love to sit around a fire or a lecture hall or in a park and tell stories that clarify and make sense of the curious things that happen to us and sort out the mysterious (and frightening) (and beautiful) world around us.

In this class we will be telling a story about stories. Specifically, we will be looking at how humans have organized their explanations of the whole world, the universe, the cosmos and how it works. In short, we will discuss cosmology.

Cosmology is as wide and deep as a topic can be.
Since we will be asking big questions, we will be using ideas that we learned from religion, philosophy, psychology, anthropology, paleontology, geology, astronomy, chemistry, biology and physics.
How did we create  the narratives that address these questions?
How were we able to develop the cosmologies we have invented or discovered?
What were the basic assumptions upon which our cosmological narratives were erected?

What do we know about our explanations?
What do we know about the process with which we have come to them?
Do we fundamentally understand our universe and are struggling to articulate our vision?
Or is it that we do not understand anything and are required to figure it out somehow and only then articulate what we learned?
What tools have we constructed to help us comprehend our environment?

How do we know anything?
How do we know that we understand?

This Spring (2014) Professor Hume Feldman will teach an upper division course in Physics. The course (PHSX 594 Cosmology and Culture, T Th 1:00 - 2:15 PM) is geared towards non-science majors who are interested in the relationship between science and society. It is a survey of modern physical cosmology, its historical roots, and creation myths from many world cultures, as well as an examination of the effects these stories have on their parent cultures. It fulfills KU Core Goal 4.2.

In scientific circles cosmology is generally considered to be a bridging branch between physics and astronomy that deals with the origin and structure of the Universe. In this class, however, we will establish a broader definition and contemplate cosmology within the context of the development of civilizations. Throughout history societies have striven to establish compelling narratives that attempt to encapsulate the bewildering and seemingly mysterious experiences we encounter. We will explore many of these explanations and accounts, mapping their progression throughout history and paying special attention to the importance of verifiability, falsification and parsimony of those narratives. The ultimate goal of this course is to develop a deeper understanding of our physical environment, our world, and our Universe. In short, present a cosmology.

As part of the course we will employ resources from various fields within the humanities (Religious Studies, Art History), social sciences (Anthropology, Political Science, Psychology) and natural sciences. We will have guest lecturers, specializing in wide-ranging fields, present differing narrative accounts of the subject matter; we will encourage presentations by and open discussions with students.


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