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February 1, 1999

UCSC professor examines the implications of modern cosmology

By Tim Stephens

If cosmology embodies a culture's commonly held notions about the nature of the universe, then what is the cosmology of modern Western culture?

UCSC cosmologist Joel Primack

According to UCSC cosmologist Joel Primack, modern society has failed to develop a unified view of cosmology. The result, he says, is a pervasive sense of rootlessness and disorientation that causes many people to avoid contemplating their place in the universe and to focus instead on the trivial concerns of consumerism.

"The lack of social consensus on cosmology in the modern world has caused many people to close off their thinking to large issues and long time scales, so that small matters dominate their consciousness," says Primack, who presented his ideas on cosmology and culture last week at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Anaheim.

The session, organized by Primack and Owen Gingerich of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, brought together cosmologists and theologians to address the broad implications of the picture of the universe that is emerging from modern cosmology.

In most traditional cultures, people's sense of identity and codes of behavior are grounded in a cosmology that provides a picture of who they are, where they come from, and what their personal relationship to the larger world should be. For more than 300 years, however, scientific advances have tended to undermine traditional cosmologies while offering an image of the cosmos bereft of spiritual or mythic dimensions, Primack says.

But this need not be. The science of cosmology is experiencing a golden age of discovery and is poised to deliver a revolutionary description of the nature and origin of the universe, Primack says.

"In the closing years of the 20th century, we're learning enough to begin to peer across the gulf that separates our universe from its source at the beginning of, or perhaps before, the Big Bang," he says. "A story is emerging in modern cosmology that will, if it follows the pattern of earlier shifts in cosmology, change our culture in ways no one can yet predict."

This new model of the cosmos has the potential to serve as a source of inspiration and positive change in our society, he adds. The challenge lies in making a complicated and counterintuitive scientific model of the cosmos accessible to society at large.

To this end, Primack has resurrected an ancient symbol and used it to embody an image of the cosmos consistent with what scientists understand about the universe today. That symbol, known to the ancient Greeks as a "uroboros," is the snake swallowing its tail. Harvard physicist and Nobel laureate Sheldon Glashow originally suggested using this symbol to represent the universe as a continuity of vastly different size scales, with the swallowing of the tail representing the hoped-for unification of theories governing the largest and smallest scales.

The size scales in the known universe encompass about 60 orders of magnitude, from the vastness of the cosmic horizon to the subatomic Planck scale, the smallest size allowed by relativity and quantum physics. Yet people asked to visualize "the universe" tend to think of endless space and uncountable stars and galaxies, while the human scale shrinks into insignificance.

In fact, if all the size scales are laid out logarithmically on the cosmic uroboros, the human scale is right smack in the middle between the head and the tail of the snake, Primack notes. "Largeness is by no means the most important characteristic of the universe. Focusing on it makes people feel small, not because they are, but because they are simply ignoring all scales smaller than themselves," he says.

In addition to representing a universe that exists on all scales, the cosmic uroboros illustrates the emergence of new properties at different scales, Primack says. Not surprisingly, this simple symbol does not represent other important aspects of the universe, such as evolution. Yet Primack remains convinced that the major concepts of modern cosmology not only are comprehensible to the average person with the help of symbolic representations, but can serve as a source of inspiration and possibly even spirituality.

"In the next few decades, powerful ideas of modern cosmology could inspire a spiritual renaissance, but they could also be ignored by most people as irrelevant and elitist," he says. "How well our cosmology is interpreted in language meaningful to ordinary people will determine how well its elemental stories are understood, which may in turn affect how positive the consequences for society turn out to be."

Primack, a leading theoretical cosmologist, teaches a course on "Cosmology and Culture" at UCSC with his wife, Nancy Abrams, who helped develop many of these ideas. Primack and Abrams are currently writing a book on the subject.

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