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What Is Cosmology? Definition & History

Cosmology is the branch of astronomy involving the origin and evolution of the universe, from the Big Bang to today and on into the future. According to NASA, the definition of cosmology is “the scientific study of the large scale properties of the universe as a whole.”

Cosmologists puzzle over exotic concepts like string theory, dark matter and dark energy and whether there is one universe or many (sometimes called the multiverse). While other aspects astronomy deal with individual objects and phenomena or collections of objects, cosmology spans the entire universe from birth to death, with a boatload of mysteries at every stage. [7 Surprising Facts About the Universe]

After Big Bang Came Moment of Pure Chaos, Study Finds
Snapshot from a computer simulation of the formation of large-scale structures in the universe, showing a patch of 100 million light-years and the resulting coherent motions of galaxies flowing toward the highest mass concentration in the center.
Credit: ESO

History of cosmology & astronomy

Humanity's understanding of the universe has evolved significantly over time. In the early history of astronomy, Earth was regarded as the center of all things, with planets and stars orbiting it. In the 16th century, Polish scientist Nicolaus Copernicus suggested that Earth and the other planets in the solar system in fact orbited the sun, creating a profound shift in the understanding of the cosmos. In the late 17th century, Isaac Newton calculated how the forces between planets — specifically the gravitational forces — interacted.

The dawn of the 20th century brought further insights into comprehending the vast universe. Albert Einstein proposed the unification of space and time in his General Theory of Relativity. In the early 1900s, scientists were debating whether the Milky Way contained the whole universe within its span, or whether it was simply one of many collections of stars. Edwin Hubble calculated the distance to a fuzzy nebulous object in the sky and determined that it lay outside of the Milky Way, proving our galaxy to be a small drop in the enormous universe. Using General Relativity to lay the framework, Hubble measured other galaxies and determined that they were rushing away from the us, leading him to conclude that the universe was not static but expanding.

In recent decades, cosmologist Stephen Hawking determined that the universe itself is not infinite but has a definite size. However, it lacks a definite boundary. This is similar to Earth; although the planet is finite, a person traveling around it would never find the "end" but would instead constantly circle the globe. Hawking also proposed that the universe would not continue on forever but would eventually end.

Some researchers think concentric ring patterns in measurements of the cosmic microwave background are evidence of a universe that existed before our own was born in the Big Bang.
Credit: Roger Penrose and Vahe Gurzadyan

Common cosmological questions

What came before the Big Bang?
Because of the enclosed and finite nature of the universe, we cannot see "outside" of our own universe. Space and time began with the Big Bang. While there is a number of speculations about the existence of other universes, there is no practical way to observe them, and as such there will never be any evidence for (or against!) them.

Where did the Big Bang happen?
The Big Bang did not happen at a single point but instead was the appearance of space and time throughout the entire universe at once.

If other galaxies all seem to be rushing away from us, doesn't that place us at the center of the universe?
No, because if we were to travel to a distant galaxy, it would seem that all surrounding galaxies were similarly rushing away. Think of the universe as a giant balloon. If you mark multiple points on the balloon, then blow it up, you would note that each point is moving away from all of the others, though none are at the center. The expansion of the universe functions in much the same way.

How old is the universe?
The universe is 13.7 billion years old, give or take a hundred million years or so.

Cosmic Microwave Backroung (CMB)
Credit: NASA/WMAP Science Team

Will the universe end? If so, how?
Whether or not the universe will come to an end depends on its density — how spread out the matter within it might be. Scientists have calculated a "critical density" for the universe. If its true density is greater than their calculations, eventually the expansion of the universe will slow and then, ultimately, reverse until it collapses. However, if the density is less than the critical density, the universe will continue to expand forever. [More: How the Universe Will End]

Which came first, the chicken…er, the galaxy or the stars?
The post-Big Bang universe was composed predominantly of hydrogen, with a little bit of helium thrown in for good measure. Gravity caused the hydrogen to collapse inward, forming structures. However, astronomers are uncertain whether the first massive blobs formed individual stars that later fell together via gravity, or the mass came together in galaxy-sized clumps that later formed stars.

—Nola Taylor Redd

Further resources:

NASA's page on Cosmology

Ask an Astrophysicist (also by NASA)

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