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By Alan Boyle Science editor
msnbc.com

Does the immense universe really make a difference to us puny humans? Scientists say their changing picture of how the universe works could have a big impact for Earth’s future politics and culture. And, in turn, sometimes politics has an impact on how that picture is presented.

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Changing cosmologies — ranging from the Genesis description of the firmament to the Copernican and Newtonian revolutions — provided the theme for Wednesday’s first session of the Cosmic Questions symposium, presented by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

In recent years, scientists have drawn a new picture of the universe’s first moments, during which a flicker of space-time inflated to cosmic proportions, then settled down into a less explosive period of expansion that continues today. Joel Primack, a cosmologist at the University of California at Santa Cruz, said that model may provide a paradigm for humanity’s future, just as earlier theories changed the way humans looked at themselves.

‘Inflation on Earth'

Like the universe itself, humans will have to make a phase transition from “inflation on Earth” — that is, ballooning population — to a sustainable future, he noted.

“Our generation and the next generation, and maybe the one after that, are the ones who will have to live through this transition and make it happen,” he told reporters.

He and other experts seemed to go along with a journalist’s suggestion that physics might provide “a new cosmology for a greener life.”

“The whole picture is slowly falling into place,” said astronomer Sandra Faber, a colleague of Primack’s at Santa Cruz. She noted that most of the planets being detected beyond our solar system are being discovered around metal-rich stars — and that our own sun ranks relatively high in metal content.

“Our solar system may have been among the very first to be formed. … We may be the forerunners,” she said.

Such speculation, if it becomes widely accepted, may enhance the value of life on Earth, she said.

“There’s a hell of an investment here, right? Why would we want to be stupid and throw it all away?” she remarked.

Role of religion in cosmology

Does it work the other way? Do political and religious concerns affect the way scientists investigate the universe’s origin and potential fate? The scientists at Wednesday’s session said no — but Primack recalled that there was some temporary unpleasantness over how the cosmological picture was being presented in an Imax film he played a role in preparing.

Just after the GOP captured control of Congress in 1994, he said, some government officials were squeamish about the use of the terms “Big Bang” and “evolution” in the film, titled “Cosmic Voyage.”

The movie, which received government funding, shows scientists’ conceptions about the origin and nature of the universe. Officials feared that the terms might offend some religious sensibilities, “making it impossible to show (the film) in the American South,” Primack said.

But several months later, after a management shuffle, he and other scientific consultants were able to work the terms back into the script, he said.

Stay tuned for further dispatches from the “Cosmic Questions” symposium.

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