Cosmos Means Order

19 May 2023

We will never know when humankind first wondered about the bright points illuminating the night sky, or when we first found the sight enchanting. Was it when our species first emerged around three hundred thousand years ago? Or over half a million years ago, when creatures resembling modern humans first created art by painting cave walls and carving seashells, revealing their ability to think symbolically? Perhaps it was more recently, a hundred thousand or so years ago, when people were burying their dead and may have believed that the spirits of their ancestors go to some kind of heaven?

Łukasz Kwiatek

Paradoxically, after almost three millennia of rational reflection on the universe – when ancient Greek philosophers were striving to explain natural phenomena through independent natural mechanisms rather than the whims of the gods (the word “cosmos” originally meant “order”) – we know more about the origins of stars and planets than those of human intellect. Our Solar System first emerged over four and a half billion years ago, starting with the gravitational collapse of a small part of a giant molecular cloud. The mass explosion resulted in the formation of the Sun, while smaller clouds of gas and heavy metals led to the formation of planets including the Earth. The Moon was created rather later, likely as a result of a collision between proto-Earth and a theoretical planet named Theia. The cloud of matter comprising the building blocks of our Solar System originated from explosions of ancient stars, marking the end of their existence. They, too, had their own predecessors: our Sun is at least a third-generation star. The first stars appeared around 13.6 billion years ago, while the universe – at least our own universe – dates back another two hundred million years.

It may seem surprising that regardless how much we know about our universe and the laws that govern it, looking up at the night sky always seems to stir similar metaphysical experiences, similar curiosity, similar longing for beauty. It was emotions such as these which guided Copernicus as he was developing his heliocentric model – far simpler and more beautiful than former models which placed Earth at the centre with no rhyme or reason. They guided Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler as they sketched elliptical planetary orbits fitting with their observations; they guided Isaac Newton as he described his theory of gravity; they guided Albert Einstein whose search for symmetry in the laws of nature led him to revolutionise everything we thought we knew. In any case, this doesn’t just apply to physicists and cosmologists – the development of each and every discipline is driven by our innate need to understand.

Kraków has been hosting the Copernicus Festival for the last decade. The event is dedicated to reflections on themes of space, as well as showing that science is an important element of our culture as a whole. The first edition of the festival was held under the banner of “Revolutions”, followed by themes of genius, beauty, chance, emotions, language, time, imagination and information. This year, marking the 550th anniversary of Copernicus’s birth, the theme is “Cosmos”.

As usual, the festival is visited by acclaimed scientists, including the astrobiologist David Grinspoon, author of books on other planets and life in the universe; the cosmologist and mathematician Bernard Carr whose research includes models of other universes; Katrin Amunts, scientific research director of the Human Brain Project which aims to map the human brain and count all connections within it; and the psychologist Arie Kruglanski studying the human desire to understand and explain the universe.

Let’s look at the cosmos during the Year of Copernicus!

The festival is held at the Museum of Engineering and Technology at 15 Św. Wawrzyńca Street in Kraków. You can also follow events on

Łukasz Kwiatek is a populariser of science. He works at the Copernicus Center for Interdisciplinary Studies at the Jagiellonian University. Editor of the science section of the “Tygodnik Powszechny” weekly, member of the Copernicus Festival team.

Illustrations: Zofia Różycka

The article published in the 1/2023 issue of "Kraków Culture" quarterly.


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