Cosmology Across Five Centuries: Copernicus to the Big Bang


One of humanity’s greatest achievements has been the fathoming of the universe: what it is like, and how it came about. This lecture series will trace the unfolding of our knowledge about the cosmos, from around 1500 to the present day.

The reason why the universe of the young Copernicus was still essentially that of the ancient Greeks was not because of ‘medieval superstition’, but a shortage of fresh data. What changed after c. 1570, and especially with the telescope after 1609, was a floodtide of new information, obtained with new types of instruments.

And this Renaissance connection between technology and discovery has accelerated down to today, with spectroscopy, modern physics, radio astronomy, space probes, and a host of other innovations. It is a history populated by fascinating characters, such as Galileo, whose original discoveries were applauded by the Church, the reclusive Sir Isaac Newton, the immigrant organist William Herschel and his mathematical sister Caroline, wealthy, scientifically-minded Victorian brewers, engineers and manufacturers, and American millionaires. For discovery is also about ingenious men and women and historical circumstances, and these we will examine, from the moving earth to the ‘Big Bang’.

Please note: this lecture series will close to enrolments at 23:59 UTC on 26 January 2024.

Programme details

Lecture programme

Lectures take place on Tuesdays, from 2–3.15pm UTC (GMT).

Tuesday 30 January 2024
Copernicus, Tycho Brahe and Kepler
Accurate measurement, not controversy, proves the Earth’s movement

Tuesday 6 February 2024
The impact of the telescope
Thomas Harriot of Oxford, Galileo the Italian ‘bruiser’, moon men and the possibility of cosmological infinity after 1620

Tuesday 13 February 2024
How infinite is infinite?
Theology, gravity and Bishop John Wilkins of Oxford’s ‘Flying Chariot’ for space travel. Is the notion that the Church was opposed to science a modern myth?

Tuesday 20 February 2024
The exploration of deep space with giant telescopes begins in an English country garden
The achievement of Sir William Herschel, his sister Caroline, and his son Sir John

Tuesday 27 February 2024
The 'Grand Amateurs'
How independent, self-funded researchers pioneer planetary exploration, solar physics, spectroscopy, and astronomical photography in the Victorian Age

Tuesday 5 March 2024
Father Georges Lemaître
Was his ‘Primal Atom’ just a ‘Big Bang’ (Fred Hoyle), or was the universe really expanding to infinity? Henrietta Leavitt, Edwin Hubble, Sir Bernard Lovell and the pioneers of optical and radio ‘deep-space’ astronomy

How and when to watch

Each lecture will last approximately 45 minutes to 1 hour, followed by questions.

For those attending in person at the Lecture Theatre at Rewley House, registration takes place at 1.45pm before the first lecture (30 January only). Tea and coffee are provided in the Common Room after each lecture, from 3.15pm.

For those joining us online, please join in good time before each lecture to ensure that you have no connection problems. We recommend joining 10-15 minutes before the start time.


Description Costs
Course Fee - in-person attendance (includes tea/coffee) £155.00
Course Fee - virtual attendance £140.00


If you are in receipt of a UK state benefit or are a full-time student in the UK you may be eligible for a reduction of 50% of tuition fees.

Concessionary fees for short courses


Dr Allan Chapman

Dr Allan Chapman teaches the history of science at Oxford University. His specialist areas are the history of astronomy and medicine. He has written some dozen books and numerous articles, both academic and popular, presented two TV series, lectures widely in the UK, and has taught on many summer schools, including the 2016-2019 and 2022 Oxford Experience programmes.


Please use the 'Book' button on this page. Alternatively, please contact us to obtain an application form. 

IT requirements

For those joining us online

We will be using Zoom for the livestreaming of this lecture series. If you’re attending online, you’ll be able to see and hear the speakers, and to submit questions via the Zoom interface. Joining instructions will be sent out prior to the start date. We recommend that you join the session at least 10-15 minutes prior to the start time – just as you might arrive a bit early at our lecture theatre for an in-person event.

Please note that this course will not be recorded.