Modern physical cosmology as it is currently studied first emerged as a scientific discipline in the period after the Shapley–Curtis debate and discoveries by Edwin Hubble of a cosmic distance ladder when astronomers and physicists had to come to terms with a universe that was of a much larger scale than the previously assumed galactic size.
Theorists who successfully developed cosmologies applicable to the larger-scale universe are remembered today as the founders of modern cosmology. Among these scientists are Arthur Milne, Willem de Sitter, Alexander Friedman, Georges Lemaitre, and Albert Einstein himself.
After confirmation of the Hubble's law by observation, the two most popular cosmological theories became the Steady State theory of Hoyle, Gold and Bondi, and the big bang theory of Ralph Alpher, George Gamow, and Robert Dicke with a small number of supporters of a smattering of alternatives.
Since the discovery of the Cosmic microwave background radiation (CMB) by Penzias and Robert Wilson in 1965, most cosmologists concluded that observations were best explained by the big bang model. Steady State theorists and other non-standard cosmologies were then tasked with providing an explanation for the phenomenon if they were to remain plausible.
This led to original approaches including integrated starlight and cosmic iron whiskers, which were meant to provide a source for a pervasive, all-sky microwave background that was not due to an early universe phase transition.
Scepticism about the non-standard cosmologies' ability to explain the CMB caused interest in the subject to wane since then, however, there have been two periods in which interest in non-standard cosmology has increased due to observational data which posed difficulties for the big bang.
The first occurred was the late 1970s when there were a number of unsolved problems, such as the horizon problem, the flatness problem, and the lack of magnetic monopoles, which challenged the big bang model. These issues were eventually resolved by cosmic inflation in the 1980s.
This idea subsequently became part of the understanding of the big bang, although alternatives have been proposed from time to time. The second occurred in the mid-1990s when observations of the ages of globular clusters and the primordial helium abundance, apparently disagreed with the big bang.
However, by the late 1990s, most astronomers had concluded that these observations did not challenge the big bang and additional data from COBE and the WMAP, provided detailed quantitative measures which were consistent with standard cosmology.
In the 1990s, a dawning of a "golden age of cosmology" was accompanied by a startling discovery that the expansion of the universe was, in fact, accelerating.
Previous to this, it had been assumed that matter either in its visible or invisible dark matter form was the dominant energy density in the universe. This "classical" big bang cosmology was overthrown when it was discovered that nearly 70% of the energy in the universe was tied up in a mysterious and difficult to characterize form of dark energy.
This has led to the development of a so-called concordance ΛCDM model which combines detailed data obtained with new telescopes and techniques in observational astrophysics with an expanding, density-changing universe.
Today, it is more common to find in the scientific literature proposals for "non-standard cosmologies" that actually accept the basic tenets of the big bang cosmology, while modifying parts of the concordance model.
Such theories include alternative models of dark energy, such as quintessence, phantom energy and some ideas in brane cosmology; alternative models of dark matter, such as modified Newtonian dynamics; alternatives or extensions to inflation such as chaotic inflation and the ekpyrotic model; and proposals to supplement the universe with a first cause, such as the Hartle–Hawking boundary condition, the cyclic model, and the string landscape.
There is no consensus about these ideas amongst cosmologists, but they are nonetheless active fields of academic inquiry.
Today, heterodox non-standard cosmologies are generally considered unworthy of consideration by cosmologists while many of the historically significant nonstandard cosmologies are considered to have been falsified.
The essentials of the big bang theory have been confirmed by a wide range of complementary and detailed observations, and no non-standard cosmologies have reproduced the range of successes of the big bang model.
Speculations about alternatives are not normally part of research or pedagogical discussions, except as object lessons or for their historical importance. An open letter started by some remaining advocates of non-standard cosmology has affirmed that: "today, virtually all financial and experimental resources in cosmology are devoted to big bang studies...."