At first sight, low-temperature condensed-matter physics and early Universe cosmology seem worlds apart. Yet, in the last few years a remarkable synergy has developed between the two. It has emerged that, in terms of their mathematical description, there are surprisingly close parallels between them. This interplay has been the subject of a very successful European Science Foundation (ESF) programme entitled COSLAB ('Cosmology in the Laboratory') that ran from 2001 to 2006, itself built on an earlier ESF network called TOPDEF ('Topological Defects: Non-equilibrium Field Theory in Particle Physics, Condensed Matter and Cosmology'). The articles presented in this issue of Philosophical Transactions A are based on talks given at the Royal Society Discussion Meeting 'Cosmology meets condensed matter', held on 28 and 29 January 2008. Many of the speakers had participated earlier in the COSLAB programme, but the strength of the field is illustrated by the presence also of quite a few new participants.