Giordano Bruno in Neil deGrasse’s “Cosmos” is a poor martyr for science
The other night I watched the first episode of the new imagining of Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos” (as did quite a few other people, from the look of my feeds in social media).
I remember seeing the old series when I was younger—not a child, but as a young adult. It’s not that I was kept from Sagan or anything. My lack of interest in the miniseries from 1980 was more superficial and petty: the visual effects were too old to pique my interest.
I perked up when I learned about Seth MacFarlane’s intended remake. The inclusion of Neil deGrasse Tyson as the new series’ host was even more awesome. I put the air date in my calendar and waited. Finally, it was time and I watched it.
It was pretty good. The initial episode was a good primer of things to come—nothing overly groundbreaking. I always love efforts to get people interested in learning about the shocking immensity of our universe. It amazing to try to behold, and the concepts necessary to express the intricacies of reality are also mind boggling (link) (link).
I did have a “brow-furrowing” moment with the episode, though—not an outright problem, but one that made me question why the well-funded and much-anticipated show would go in this direction. The moment was the inclusion of the story of Dominican friar Giordano Bruno (link).
Several people reacting to the episode seem to have friction with this portion of the show as well (link)(link). Now, most are saying it came across as anti-religion. It did and I’m not bothered by that, even as a religious person. It’s just that, for a show that wants to introduce “heroes of science” to a new generation of viewers, Bruno isn’t really that scientific.
Cosmos’ treatment of Bruno’s story obscured facts and exaggerated events to appeal to people’s emotions. And the inclusion of crucifixion imagery with Bruno (see picture…twice Bruno transcended his Earthy bonds by striking up a crucifixion pose) and the religiously-tinged jargon of his ‘martyrdom’ was just cheap.
For those who haven’t seen the Cosmos episode, the show takes several minutes to tell (and adopts a new visual style to accentuate) the story of Bruno, a 16th Century monk. According to Cosmos, Bruno, influenced by Copernicus’ heliocentric model, had a dream. In this dream, he saw the Earth orbiting the sun, but also that the stars of the sky were similar to the Sun, each with possible worlds of their own. Bruno was condemned by the Church for daring to think outside of tradition and burned at the stake. Bruno was a martyr for logic and science. Religion is bad. The end.
Two reactions: 1) That’s not the real story. 2) With no evidence either way, how does holding to one superstition over another make Bruno an example for science?
On the first reaction, the Church didn’t overly care that Bruno believed in a heliocentric model of the solar system (link). They didn’t overly care in his belief of Copernicus’ views (many people did…even the Gregorian Calendar, adopted years earlier in 1582, was based on Copernicus’ observations).
What they had a problem with was Bruno’s pantheistic beliefs (link). In saying God was everywhere and not in any one place in particular, he took away emphasis on Christ as anything special. He also denied that the universe was a created thing. Say that as a Christian monk now and you’ll get kicked out of the Church too—not burned at the stake (we’ve at least come that far…not defending the practice by any means), but it wouldn’t go over well. The Church objected to Bruno because of theological reasons, not scientific ones.
On the second response, the way Bruno’s story was told in the Cosmos episode made him out to be far more of a champion of faith than of science. He had no way of testing his theory. He never could witness his theory. He didn’t even put it forward as a theory to be debated or proven. He had a dream of a metaphysical reality—a dream he believed was divinely inspired. And he exercised faith in that dream as his own brand of religion, to the point of death. Bruno was a man of faith, not science.
Changing facts and co-opting an obscure religious figure’s beliefs to fit a secular agenda is something a show championing science should be above doing. Cosmos is the one who opened the science vs religion salvo this time (MacFarlane being pretty anti-religion). It’s unfortunate that the show tried to take things in this direction right out of the gate, and in such a half-assed way. It’s distracting to what the show could be about.
By simply pointing out he thousands of things about the observable universe, you’ll naturally get people to wonder if their views from religious texts alone are adequate enough to explain reality.
The way the Bruno case was portrayed with its tweaked version of history just seemed tawdry. Galileo was a contemporary of Bruno…even beat Bruno out for a teaching job as chair of mathematics at Padua University in 1591. He was persecuted and repressed for his beliefs too–and was much more of an actual scientist. He would have been a better example to make the same point, IMO.