Cosmos Rebooted – In the Face?

Carl Sagan

I hear that the relaunched Cosmos TV series has included a little hagiography of Giordano Bruno as a martyr to Copernican science, and I sigh…” Philip Ball

Philip Ball is an author of several books on aspects of science and its interactions with other aspects of culture. Philip worked for Nature for 20 years as, and I quote from him, an editor for physical sciences (for which his brief extended from biochemistry to quantum physics and materials science) and then as a Consultant Editor.

Phil also writes the science blog for Prospect Magazine. Phil’s sigh is not just naysaying for the sake of it.

Ball’s comments on Giordano Bruno and his inclusion at the start of the Neil deGrasse Tyson fronted Cosmos reimagined (aka The Because Science TV Show) refer to the animation, 11 minutes of it, at the start of the show that once again repeat the canard of Bruno as a Martyr of Science. Let’s look at the video first.

As David Sessions over on The Daily Beast points out:

“What Cosmos doesn’t mention is that Bruno’s conflict with the Catholic Church was theological, not scientific, even if it did involve his wild—and occasionally correct—guesses about the universe…

“In contrast to contemporaries who drew more modest conclusions from their similar ideas, Bruno agitated for an elaborate counter-theology, and was (unlike the poor, humble outcast portrayed in Cosmos) supported by powerful royal benefactors. The church didn’t even have a position on whether the Earth orbited the sun, and didn’t bring it up at Bruno’s trial.”

A caveat to the objectivity of this piece is that Sessions also makes a highly dubious point regarding the nature of ‘freedom of thought’, stating that, “While the early-modern religious persecution certainly can’t be denied, Bruno was killed because he flamboyantly denied basic tenets of the Catholic faith, not because religious authorities were out to suppress all “freedom of thought.”” Obviously denying the basic tenants of Roman Catholic faith and being tried for it was a huge suppression of freedom of thought, but that is a subject for another debate.

It is useful here, however, to illustrate the problem of communicating ideas as facts, and history as anything other than interpretation. But, as we’ll see, ‘Science’ had less to do with the execution of Bruno than attitude.

Newton, a scientist and mathematician was also a magical thinking monotheist who used data from The Bible, ‘mathematically’ and ‘scientifically’ to predict that the world will end in 2060.

Why does this depiction of Bruno by Neil deGrasse Tyson matter? After all he’s attempting to popularise the idea that “science” is interesting and relevant to people who are not scientists. One of the underpinnings of this is that while magic and religion, “anti-science” and Junk Science manipulate facts to fit agendas, science does not.

The theory goes that Science like God, entails only Truths whether you like them or not (and consequent martyrdoms). Like God, science has an immutable privilege to understand and reveal truths. Science and Religion are united in this battle of similarities in a battle raging today with the Righteous (Dawkins and Michael Egnor for example) on each side of the opposing forces.

Science and Religion, the theory goes, stand outside the common struggle for truth and instead provide the revelation of truth via “facts”.

That’s not not my assertion as I don’t agree that there is a monolithic entity called “Science” that exists outside of political or social pressures and of human error or desire. I believe that Science is a form of philosophy and is predicated on constant questioning and overturning of previously held truths. Every so often something useful pops out. Every so often something terrible does too.

For me – and this is a personal note – Scientific Inquiry is the nearest we can come to a hard and fast definition of science.

Let’s take Gravity as an example. That’s a fact, right? The weakest force in the universe with the biggest effect, fact. Measurable fact. Well, not that last bit. I mean, you can soooooort of measure gravity, it’s just that different methods are liable to produce different results.

Yes, that’s right. Different scientific methods can produce slightly different results.

Issac Newton’s “Universal Law of Gravitation aka “What goes up, must come down”, is a start not end point. It’s the beginning of another set of questions such as, “How far up?”, “Define ‘Down’ because what goes up far enough doesn’t…” and so on.

Newton considered by many to be one of the world’s greatest scientists and mathematicians, was also a magical thinking, anti-trinitarian monotheist who used data from The Bible, ‘mathematically’ and ‘scientifically’, to predict that the world will end in 2060.

However, he also had to confront himself with the notion that if things were tied to the earth, what were they tied by? Famously, he didn’t stop at “God”, nor did the church or aristocratic authorities attempt to shut him down.

I’m being deliberately disingenuous actually. One of the reasons that Newton didn’t need to turn to God was that, even with his strong faith, he was already acquainted with the rough idea of gravity. He didn’t operate in a Science Saintly vacuum. He’d read Kepler.

In fact, Newton had to re-assess Johannes Kepler’s Laws of Planetary Motion which were based, not on his own data but, on data collected by Tycho Brahe (Read this excellent article on Scienceblogs by Professor Rob Knop).

Brahe, for his part, was working within a sphere of exploration heavily influenced by Nicolaus Copernicus and his, at the time, unpopular heliocentric view of the universe. See where this is going?

I’m confronting the fact/my opinion that De Grasse Tyson is being misleading in his simplification of Bruno, and that being misleading is not a good way to start a program that seeks to popularise scientific inquiry.

“What if was tricked? What if I believe in this just because it is beautiful? It is actually helpful to have moments like this. Thank you. Thank you for doing this.” Prof Andrei Linde

Bruno did not stand alone in comic book scientific martyrdom. For a start had some heavyweight support in the French King, Henry III. He travelled freely around Europe, including stop offs in Paris and London, and he wrote freely. But being supported by one king and one realm, well, that’s dangerous politics at a any time.

Among other publications, in 1584 Bruno wrote Universo e Mondi (On the Infinite Universe and Worlds). According to the EGS:

“Here Giordano Bruno boldly argues that the universe was infinite and contained an infinite number of worlds inhabited by intelligent beings. This was the first representation of the modern concept of an infinite universe, although one cannot view Giordano Bruno as a modern philosopher necessarily. Further, he alleged that the universe reflected God in his infinite nature.

“God was an immanent God, existing everywhere and not as a singular remote heavenly deity. He abandoned the idea of a hierarchical universe with the result being that the Earth became just one more heavenly body and the sun, simply one more star. He also held the belief that the stars were other suns and planets similar to our own.”

(Bruno picked this up from Nicholas Cusanus aka Nicholas of Cusa who proposed in Book II of his On Learned Ignorance that, “Each thing is in each thing” because each is an image reflecting the oneness of the whole and thus of all other individuals that are the interrelated parts of that whole.” Casanus was born some 147 years before Bruno.)

So, Bruno’s beliefs were bound up by and then ground deeply in that old time religion where God was not just the centre of things but was in all things.

That’s beginning to sound less like someone who is imminently going to executed “Because Science” and more like someone who was going to be executed for making us all as powerful as the Pope in a more political, religious sense.

“Scientists such as Galileo and Johannes Kepler were not sympathetic to Bruno in their writings.”

Bear in mind that Cusanus, whose teachings Bruno was familiar and celebratory of, had become part of the papal curia advising Pius II. Cusanus died age of 63, unexecuted, 84 year before Bruno’s birth.

Giordano Bruno was executed. Here’s what the Galileo Project has to say about him:

“During his English period he outraged the Oxford faculty in a lecture at the university; upon his return to France, in 1585, he got into a violent quarrel about a scientific instrument.

“He fled Paris for Germany in 1586, where he lived in Wittenberg, Prague, Helmstedt, and Frankfurt. As he had in France and England, he lived off the munificence of patrons, whom after some time he invariably outraged.

“In 1591 he accepted an invitation to live in Venice. Here he was arrested by the Inquisition and tried. After he had recanted, Bruno was sent to Rome, in 1592, for another trial. For eight years he was kept imprisoned and interrogated periodically. When, in the end, he refused to recant, he was declared a heretic and burned at the stake.”

See, the Scientific monks and worshippers of Cox and Dawkins yell, “He was a heretic and he was executed!” Sure…

Giordano Bruno was a pain. He was a religious man. He was obviously a remarkably clever man. But boy did he not know how to play politics.

“It is often maintained that Bruno was executed because of his Copernicanism and his belief in the infinity of inhabited worlds. In fact, we do not know the exact grounds on which he was declared a heretic because his file is missing from the records.

“Scientists such as Galileo and Johannes Kepler were not sympathetic to Bruno in their writings.”

Basically, Giordano Bruno was a pain. He was a religious man. He was obviously a remarkably clever man. But boy did he not know how to play politics. But an unequivocal martyr for science. Nope.

Cosmos Rebooted is laudable in attempting to be more brain fodder for ‘the masses’ (sadly, unlike the original, this one is not free to air though).

Why it felt the need to ride the coattails of the original and also to set off by creating a scenario where someone as problematic as Bruno is made out to be some sort of resistance fighter for ‘Science’ speaks more about the television and that medium’s requirement for heroes and villains over nuanced communication than it does about any progress made in communicating science since Sagan’s original Cosmos: A Personal Voyage in 1980 on PBS.

But let’s finish with this: video taken this year that shows a real, wonderful moment of science on the human scale as

Stanford Professor Andrei Linde and Professor Renata Kallosh are presented with a proof of the theory of an Inflationary Universe.

I particularly love Professor Linde’s revelation that this moment of proof is ‘useful’.

“What if was tricked? What if I believe in this just because it is beautiful? It is actually helpful to have moments like this. Thank you. Thank you for doing this.”

All human knowledge must be mere conjecture, and wisdom is attained only through understanding the extent of one’s ignorance. Nicholas of Cusa


Nicholas of Cusa 1401–1464
Ecclesiastical reformer, administrator and cardinal.

Nicolaus Copernicus 1473-1543
Polish astronomer who advanced the heliocentric theory that the Earth and other planets revolve around the Sun.

Tycho Brahe 1546-1601
Danish astronomer whose accurate astronomical observations formed the basis for Johannes Kepler’s laws of planetary motion.

Giordano Bruno 1548 – 1600
Neopolitan Dominican friar, philosopher, mathematician, poet, and astrologer. He proposed that the Sun was just another star moving in space.

Galileo Galilei 1564-1642
Italian astronomer and physicist outspoken supporter of Copernicus’s heliocentric theory.

Johannes Kepler 1571-1630
German astronomer and mathematicianwho used simple mathematics to describe how planets move.

Isaac Newton 1642 – 1727
English physicist and mathematician.

And let’s finish with a few words from Carl Sagan 1934 – 1996

Let’s finish with a few words from Carl Sagan

Please leave a comment. Many thanks.