Why Did Cosmos Focus on Giordano Bruno?

In 1990, Carl Sagan led a group of scientists in drafting and signing an open letter urging action on the various environmental crises facing the world, including the threat of nuclear war and the reality of nuclear pollution, as well as climate change, ozone depletion, and acid rain. The letter, titled “Preserving and Cherishing the Earth: An Appeal for Joint Commitment in Science and Religion,” explained:

Problems of such magnitude, and solutions demanding so broad a perspective must be recognized from the outset as having a religious as well as a scientific dimension. Mindful of our common responsibility, we scientists-many of us long engaged in combating the environmental crisis-urgently appeal to the world religious community to commit, in word and deed, and as boldly as is required, to preserve the environment of the Earth.

As on issues of peace, human rights, and social justice, religious institutions can here too be a strong force encouraging national and international initiatives in both the private and public sectors, and in the diverse worlds of commerce, education, culture, and mass communication. The environmental crisis requires radical changes not only in public policy, but in individual behavior. The historical record makes clear that religious teaching, example, and leadership are powerfully able to influence personal conduct and commitment.

As scientists, many of us have had profound experiences of awe and reverence before the universe. We understand that what is regarded as sacred is more likely to be treated with care and respect. Our planetary home should be so regarded. Efforts to safeguard and cherish the environment need to be infused with a vision of the sacred. At the same time, a much wider and deeper understanding of science and technology is needed. If we do not understand the problem, it is unlikely we will be able to fix it. Thus, there is a vital role for religion and science.

His famous TV series Cosmos took on many of the same themes, especially his fears about nuclear war.

The first episode of the reboot of Cosmos has not ventured as far into questions of politics and the nature of society, and its most potent sally into that territory has gotten mixed reviews. As our own Peter Hess observed, the first episode took a long detour from its history of the cosmos to tell a cartoonish history of Giordano Bruno. The intent seems to have been to revive the long-debunked and historically-discredited metaphor of warfare between science and religion. In doing so, this rebooted Cosmos abandons Sagan’s sensible stance on science and religion (a personal agnosticism and a public skepticism of supernatural claims) and botches the history of science along the way.

It isn’t just NCSE’s Hess (a theologian) who objected to the misuse and mischaracterization of Giordano Bruno. Science writer Becky Ferreira, for Motherboard, acknowledged that the show “did a pretty good job of covering its butt by shoehorning in some of Bruno’s contradictions, like the fact that he was a crappy scientist (and many historians argue he shouldn’t be considered one at all),” adding:

the truth is that Bruno’s scientific theories weren’t what got him killed…support for [heliocentrism] was not considered heresy during Bruno’s trial...[His] support for Copernican cosmology was the least heretical position he propagated...For example, Bruno had the balls to suggest that Satan was destined to be saved and redeemed by God. He didn’t think Jesus was the son of God, but rather “an unusually skilled magician.” He even publicly disputed Mary’s virginity. The Church could let astronomical theories slide, but calling the Mother of God out on her sex life? There’s no doubt that these were the ideas that landed Bruno on the stake.

Historian of science Rebekah Higgitt, for the Guardian, observes that:

the overriding message appears to have been about heroic passion for truth against dogma and science versus religion... this is a case of turning history into parable.

This is problematic for many reasons, one of which is that it doesn’t exactly sit well with claims to champion evidence-based knowledge. Another is that hiding parts of Bruno’s story that undermine the image of the scientific martyr plays into the hands of those who are only too pleased to highlight what might appear to be anti-religious propaganda coming from the scientific and media establishment.

Historian of astronomy Meg Rosenburg, for True Anomalies, summarizes the Bruno segment as “a compelling story, but it’s a vastly simplified one.”

So…was he a scientist? No, as Tyson rightly states. His views were philosophical speculations, not based on empirical observations–and anyway “science” isn’t an applicable term for what anyone was doing in the 16th century.  He was also not the nice-mannered, doe-eyed dissenter that Cosmos portrays, but a pretty difficult human being to get along with, albeit probably a more interesting one!

Sciencebloggin impresario Hank Campbell, for The Federalist, asks the entirely reasonable question: “Why would a science program devote 25 percent of its first episode to the persecution of someone who was not a scientist, was not accepted by scientists, and published no science, but was instead a martyr for magic?”

Thomas MacDonald, a church historian and religion reporter blogging at Patheos, objected to the episode’s claim that “in 1599 everyone [but Bruno] knew the sun, planets and stars were just lights in sky revolving around the earth.”

Wow, who’s going to tell Copernicus? Kepler? Stigliola? Diggs? Maestlin? Rothmann? Brahe? All of them believed in models of the cosmos that were not considered orthodox, and lived at the time of Bruno. All of them escaped the fire, and indeed weren’t even pursued by the Inquisition. Right here we have the major lie at the heart of modern anti-religious scientific propaganda: the war between faith and science…

Bruno was no friend of science. He was a disturbed mystic. Stanley Jaki, who translated Bruno’s rambling, nonsensical The Ash Wednesday Supper, has suggested that if the Inquisition hadn’t burned him, the Copernicans would have. He did nothing but harm the progress being made by actual scholars and scientists, and arguably laid the ground for the harsh approach to Galileo…

And then asks the critical question:

Why are we replaying the Bruno story in a documentary about space?

What is the purpose? What is the result?

Is it to show how science and religion came into conflict? The Galileo case would be a better example for that, but people already know that one and Galileo didn’t have the benefit of a cinematic death that makes his opponents looks like mindless savages.

In the development of theories about the cosmos, Bruno was almost irrelevant, and perhaps even harmed those debates because he meshed those theories with a staggering level of heresy and New Age-style nonsense. He was a hermeticist and cabalist, and viewed heliocentrism not as some verifiable scientific truth, but as a sign of the return to the true, superior religion of ancient Egypt. He saw his work as a corrective to Copernicus, who failed to understand the religious significance of heliocentrism. He was more influenced by Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa, an occultist and magician, than by anyone else. His work had little to do with science.

Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa would have been a far better figure to illustrate the development of the idea, but he died peacefully in his bed, a cardinal and officer of the papal court, so he’s not as useful as Bruno.

Corey Powell, editor at Discover magazine, had an extensive exchange with Cosmos writer Steven Soter, trying to hash out these issues. I think Powell’s case remains stronger than Soter’s but you can judge for yourself.

Historian of 16th century science Thony Christie addresses Soter’s historical arguments, observing that he misuses various quotes to claim that Bruno had more influence than he did, and that he misreads history by trying to read it backwards:

Soter is also guilty here of quote mining, selecting those parts of Bruno’s fantasy that fit with our modern concepts and quietly ignoring those that don’t. This is a form of presentism known as searching for predecessors. One takes an accepted scientific idea and filters through history to see if somebody had the same idea earlier, then crying eureka and declaring the discovered thinker to be a genius ahead of his or her times.

Against that outpouring of objections from historians of science and others who want to see the rebooted Cosmos live up to the highest ideals of scientific and historical accuracy, PZ Myers insists that we are all Missing the Point of Giordano Bruno. In PZ Myers’s reading, the point of having a science show talk about Bruno and his cosmology (which he arrived at through a mystical vision and which he set at odds with Copernicans because they did not use heliocentrism as a religious argument) was not to tell a story about the history of science and its relationship to society or religion, but to simply alert the world to the fact: “Bruno was tortured to an agonizing death for his beliefs. Full stop.” And more generally: “The Church maintained an Inquisition to torture people who didn’t follow Catholic dogma in thought.” To PZ's eyes, nothing about that segment rested on whether Bruno was the brave vox clamantis in deserto, calmly championing heliocentrism and an infinite universe. The fact that Bruno wasn’t killed for those beliefs (not, of course, that he should have been killed for any of his beliefs, nor for stating them publicly!), that he didn’t arrive at his conclusions for scientific or empirical reasons, and didn’t try to test those ideas scientifically, are all, in PZ's telling, irrelevant.

Watch the show yourself and judge what point the segment is making. But if PZ is right and the point was to talk about the horrors of the Roman Inquisition, why not expound upon the Albigensian Crusade or the Hussite Crusade or Joan of Arc or Girolamo Savonarola or William Tyndale, who also were put to death for their theological heterodoxies? Why spin a misleading tale about Bruno, implying that he inspired and laid the groundwork for a modern cosmology in which the universe is infinite, our sun is just another star, and our planets orbit our sun as other planets orbit other suns?

No, it’s clear that Cosmos wanted to open with a tale about the conflict between science and religion, and repeated hackneyed misreadings of the Bruno tale in order to advance a false historical narrative in which Bruno was an important voice in astronomy, silenced for his views by religious dogmatists.

The failure can be illustrated, as Thomas MacDonald observed, by pointing out that various people who advocated cosmologies comparable to Bruno’s were not punished by the Inquisition for those views. Or it could have been seen in the segment of Cosmos immediately following the Bruno segment, where Neil deGrasse Tyson used the expanding universe and the Big Bang Theory as examples of how science advances through the careful testing of hypotheses. After all, the expansion of the universe was first proposed by ordained Catholic priest Georges Lemaître, who faced no interference from the Church. Then again, his work was initially dismissed by no less a figure than Albert Einstein (a Jewish agnostic), who insisted: “Vos calculs sont corrects, mais votre physique est abominable” (“Your calculations are correct, but your physical insight is abominable”) and dismissed the idea by claiming it “suggests too much the creation.” Arthur Eddington, a Quaker whose work served as a basis for much of Lemaître’s own calculations, nonetheless dismissed the idea of an expansionary universe with a definable beginning, stating: “As a scientist, I simply do not believe the universe began with a bang,” and asserting, “Philosophically, the notion of a beginning of the present order of nature is repugnant for me.”

Had Tyson and the Cosmos team told that story, how might the audience have viewed the relationship between science and religion, especially their own religion? Would viewers have gotten a more accurate, current, and useful vision of that relationship, had the show instead recounted this modern instance where scientists’ prior religious commitments clouded their reactions to new developments in science? And given Carl Sagan’s recognition that science and religion have to work hand in hand to solve the great challenges of our day, wouldn’t telling that story instead have been truer to the show’s own roots?

Fortunately, the second episode (ably reviewed by our own Steve Newton) steered clear of mythic warfare between science and religion. Instead, Tyson offers a somewhat spiritual defense of evolution. “The theory of evolution, like the theory of gravity, is a scientific fact,” he explains. “Evolution really happened. Accepting our kinship with life on earth is not only solid science, in my view it is also a soaring spiritual experience.”

Josh Rosenau
Short Bio

Josh Rosenau is a former Programs and Policy Director at NCSE.