Review of Cosmos Episode 1: Giordano Bruno Steals the Show

When I was a kid I loved Carl Sagan’s Cosmos.  My dad recorded the shows on our new VCR and I watched the episodes over and over again, the way children like to do. Cosmos made me want to be a scientist, which eventually I did become, if only for a few years, before turning to ethics. Carl Sagan did a good job.

I re-watched the original Cosmos a few years ago, some of the episodes with my kids.  They are still fun to watch, but I realized something in seeing them again. Sagan made mistakes. Big mistakes, as with Hypatia and the burning of Library of Alexandria (I read a letter in graduate school by one of Hypatia’s friends, the Catholic bishop Synesius whose side protected her in what was effectively a class-based civil war – not quite the simple raving Christian hoards that Sagan described). That discovery was saddening to me, but I knew Sagan was an atheist, and I know that people get blinded by their biases, even otherwise very intelligent people.

I was looking forward to the new Cosmos.  But I saw the trailer and Bruno getting burned, so I knew it was just going to be more of the same. but I didn’t know how much more of the same it would be.

I’m not sure exactly how long it lasted, but is seemed like the segment on Giordano Bruno went on for about 20 minutes. Bruno is interesting, and Tyson made a few attempts to clarify the ridiculous cartoonish depiction of Bruno’s life (e.g., saying he was not really much of a scientist, and his theories were untestable). But the  question remains. Why so much time on Bruno? Why Bruno at all? Galileo is the usual guy for this stuff. Why a cartoon? Why not re-enactments with humans like in the original Cosmos?

Here are my thoughts. I think they chose Bruno because somebody said Galileo was getting a bit old, let’s find another scientist that religious people persecuted. Then they hit a problem. There really are not that many besides Galileo. In fact, there aren’t really any more good examples, at least not in Catholic Europe, where the Church over the ages was stuffed full of scientists and scientists-wannabes, including (quoting Wikipedia):

Nicolaus Copernicus, Gregor Mendel, Georges Lemaître, Albertus Magnus, Roger Bacon, Pierre Gassendi, Roger Joseph Boscovich, Marin Mersenne, Bernard Bolzano, Francesco Maria Grimaldi, Nicole Oresme, Jean Buridan, Robert Grosseteste, Christopher Clavius, Nicolas Steno, Athanasius Kircher, Giovanni Battista Riccioli, William of Ockham

And so on. Thanks, Wikipedia. So, it is hard to make your case with at least 99 of 100 examples against you. But try anyway. Bruno is the #2 go-to for this “war on science” stuff, so him it had to be.

Problem was, Bruno was not much of a scientist, he was a weird mystic hermeticist who liked to insult people. Becky Ferreira at Motherboard gets it right:

[T]he truth is that Bruno’s scientific theories weren’t what got him killed. Sure, his refusal to recant his belief in a plurality of worlds contributed to his sentence. But it’s important to note that the Catholic Church didn’t even have an official position on the heliocentric universe in 1600, and support for it was not considered heresy during Bruno’s trial…

Bruno was a walking, talking shit storm, with a black belt in burning bridges…

For years, he’d set up shop in some city, find new patrons, and promptly make enemies of them with his combative sarcasm and relentless arguments. Even fellow Copernican pioneers Galileo and Kepler had no love for Bruno. In fact, in light of his difficult personality, it’s kind of a mystery that he survived as long as he did.

The many-worlds idea was interesting, but the Church had already talked about God’s infinite creative power 300 years before and decided it was no big deal. What was a big deal was living in an honor-based culture and going around insulting people. After a while he had insulted everyone who could protect him, and that left him pretty much in the hands of the Inquisition.

I make no excuses for the Inquisition.  They shouldn’t have turned Bruno over to be burned. Quite frankly, lighting people on fire is not a good argument. It does not make your case. Resorting to physical strength makes you look rationally weak, and they had fine rational arguments on their side. Stupid idea to kill Bruno, wrong thing to do. But seriously, he wasn’t being killed for his science. Nobody cared about that stuff compared to him insulting the honor of the Virgin Mary, denying the Trinity and transubstantiation, other theological stuff.

Okay, enough.  The other question is: why a cartoon? Obviously, having the creator of “The Family Guy” running the show might have had something to do with it. That’s a reason from the past, a mechanical reason for it. But what was the teleological reasoning? They could have chosen another means had they so desired.

I think they chose a cartoon for several reasons, #1 being in order to appeal to children.

Twitter was full of people mentioning they had let their kids stay up late to watch Cosmos. And some mentioned how great it was that the Catholic Church got so ripped down in front of their kids eyes. That bothers me a lot, because it is lying to children. It is just as bad as followers of 6-day creationism denying science in order to protect their religion – it is followers of scientism denying history in order to protect their ideology.

They say Americans are ignorant of science because of religion, but now we can also be ignorant of history because of “science.” Thanks, Cosmos.

All right, now I’m going to say something nice. I liked Tyson’s tribute to Sagan at the end. That was beautiful.

I will be watching more episodes of Cosmos. Maybe they will mention the Big Bang model was first proposed by the Catholic priest Georges Lemaitre.  Maybe they won’t. I hope Tyson and crew will surprise me, but after this first episode I don’t expect much.


6 responses to “Review of Cosmos Episode 1: Giordano Bruno Steals the Show

  • @techrament

    “But it’s important to note that the Catholic Church didn’t even have an official position on the heliocentric universe in 1600, and support for it was not considered heresy during Bruno’s trial…”

    Consider Galileo’s sentence in 1633, after Cardinal Bellarmine’s idea of heresy by virtue of contradicting the Church’s interpretation of Scripture.
    ———-

    “We say, pronounce, sentence, and declare, that thou, the said Galileo, by the things deduced during this trial, and by thee confessed as above, hast rendered thyself vehemently suspected of heresy by this Holy Office, that is, of having believed and held a doctrine which is false, and contrary to the Holy Scriptures, to wit: that the Sun is the centre of the universe, and that it does not move from east to west, and that the Earth moves and is not the centre of the universe: and that an opinion may be held and defended as probable after having been declared and defined as contrary to Holy Scripture; and in consequence thou hast incurred all the censures and penalties of the Sacred Canons, and other Decrees both general and particular, against such offenders imposed and promulgated. From the which We are content that thou shouldst be absolved, if, first of all, with a sincere heart and unfeigned faith, thou dost before Us abjure, curse, and detest the above-mentioned errors and heresies and any other error and heresy contrary to the Catholic and Apostolic Roman Church, after the manner that We shall require of thee.”

    Sounds pretty official to me.

    • Brian Green

      33 year difference. Also, still not sure it is “official” – just because it was said in an ecclesiastical court does not make it the official position of the Church – that takes papal or other documents promulgated through the proper channels of magisterium which specifically limits its power to matters of “faith and morals.” This topic could be called a matter of faith, I suppose, except that they knew stellar parallax would prove the hypothesis true one way or another, so it wasn’t. What’s your source for the above (do you have a link)? My take is that it was just Bellarmine getting in over his head. Thanks.

      • @techrament

        One could make the argument that due to its Papal approval, the sentence of the Inquisition was de facto official teaching. There certainly were no papal statements to contradict or clarify the matter. The proper interpretation of Scripture was a sticking point with the Church esp. after the Counter-Reformation. it was the Church’s interpretation of Scripture which was included in its official teaching. http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/1630galileo.asp

    • Roger

      Bellarmine also explained that if Galileo had proof of the motion of the Earth, then certain Bible verses would have to be re-interpreted. Galileo did not have proof. He was completely free to publish all the arguments for and against heliocentrism. He just could not say that he had proved the Bible wrong when he had not.

  • Joe

    I find it interesting that you’re so certain of the tone Bruno used back in the day, compared to the “honorable” folk of that time. As Christianity continues to grow in popularity, Christians today continually and arrogantly stone non-believers with their self righteousness. Religious zealots NEED to be disrespected before they once again obtain the majority rule. We need more people like Bruno to go after the faith based flat-landers. Relevance & control are the main reasons the religious cling to their fairytale beliefs. An education is way too much trouble for the ignorant. No one has a monopoly on wisdom.

  • Joe

    Oh, and of course the religious aren’t guilty of using cute little cartoon sheep and donkeys during their brainwash to distract from the blow of the horrific tales that are prevalent throughout the “Holy” book.

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