Cosmos, Giordano Bruno, and Getting it Right

I wanted to like the reboot of Cosmos. Really, I did.

Despite the patronizing materialism that kept cropping up in the old show, Carl Sagan covered some great subjects and excited the minds of a generation. Some of his most famous lines can still send a chill down my back. And today, at a time when cosmology is changing so rapidly that all astronomy textbooks more than a decade old are hopelessly out of date, when we are unlocking the secrets of the genome, finding the functions in the junk DNA, and hunting down the Higgs boson, there is no lack of material.

So here are my first impressions. The graphics are spectacular—someone has paid for top-drawer CGI, and the filming and production are excellent. Neil DeGrasse Tyson is stepping into an enormous pair of shoes, but he is an experienced presenter with clear diction, good range, and even a sense of humor; his work on NOVA set him up nicely for this show. The musical score is very well done, actually supporting the narrative without becoming overpowering. The purely descriptive parts of the science are fine, and even those of us who were sad to see Pluto lose its status as a planet could enjoy the trip to the edge of our solar system and beyond.

And then, there is the history of science. Or rather, there isn’t. There is some kind of imaginative story that has borrowed some names from the history of science and then struck off on a new track of its own.

Take this bit, from about 16 minutes in – and you’ll have to forgive any errors in my transcription: “Back in 1599, everyone knew the sun, planets and stars were just lights in the sky, revolved around the earth, and that we were the center of a little universe, a universe made for us.”

Stop the tape.

The Aristotelian cosmos was huge. Ptolemy, in the first book of his Almagest, says that the stars are so far away that in comparison to their distance, the earth may as well be considered to be a mere geometrical point. And then he proved it (as well as anything of that sort may be proved) by geometrical arguments. The Aristotelian conception of the universe had us at the bottom – not the privileged place this narrative suggests. Nor was the Ptolemaic system the only one on offer. By 1599, there were plenty of Copernicans around, and they took the point of view that the size of the earth’s orbit was negligible by comparison with the distance to the stars. (No parallax and all that.)

The notion that the universe was made just for us sits awkwardly with Christian theology, which says in no uncertain terms that there are orders of created beings older and higher than man. One didn’t have to take the word of Scripture for this idea; Dante had made it vivid and explicit nearly three centuries before the point at which Cosmos picks up the narrative.

Okay, start the tape again.

“There was only one man on the whole planet who envisioned an infinitely grander cosmos.”

“Infinitely” here is, of course, a figure of speech, and it would be captious to complain that even our modern universe is not strictly infinite. But with all due allowance being made … only one man? Okay, so Copernicus and Rheticus were dead by 1599, and Henry More hadn’t been born yet. But how about Copernicans like Maestlin and Kepler who were working actively at that time? How about Galileo, who was already a Copernican long before he wrote his Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems? Or even a maverick like Tycho Brahe?

But no. They had to pick Giordano Bruno, who was infinitely (may I use that word too?) inferior to Galileo or Kepler as a scientist, chiefly because – unlike Galileo and Kepler – he was burned at the stake in 1600. And then they had to pretend that he was martyred for his Copernicanism, a problem that was brought on by his reading “forbidden books.”

Let’s put this in perspective. Copernicus’s De Revolutionibus, published in 1543, was not placed on the Index Prohibitorum until March of 1616. So whatever the “forbidden books” were that Bruno was supposedly reading, De Rev. wasn’t one of them, and Copernicanism wasn’t forbidden at that time. (I confess to having a fleeting fantasy that Bruno invented the Delorean, slipped forward into the summer of 1616, and read Copernicus’s tome – disguised with a brown paper wrapper – before nipping back into the 16th century in time to be burned, thus adding the invention of time travel to his other mythical scientific achievements.)

But it turns out they don’t have Copernicus’s book in mind. Instead, they tell us that one of them was Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura. This is half right: Bruno did read Lucretius. But in an admittedly quick search last evening, I was unable to turn up any evidence that De Rerum Natura was ever on the Index. The compilers of the Index were too busy banning contemporary books, much as a zealous fundamentalist might ban Dawkins but neglect to prohibit Porphyry. (If the sole goal was to keep articulate treatises promoting atheism out of the hands of the common folk, perhaps Lucretius’s book should have been banned – assuming, of course, that you’re into that banning thing. But that is a different topic.)

And Bruno wasn’t in trouble for his Copernicanism. He was in trouble chiefly for such forward-looking astronomical views as his denial that Jesus was divine, that Mary was a virgin, or that God was triune. We can all agree – I hope – that burning someone at the stake for his beliefs is wrong. (If you don’t agree, please find somewhere else to comment.) But Bruno’s scientific beliefs did not play a significant role in his trial, and we absolutely did not need for the first episode of the first season of the new Cosmos to perpetuate the mythology that they did. I don’t want to be unkind, but the people who write the script need to ask themselves a simple question: Why should we take seriously their speculations about the distant future or the remote past if they can’t be bothered to get it right regarding things in our relatively recent history that we know about?

Oh well. At least the “Appearances in fiction” category on Bruno’s Wikipedia page can now be enlarged.