[Updated 8:30am (PST), March 14]
Last night the new COSMOS series aired on FOX and National Geographic channels, hosted by the one and only Neil DeGrasse Tyson and rolled out in style by producer Seth MacFarlane. Roughly a quarter of the 43-minute program was devoted to the story of Giordano Bruno, an Italian monk and philosopher who espoused heliocentrism and an infinite universe and was burned at the stake by the Inquisition in 1600. It’s a compelling story and the animation is really great (plus, the part of Bruno is voiced by MacFarlane himself!). You can watch the clip here, and I recommend that you do. Go ahead, I’ll wait =)
Pretty epic, right? Of course, you can only fit so much into 11 minutes, and as with many other popular retellings of science history, nuance isn’t high on the priority list. But hey, Giordano Bruno was trending on Twitter last night, and that’s pretty cool! So rather than trying to tear this apart and tell you what’s wrong with it, I’d like to just gather some resources for anyone curious to go beyond the story that COSMOS tells. No snark, just more cool stuff to fill your brain, if you want.
Now, Renaissance philosophy is not my field of study and I’m really cautious about wading in over my head, so I absolutely welcome corrections or contributions to what I’ve gathered here. Don’t be shy (but please keep it respectful)!
First off, did anyone recognize the “dome of stars” that Bruno was stuck inside (24:21)? That awesome imagery is based on an illustration from Camille Flammerion’s 1888 book, The Atmosphere: Popular Meteorology.
Much like COSMOS, Flammerion uses the illustration to describe past views of the Earth in relation to other celestial bodies: “Our ancestors imagined that this blue vault was really what the eye would lead them to believe it to be.” Did it have anything to do with Giordano Bruno? Not specifically. But it’s a pretty compelling visual device for this particular story.
Next up: “I spread confident wings to space and soared toward the infinite” – did Bruno really say that? Yes! Well, pretty much. Here’s the whole sonnet (a slightly different translation by Arielle Saiber):
Who adorns me with plumes and courage?
Who has me fear neither fate nor death?
Who broke those chains and those doors
From which few rarely escape?
Ages, years, months, days and hours—
daughters and weapons of time—and that court
against which neither steel nor diamond has power:
these have protected me from the fury of the foe.
Thus with confident wings I enter the air.
I fear not obstacles of crystal or glass,
as I slice the heavens and rise toward the infinite.
And while I ascend from my globe to others,
And I pierce through the eternal field,
That which others saw from afar, I leave far behind me.
So that’s cool. And a little confusing. What “court” is he talking about? Who is the “foe”? This is where knowing a Bruno scholar would come in very handy (if you are one, please get in touch! I would like to know more). Parts of Bruno’s writings seem very well adapted to the “martyr-for-science” role that we seem to really really want him to play…and others not so much. Here’s a short overview of his works and philosophy (jump to p. 315) to help situate things. He wasn’t executed specifically for his cosmology (although this is a topic of debate still); his belief in the plurality of worlds was just one of eight charges the Church laid at his door.
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!
Some have wondered whether the show chose the wrong hero for their first episode, suggesting that perhaps English astronomer Thomas Digges would have been better, since he did much to bring Copernicus’s works to the English-speaking world and posited an infinite universe as well. I would love to know more about Digges, and William Gilbert too (another interesting figure!), but isn’t this sort of the wrong question? These people didn’t do what they did for our benefit, after all – they were each a product of their time and place. As Becky Higgett says (more elegantly than I could):
Historical figures who lived in a very different world, very differently understood, cannot be turned into heroes who perfectly represent our values and concerns without doing serious damage to the evidence.
For Bruno to perfectly fulfill the hero role, we inevitably have to pick and choose which details of his life and philosophy and writings we present, because he had different concerns and values than we do – he literally lived in a different world. I’d argue that we should stop looking for the perfect hero figure from history to champion our modern concerns and instead get to know them on their own terms. But that’s just me.
Incidentally, if you do want to know more about Digges (and how he and Kepler and Galileo thought about and interacted with Bruno’s ideas),thonyc has put together a blow-by-blow response to Cosmos writer Steven Soter’s defense of the Bruno cartoon that’ll get you up to speed.
COSMOS presents a compelling story, but it’s a vastly simplified one. I’m happy to see people excited about history of science, and I hope at least some of them will want to dig deeper. I wonder what will happen in next week’s episode!
[I have to go now, since I have BILLIONS and BILLIONS (sorry, Carl) of other things to do for my actual research, but I have a few other loose thoughts floating around that I’d like to add here later today, and of course I’d love to know what others out there have to say!]