Addendum to my Cosmos Review
In my previous post, I gave a short review of the first episode of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, the re-imagination of Carl Sagan’s beloved series which has been brought to us by host Neil deGrasse Tyson and producers Ann Druyan and Seth MacFarlane. My initial impressions, immediately after watching the show, were incredibly positive. It was visually stunning, well-written and directed, and highly emotional– in short, everything I could hope for in a new documentary designed to attract the general public to science. While I remain ecstatic about the series, I need to revisit that first episode, as I have come to learn a few things. In my review, I referred to the Giordano Bruno segment as “particularly inspired,” because it educated the public about a lesser-known piece of history while serving to show that Cosmos would not shy away from offending religious sensibilities in its depictions of the universe.
I now have to retract that portion of my review.
When I first watched the episode, I had never even heard of Giordano Bruno, before. I took the depiction given in Cosmos at face value. Obviously, they had embellished and dramatized a few things– even before researching, I knew that the scene at Oxford was likely a bit too over-the-top. But I generally accepted that a documentary which has the primary purpose of showing people how to discern fact from fiction would have given a reasonably accurate picture of the story. Unfortunately, I was wrong in that assumption.
Naturally, upon learning about someone from history that I’d not previously known, I immediately began to research him. It took me less than ten minutes, simply reading the Wikipedia entry on the man, to realize that Cosmos had deliberately misinformed its viewers in order to make Religion look like a bunch of barbaric, science-hating fanatics. They entirely misrepresented Bruno’s story, making his cosmological views much more central to the story than they actually were. They completely removed all the parts of Bruno’s beliefs that would make him look like a madman. They embellished– and even lied– in order to make the Church look worse than it actually was. And they duplicitously led the audience to believe that Bruno, though not a scientist himself, paved the way for scientists who would follow him and be inspired by his work.
Here’s the real story.
Giordano Bruno was a 16th century Dominican monk who broke his vows and left his abbey of his own volition. While Bruno was influenced by the works of Lucretius, as Cosmos states, the show is wrong when it claims that Lucretius’ De rarum natura was on the Index of Prohibited Books kept by the Church. Lucretius was never a banned book– in fact, it had been referenced favorably in the works of Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa well before Bruno ever came on the scene, in the 15th century. We’re told that Bruno’s era was “a time when there was no freedom of thought in Italy,” but this claim is ludicrously overwrought. Certainly, opinions were not as free as they are now, but there exists an enormity of extant documents giving witness to debates amongst scientists, philosophers, and theologians which show that this wasn’t quite the totalitarian, Big Brother state which Cosmos implies.
The show tells us that, after leaving the monastery, Bruno never held another “steady job,” then depicts Bruno as living alone and out-of-doors in ragged clothing. Of course, they neglect to mention that he found employment with several institutions of higher learning, including a relatively well-viewed and respected time as a lecturer in Paris. In fact, his work there led directly to his being offered a lecturing opportunity at Oxford. While the episode represented this as a one-time public speaking event, during which Bruno was chased violently from the halls by a mob of angry professors, Giordano Bruno actually spent a long time giving his lectures at Oxford. He sought a permanent position there, which he was denied, but he was never chased rabidly from the premises– he was never kicked out, at all, in fact. He did drum up some vocal opposition, but it’d be rare to find any lecturer of that day who did not have others speaking against them.
While in England, Bruno came to learn more about John Dee’s followers and Hermetic mysticism. He began to abandon his Christianity, and instead came to worship Thoth, an ancient Egyptian god. He started publishing works on magic and sorcery, and then began to proselytize publicly. He returned to Italy, publicly preaching that everyone should stop believing in the deity of Christ, and turn to practicing magic.
Yes, Bruno imagined a cosmos with a plurality of worlds, where the Sun was just another star, and other stars had planets, as well. But that had very little to do with the reason for which Bruno was imprisoned and later executed. While Cosmos makes it seem like Bruno’s primary crime was his cosmology, the Church was far more concerned with his denial of the Trinity, the divinity of Jesus, the dogma of salvation, the virginity of Mary, and the actuality of the Transubstantiation.
The episode rightly notes that Giordano Bruno was not a scientist, but it neglects to mention that his work was condemned by scientists as much as by priests. Cosmos doesn’t mention that Galileo vehemently berated Bruno’s work as preposterous. They do not state that Giordano Bruno’s ideas did not influence any later discovery in Science. They completely disregard the fact that there were numerous men who accepted and supported the ideas of heliocentrism who were not harried in the least, by the Church– and they certainly don’t tell us that many of these same men were directly funded by the Church to do their research.
So, in the end, we are left with a story about a man who has almost nothing to do with science history. One is left wondering: why was it included in a documentary about science? It seems fairly clear that the only reason to include this segment– especially in the manner in which Cosmos presented it– was to act as propaganda against Religion, and to propagate the idea that Science stands in contrast to Religion.
Now, all that having been said, I’m still very excited about Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, and I will continue to watch– and recommend– the show. The Bruno segment is disappointing, as I had hoped this show would strive to rise above such pedantry, but it was a somewhat small mar in an otherwise good show. Ironically, even though I do not like the way the Bruno segment turned out, I still learned a great deal from it– though indirectly. I just hope that, from here on, the science documentary sticks to discussing science.