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The Pros and Cons of Bruno

There are arguments that could be made both for and against inclusion of a segment on Giordano Bruno in the première episode of the rebooted Cosmos series. There are also some bad arguments I’ve seen today that don’t have anything to do with what was actually in the show.

Giordano Bruno was a friar who was burned at the stake in 1600 for his radical theological and astronomical ideas. The latter consisted of the notion that the Earth wasn’t the only world and that the universe was infinite.

The unfounded complaint I’ve seen from both religious and secular commentators is that the show incorrectly portrays Bruno as a martyr for science, and therefore basically gets the history wrong. I think this is just a case of people stuffing the narrative of the actual show into preconceived boxes and not noticing it doesn’t really fit.

For some religious commentators the problem is that Bruno wasn’t tried because of his support of the Copernican heliocentric universe but more for his theology. I’m not sure how anyone could watch the segment and not notice the religious source of Bruno’s speculations. When the inquisitor is grilling him he leads off quite clearly with several theological charges. There is also repeated mention that Bruno’s ideas were grounded in his beliefs about the nature of his god. Similarly, from the secular side there are complaints that Bruno’s speculations were religious in nature and therefore he doesn’t make a very good martyr for science (or a very good club to whack the religious over the head with). This, however, assumes that a martyr for science is what they were going for.

Instead, I think the show was trying to promote the values that make scientific inquiry possible. Specifically, a society needs to value curiosity, open inquiry, and have a commitment to go where the evidence leads. While Bruno may not be a good example of the latter he is an excellent example of the first two. He dared to be curious about what the cosmos was like and to step outside the bounds of established dogma.

The show was pretty clear about the nature of Bruno’s speculations when Tyson said, “Bruno was no scientist. His vision of the cosmos was a lucky guess because he had no evidence to support it. Like most guesses it could well have turned out wrong. But, once the idea was in the air it gave others a target to aim at, even if just to disprove it.” The last sentence there is also important because, scientist or not, Bruno did play a real role in inspiring others who came after him. After all, a history of thinking about the cosmos seems to be fair game in a show about the cosmos.

I think that perhaps a more mild complaint along the same lines might be valid. What I quoted above did come at the end of the segment and almost felt like a throw-away disclaimer at the end. Maybe it could have had a little more emphasis up front. There are also other options if one is looking for an example of the restrictive range of allowable thinking at the time. There is always Galileo. He hits on all three of the scientific values and might have been a better choice. Did they go with Bruno because his being burnt at the stake has more emotional impact than Galileo’s house arrest? Perhaps.

There may have been another reason for the choice as well. The new show incorporated Carl Sagan’s cosmic calendar as a way to grasp our place in the immense history of the universe. Near the end Tyson mentions that at 5 seconds before midnight was when Jesus walked the Earth, and that at 3 seconds Muhammad did. I just got the impression they were making a conscious effort to not lose segments of the religious audience. Bruno seems like a particularly apt choice if that was a goal. Though not explicitly mentioned he presents an example of how one can be religious and still make peace with the how the universe really is, by adjusting one’s conception of god. And also possibly showing that ideas can come from anywhere as long as one is willing to test them against the facts.

Maybe I’m reaching a bit on the last part but in the end I think including Bruno was a reasonable decision. Galileo might have been a better choice in some respects but I’m OK with their choice. Now, Fox accepting an ad for the new Noah movie in the middle of a science documentary is a whole other thing.