Defending Giordano Bruno: A Response from the Co-Writer of “Cosmos”

By Corey S. Powell | March 13, 2014 6:11 pm

My recent post questioning the Giordano Bruno segment in the first episode of the new Cosmos has attracted a gratifying amount of attention, both on this site and elsewhere around the web. It has also prompted a heartfelt reply from Steven Soter, a resident research associate at the American Museum of Natural history and Cosmos‘s co-writer (along with Ann Druyan).

Giordano Bruno, as animated in Cosmos. (Image courtesy of Fox)

Giordano Bruno, as animated in Cosmos. (Image courtesy of Fox)

It is very much in the spirit of Cosmos, and of the scientific process in general, to engage in debate in the search for deeper truths. It is also a powerful tribute to the new series that so many people are now discussing Bruno, Thomas Digges, and the intertwined relationship of science and religion during the 16th century–not your usual day-after TV conversations. In that spirit, I am pleased to present Steven Soter’s essay here in full, followed by a response from me. Soter, in turn, will soon provide some additional closing thoughts.

The Cosmos of Giordano Bruno by Steven Soter

Corey S. Powell takes the new Cosmos series to task for telling the story of Giordano Bruno in the opening episode. Bruno was burned at the stake in Rome in 1600 for various heresies, including his belief in other worlds.

Powell’s critique dwells on the well-known facts that Bruno was a mystic and an extremely difficult person. Well, so was Isaac Newton, who devoted as much time to alchemy and biblical numerology as to physics. But that has no bearing whatever on the value of his good ideas.

Powell writes that the new Cosmos is “downright wrong” because “Bruno was not the first to link the idea of infinite space with the infinite glory of God.” But the script never says that. Bruno got the idea of infinite space from Lucretius, but he also read Nicolas of Cusa, who related the concept to an infinite God.

Bruno’s originality lay elsewhere. He was indisputably the first person to grasp that the Sun is a star and the stars are other suns with their own planets. That is arguably the greatest idea in the history of astronomy. Before Bruno, none of the other Copernicans ever imagined it.

Bruno dreams of an infinity beyond the classical cosmos. (Image courtesy of Fox)

Bruno dreams of an infinity beyond the classical universe. (Image courtesy of Fox)

Powell suggests that Cosmos should have featured the English astronomer Thomas Digges instead of Bruno. The great contribution of Digges was to realize that the Copernican system allowed the stars to extend out to infinite distances, because they no longer had to make a daily revolution around the Earth. But Digges regarded the stars as “the court of the celestial angels”, not as the suns of other material earths. And that was a big step backward. In contrast, Bruno wrote, “the composition of our own star and world is the same as that of as many other stars and worlds as we can see.” His profound intuition had to wait three centuries to be verified by the spectroscope.

Powell writes that neither Kepler nor Galileo thought much of Bruno. It is true that Kepler recoiled from Bruno’s infinite universe of worlds and found it frightful, but his reasoning was based in part on a mystical obsession. He rejected the existence of any planets beyond the six allowed by his notion of a perfect Pythagorean solar system. The naming of the Kepler space telescope, dedicated to the discovery of planets around other stars, is perhaps somewhat ironic.

Here is what Kepler wrote (in De Stella Nova, 1604) about Bruno’s infinite universe: “This very cogitation carries with it I don’t know what secret hidden horror . . . Well, let us seek the remedy in Astronomy herself, so that by her arts and soothing blandishments this madness of the philosophers . . . might be led back within the bounds of the world and its prisons. Surely, it is not good to wander through that infinity.” Kepler was a very great man, but not for this.

While Kepler rejected an infinite universe, he was a good enough scientist to recognize that Galileo’s discoveries with the telescope lent support to some of Bruno’s ideas. Writing to Galileo in 1610, Kepler was impressed by the observation that stars seen through the telescope still sparkled, in contrast to the circular appearance of planets. He asked:

“What other conclusion shall we draw from this difference, Galileo, than that the fixed stars generate their light from within, whereas the planets, being opaque, are illuminated from without; that is, to use Bruno’s terms, the former are suns, the latter, moons, or earths?”

Galileo never once mentioned Bruno’s name. Of course in the land of the Inquisition he had good reason. But in his Dialogue on the Two Chief World Systems (the book that got him into deep trouble), he discretely accepted Bruno’s greatest idea, writing that the fixed stars are other suns.

It does not matter in the least where correct scientific ideas come from. Once out there, they can be tested. The important thing is not to suppress ideas. Freedom of thought is the life blood of science. That’s why Bruno’s story is important.

Corey S. Powell responds:

This may sound strange, but I’m going to start by disagreeing about some of what we disagree about.

You say: The fact that Bruno was a mystic and a difficult person does not discredit his ideas. I completely agree with this, and never argued otherwise. You say: Bruno got his idea of infinite space from Lucretius and the idea of an infinite God from Nicolas of Cusa. I agree on these points as well. The treatment of Bruno’s reading of Lucretius is handled beautifully in Cosmos.

Here are the two main areas where I think the Cosmos episode went awry, and why it really matters.

First, the depiction of Bruno as a lone wolf (“…for one man, Copernicus did not go far enough…”) is historically inaccurate and—more important, to my mind—it misrepresents the collaborative and cumulative way that science operates. As I noted, the notion of infinite space beyond our solar system originated with Thomas Digges, whom Bruno undoubted read and may have met during his time in England. Even the idea that other stars are suns has possible precedent a century earlier in the work of Nicolas of Cusa, who wrote this remarkable passage [with the emphasis mine]:

Nicolas of Cusa envisioned an infinite cosmos a century before Bruno. (Credit: Kues Hospital)

Nicolas of Cusa envisioned an infinite cosmos a century before Bruno. (Credit: Kues Hospital)

… it would always seem to each person (whether he were on the earth, the sun, or another star) that he was at the “immovable” center, so to speak, and that all other things were moved…if he were on the sun, he would fix a set of poles in relation to himself; if on the earth, another; on the moon, another; on Mars, another; and so on.

Second, Cosmos confusingly depicts Bruno’s infinite cosmology as a physical theory of the universe (in praise of God, yes, but physical all the same). Reading Bruno’s most relevant works—On the Infinite Universe and Worlds and The Ash Wednesday Supper—is eye-opening. Thank you for inspiring me to do it. Bruno’s vision of an infinite space, containing infinite populated worlds, is thrilling and beautiful. Interpreting it primarily in physical terms is anachronistic, however.

Bruno imagines all planets and stars having souls (part of what he means by them all having the same “composition”), and he uses his cosmology as a tool for advancing an animist or Pandeist theology. See historian Stanley Jaki’s translation of Ash Wednesday, with highly critical commentary.

True, Bruno takes a big step forward from Copernicus in speaking explicitly about the infinite, and about the existence of other planets and suns; but he takes a big step backward by interpreting the universe more in theological than mathematical terms. You justly write, “It does not matter in the least where correct scientific ideas come from,” but my point is that Bruno’s cosmology was not a correct scientific idea, nor was it even a “guess” as Cosmos asserts. It was a religious and philosophical statement, one that sparked a great deal of stimulating debate in the 17th century but not one that advanced the broader cause of rationalism.

That is why I say that religion, not science, caused Bruno’s deadly clash with the Church. And that is why I spoke up on behalf of the forgotten British astronomer Thomas Digges. Digges, far more than Bruno, built on the tradition of Copernicus and sought to bring more of the universe into the grasp of math and geometry; far more than Bruno, he sought to create a whole community of Copernicans who could keep that process going. Digges at least banished the angels to the distant, starry realm. Interestingly, he was also the first to consider how the night sky can be dark in an infinite universe (a question now known as Olbers’ Paradox).

Back to where we agree: “Freedom of thought is the life blood of science.” I admire the way Cosmos tells this aspect of the Bruno story—and just to be clear, I greatly admire the entire Cosmos project, which is why I am being so critical here.

I just wish that, with this rare opportunity to present a pivotal historical era to a broad audience, Cosmos could portrayed Bruno not just as a victim of the “thought police” but as a complex, inspired, paradoxical participant in the grand struggle to create our modern view of the universe.

  • Judith Barr

    I say, that the series cannot say everything on the subject. Don’t think it should. People should have to dig a little themselves. Those who are really going to go somewhere ,(young minds) need to stretch their intellect as much as possible. Cosmos gave them a jumping off place. Not going to criticize too much, till the series is over.

    • coreyspowell

      I agree–but Cosmos has a rare chance to deliver high-level science to a mass audience. That’s why I am holding them to a high standard. It is a precious thing to have 11 minutes in prime time to discuss the history of astronomy in front of millions of viewers.

    • http://cosmostheinlost.com/ Artur Sebastian Rosman

      That’s no excuse to bungle through a history that’s much more complicated than they could get across in the limited time given them.

      I find the co-writer’s claim they were doing their best to present all the complexities of Bruno’s contribution disingenuous. The cartoon (cartoon!) was a cartoonish black and white, us vs. them, drawing of lines.

      http://cosmostheinlost.com/2014/03/13/cosmos-space-time-odyssey-bruno-history-lies-plagiarism/

      • icowrich

        If it’s “much more complicated than they could get across in the limited time given them,” then how did they “bungle” it? You’ve just admitted that it is an impossible standard.

        The writers gave one persepective, a sliver of what happened, leaving the reader to go find the rest of the context. That’s the best you can expect, given their time constraints.

        • Ben S.

          my problem is they could have left out Bruno. It wouldn’t have taken anything away from the episode. if they were just going to present an incomplete and inaccurate history about him then why even put him there.

          • icowrich

            He was there as an example of how new ideas meet resistance from vested interests. As part of the story of how man arose as part of the cosmic calendar, it’s interesting to know that we didn’t even begin to understand our universe until 4 centuries ago (or one second ago on that calendar). It helps put into perspective how recent the scientific method is, and how fragile it is in human culture.

      • dave ruiz

        Everybody is selling something. I think Jefferson said education should avail us to see thru the sales pitch. Cosmos certainly makes a pitch,as if they are being pushed by creationists or biblical folk (like Putin was pushed by the E.U. and had to invade Ukraine…?). The good book says be careful when you judge, lest you be found doing the same thing. The fact is we have always had “thought police” since the day someone asked, “hath God really said..?” Soemtimes it is secular power, sometimes it is religious, depends who is in powerat the time. Today it is the creationists, religionists who are “persecuted”, silenced, even expelled from teaching in the powerful secular colleges. At best all I can say is let every man be a liar, only God is true. So watch out for the pied piper of our times. A true teacher won’t be afraid to say don’t take my word for it rather see if it isn’t so for yourself. Something subtly missing at the end of the first episode.

        • Ben

          The episode specifically has Bruno state that we should question everything. creationism on the other hand does not, for creationism is not science and is based on the UNquestionable assumption of god creating life, and trying to prove that with… nothing.

          • Falcon D. Stormvoice

            Not necessarily.

            Even if it were, someone should question the established ideas of the age, because they won’t be questioned by the people who push them no matter how objective they claim to be — that is why Haeckel’s embyros and Kettleblack’s moths are still stalwarts of textbook curriculum, promoted as facts rather than parables, despite having been long ago exposed as frauds.

          • Ben

            What does that have to do with what I said? He said Question everything, I say question everything, you apparently say question everything, so we agree then? Good, now I question if there was a creator and him creating the universal and all life in a literal interpretation of the bible, do you disagree?

        • sallyfield

          You’re preaching to a choir of people that don’t believe in religion. Why waste your time? You believe in unproven words, we believe in science. Don’t preach about not judging and then judge us for different views of life. This show was made for us, if you don’t agree, don’t watch it.

  • Egor GiOs

    Still no reference was made to the first know astronomer to put Sun at the centre of the solar system years before Copernicus.

    I am talking about Aristarchus of Samos and here is the wikipedia link for whoever wants to learn sth about him:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aristarchus_of_Samos

    • coreyspowell

      Nobody is denying the pioneering ideas of Aristarchus, who is well known as the first to place the sun at the center of the universe. Likewise, there were many earlier natural philosophers who contemplated the concept of infinite space. But what we are debating here is the Copernican era and the birth of the modern, mathematical description of the universe.

      • Thony Christie

        Again just for the record, because your statement is somewhat ambiguous, both the Babylonians and the Greeks had mathematical descriptions of the heavens in antiquity.

  • Travis Burch

    “I just wish that… Cosmos could have gone further in showing Bruno… as a complex, inspired, paradoxical participant in the grand struggle to create our modern view of the universe.”

    So now you want MORE Bruno?

    That story was told to set the stage for open-minded viewing. That’s it. And it’s MUCH needed in today’s climate. Well done.

    • coreyspowell

      Heh. I fixed the offending sentence.

      • Andrew Bangsberg

        Corey, I don’t find your wish very compelling. I get your fight for accuracy. But I feel like you maybe don’t understand how television works, or don’t care? I challenge you, re-write the Bruno scenes to fit within the television guidelines regarding time limitations (be exact here, your script can’t take more air time than the original did), viewer retention, and the narration, it has to sound good and be compelling. Might be a fun challenge, I’d be happy to read your re-write and criticize if needed. I predict after tonight’s airing, you’ll do the same thing with another point. And if you do, let’s see a re-write of that too. Thanks.

        • coreyspowell

          For context–I’ve worked on several hour-long science documentary shows, and have done numerous TV news appearances that often run less than 2 minutes. I’m acutely aware of the challenges of holding and audience and cramming a lot of information into a short time. Really, it is possible to be entertaining and meaningful at the same time. It’s not easy, but my expectations are set high for the Cosmos team.

          • Andrew Bangsberg

            Understood, thank you. I feel like your expectations are so high, that you might be over reaching a bit just to so you can maintain such an aggressive set of expectations. I could be incorrect about that. I look forward to seeing what you write about tonight’s show, I really enjoy the activity of fact checking, and watching others do it. I don’t know if you listen to the Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe Podcast or not, but I heard some valid criticisms about episode one there as well. I’m assuming they read your article, but not sure. Happy fact hunting!

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Longmire

    “This very cogitation carries with it I don’t know what secret hidden horror . . . Well, let us seek the remedy in Astronomy herself, so that by her arts and soothing blandishments this madness of the philosophers . . . might be led back within the bounds of the world and its prisons. Surely, it is not good to wander through that infinity.”
    Everyone should read that and realize the same subversive spirit remains against the individuals “Soul”.

    • Morva Ádám

      I can’t understand your point,

      • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Longmire

        The very thought is freeing well let us use science/astronomy to confine the mind to this world and its systems surely free thought is not good. is my translation Bruno advocated using sound science as a means to explore the world and the universe unbounded by dogmatic, and group thinking which permeates religion as well as modern science. We would all do well to implement that in our daily lives and not differentiate between sound science and say spirituality because it is possible to join the two on an individual basis.

  • http://selfawarepatterns.com/ SelfAwarePatterns

    I don’t see how the Nicolas of Cusa quote shows that he thought of the Sun as a star. It seems clear he considered both the Earth and the Sun to be stars. Like it or not, the sun as a star, and planets around other stars, was a Bruno insight, even if he had it for all the wrong reasons.

    • coreyspowell

      I don’t get your reading of Nicolas of Cusa, and actually Bruno often conflates stars and planets (since both are celestial objects with animate souls). But really, that’s a minor point here.

      The bigger issue is that Cosmos missed a chance to paint a more accurate portrait of Bruno, which would have better captured the struggle to overcome superstition and religious oppression, and which I think would have been more entertaining as well.

      • http://selfawarepatterns.com/ SelfAwarePatterns

        I do think Cosmos oversimplified some complex dynamics, particularly at the trial, but it’s tough to get all that nuance into a ten minute cartoon. Maybe the controversy will get more people to read about Bruno and those times.

        • DavidHarley

          And what do we know of the trial? I could have sworn that the documents were missing, like so many of the Roman Inquisition’s papers, ever since the Napoleonic invasion of Rome.

          • http://selfawarepatterns.com/ SelfAwarePatterns

            It’s limited. I think our knowledge of the actual proceedings comes from letters of some of the attendees. From what I understand, there are some official Vatican documents, but they are fragmentary. We do know some things about the politics of the times and the views of the overseeing cardinal, Bellarmine, one of the cardinals later involved in Galileo’s case in 1616. Bruno’s cosmology would have mattered to him.

      • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Artur Sixto

        I guess Bruno’s text was in Latin and may have used the word astrum (from which ‘astronomy’ and ‘asteroid’ derive). Astrum did not refer exclusively to what we call today a star, but referred to any heavenly body. In modern languages derived from Latin (such as Catalan, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian, etc.) astre or astro still means any kind of heavenly body. Therefore, when Bruno spoke of the Earth, the Sun and other astra, he was just referring to the Earth, the Sun, and other heavenly bodies.

        • DavidHarley

          He could have used “aster,” “sidus,” or “stella.” The context’s the thing. Words are shifting sand.

          “sphaeris, stellis,
          astris, magnis animalibus” — De vinculis in genere

          “De temporibus et planetarum et
          astrorum dominio” — De magia mathematica

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Longmire

    “Every spirit builds itself a house, and beyond its house, a world, and beyond its world a heaven. Know then that the world exists for you: build, therefore, your own world.” Ralph Waldo Emerson
    “Thus not in vain is that power of the intellect which ever seeketh, yea, and achieveth the addition of space to space, mass to mass, unity to unity, number to number, by the science which dischargeth us from the fetters of a most narrow kingdom and promoteth us to the freedom of a truly august realm, which freeth us from an imagined poverty and straitness to the possession of the myriad riches of so vast a space, of so worthy a field, of so many most cultivated worlds. This science doth not permit that the arch of the horizon that our deluded vision imagineth over the earth and that by our fantasy is feigned in the spacious ether, shall imprison our spirit under the custody of a Pluto or at the mercy of a Jove. We are spared the thought of so wealthy an owner and subsequently of so miserly, sordid and avaricious a donor. Nor need we accept nourishment from a nature so fecund and pregnant, and then so wretched, mean and niggard in her fruit.”Thus not in vain is that power of the intellect which ever seeketh, yea, and achieveth the addition of space to space, mass to mass, unity to unity, number to number, by the science which dischargeth us from the fetters of a most narrow kingdom and promoteth us to the freedom of a truly august realm, which freeth us from an imagined poverty and straitness to the possession of the myriad riches of so vast a space, of so worthy a field, of so many most cultivated worlds. This science doth not permit that the arch of the horizon that our deluded vision imagineth over the earth and that by our fantasy is feigned in the spacious ether, shall imprison our spirit under the custody of a Pluto or at the mercy of a Jove. We are spared the thought of so wealthy an owner and subsequently of so miserly, sordid and avaricious a donor. Nor need we accept nourishment from a nature so fecund and pregnant, and then so wretched, mean and niggard in her fruit. Thus not in vain is that power of the intellect which ever seeketh, yea, and achieveth the addition of space to space, mass to mass, unity to unity, number to number, by the science which dischargeth us from the fetters of a most narrow kingdom and promoteth us to the freedom of a truly august realm, which freeth us from an imagined poverty and straitness to the possession of the myriad riches of so vast a space, of so worthy a field, of so many most cultivated worlds. This science doth not permit that the arch of the horizon that our deluded vision imagineth over the earth and that by our fantasy is feigned in the spacious ether, shall imprison our spirit under the custody of a Pluto or at the mercy of a Jove. We are spared the thought of so wealthy an owner and subsequently of so miserly, sordid and avaricious a donor. Nor need we accept nourishment from a nature so fecund and pregnant, and then so wretched, mean and niggard in her fruit. Very different are the worthy and honourable fruits which may be plucked from these trees, the precious and desirable harvests which may be reaped from the sowing of this seed.”Giordano Bruno He was burnt at the stake for speaking the same thing Emerson was ignored for saying. If you have time read click the link to “On the Infinite Universe and Worlds” It might be worth it to you.

  • Tomas Vorobjov

    I completely agree with you assessment that the show should have paid a bit more attention to some historical facts rather than sneaking in a few generalizations. I also understand that you are coming at this mainly (if not purely) from an academic point of view.

    What I cannot really stand however, are the religious apologists, such as Thomas L. McDonald over at patheos, who are twisting all of this into yet another attack on religion. Perhaps Cosmos is rightfully guilty of giving them the ounce of ammunition to do so.

    • Ace

      It most certainly was an attack on the Christian religion and the Catholic Church.

  • Kenneth Florek

    The very apparent intent of the Bruno vs clergy caricature is to picture Bruno as saintly, and the clergy satanic, in order to lay the groundwork for misrepresenting Christianity as having prevented, and as still preventing, science from progressing. This dogma, which is widely believed, and which the person hosting the program advances in many youtube videos, is well known by science historians to be bunk.

    It is particularly preposterous in the case of the Copernican system, and all of Galileo’s ideas and observations, which were widely discussed and debated by clergy within the Catholic Church, there being factions within the Church fond of novel or paradoxical ideas. If there were trepidations about exploring these ideas, it was not on account of Bruno being burned alive, or Galileo being confined to his beautiful villa, but that one could run afoul in one’s career advancement should some important superior be in a different faction. All a person did, in that era, was to assert publicly that he did not hold the view he was exploring, which of course was commonplace.

    In an era when a decent education was still a rarity, you could get one through the Church. The clergy were some of the most well-read, intellectually stimulating, liberal, sophisticated, not to mention debauched, men in the world.

    The Catholic Church got its name, Catholic, by joining disparate Churches. To keep this vast organization of contentious personnel, all absolutely certain of their own ideas, from re-fracturing, this system of nominal public assent, to whatever the tireless councils may decide was orthodox, was eventually evolved, because there is no other uniting system. Meanwhile, the contentious factions mulled over every idea they liked, and pushed for revision of orthodoxy when opportune.

    Instead of bunk, what was the true impediment to the Copernican system being accepted? Science itself, as a system not invoking the action of gods, did not have a consistent system. Many new ideas had to be developed in order to allow a system with a moving earth that did not contradict other physical ideas.

    • trueptbo

      So, it was science that burned Bruno at the stake? It was science that banned Copernicus’ book after his death?? Science hauled Galileo into court? I guess it was science again that burned Joan of Arc at the stake? OK.

      • Thony Christie

        The point about Bruno is that be wasn’t burnt for his scientific views but for his heterodox theological opinions.

        Just for the record, Copernicus’ book, De revolutionibus, was never banned. It was placed on the Index in 1616 until corrected. It was removed from the index in 1620 with a handful of very minor changes, all of which were perfectly correct in term of the scientific facts available at the time. This occurred only within Italy. Outside of Italy people just ignored the Inquisitions corrections and carried on reading it, even in Catholic countries.

        Galileo hauled himself into court in a dispute that actually had very little to do with science and a lot to do with a clash of egos and the problems of absolutist politics.

        • Fat_Man

          You should add that You should add that Jeanne d’Arc was burned because she was fighting against the English during a late phase of the Hundred Years War. It 170 years before Bruno, and did not involve the Inquisition.

          • Thony Christie

            Well she was burned because she was a witch, a religious crime, although the burning was done by the civil authorities

          • DavidHarley

            The court that tried her was a high-powered religious court, specially assembled. The Church could not execute people, but handed them over to the secular authorities,

      • DavidHarley

        Paradoxically, it was indeed “science” that led to Galileo’s initial difficulties. At that time, in an academic context, “scientia” referred to certain knowledge founded on logical demonstration.

        That is why John Locke, at the end of the century, stated that experimental natural philosophy could never become scientific.

        In holding that he could provide more than probabilistic hypotheses through the use of observation and mathematics, Galileo was running counter to the intellectual tradition. That is why the clash seems strange to us, now that these are established methods. In our terms, he was right, more or less. In early 17th-century terms, it was Bellarmine who was right.

        This might not have mattered so much, had not the Church been so much in need of defending against Protestantism. Galileo proposed the reinterpretation of passages of scripture, against the tradition of the Church, without having provided the necessary proof. He then refused to stop publishing on the matter. He even mocked his friend, the very Pope who eventually condemned him.

    • cactusren

      You say the intent of the Bruno story in Cosmos was to portray Christianity as “having prevented, and as still preventing, science from progressing.” But I didn’t see it that way at all, especially since Bruno’s ideas were portrayed as being religious in nature. In emphasizing that, Cosmos avoided portraying the conflict as one of religion vs. science, making it instead about opposing religious views. This shifted the focus to the importance of freedom of thought and expression. I viewed the overall message not as anti-religious, but as anti-authoritarian and anti-dogmatic.

      • Thony Christie

        And how in this delightful little animation were the Church officials portrayed?

        • cactusren

          I assume you’re getting at the fact that church officials were the villains of the story. While I agree that they could have been drawn less like Disney villains, in terms of the story itself I don’t see how you can portray a group of people burning someone at the stake as anything other than antagonists. But since both they and Bruno were portrayed as religious, this didn’t set up a religion vs. science conflict, but a dogmatism vs. heresy conflict. The point remains that those in power (and for that matter, those not in power) shouldn’t punish others for thinking and saying things they disagree with. Thus, Bruno’s death highlights the importance of the freedoms of thought and speech.

          Also note that deGrasse Tyson pointed out that the church wasn’t really viewed as separate from the state at the time. This at least partially implicates government officials along with the leaders of the church, making the message anti-authoritarian rather than specifically anti-church.

          • Thony Christie

            I don’t view portraying the Church officials as daemons complete with glowing read eyes as being in anyway historically objective. The animation sets out deliberately to create a false impression.

          • cactusren

            I’m sorry–did you mean to say the church officials were dimly lit with bright white eyes? Because I can’t find any any screen captures with red eyes. (http://blogs.ajc.com/news-to-me/2014/03/10/cosmos-teaches-science-slams-church/?cp=8)

          • cactusren

            And here’s the inquisitor–also without red eyes. http://www.aveleyman.com/ActorCredit.aspx?ActorID=116501

          • Thony Christie

            Splitting hairs is the last refuge of the desperate. White, yellow or red, the Church officials were deliberately displayed as daemonic figures to contrast with poor honest heroic human Bruno, If you deny that then there is no hope for you.

          • cactusren

            I don’t think it’s splitting hairs to point out that the one fact you cited to support your assertion is incorrect. I already agreed that I thought the drawing was a little overwrought, but to call them “daemonic” is hyperbole. The physical attribute you cited that marked them as resembling demons was red eyes. Which they don’t have. Do you have anything else to support your assertion?

          • Ace

            Their faces were drawn as demonic, complete with dark lines under their eyes and, IIRC, eyes like slits. No doubt about it. The intent in “Cosmos” was to portray the church official(s) as demonic.

    • bartski

      Well said, sir. Refreshing accountability.

  • SocraticGadfly

    Let’s hope Tyson doesn’t next repeat Sagan’s wrongness about Hypatia and the Library of Alexandria.

    • coreyspowell

      Good point. As wonderful as Sagan was (and I suspect is it clear that I was/am hugely influenced by his ideas and writings), he made mistakes, too. The original Cosmos bungled some of its history of science in the cause of making the stories more dramatic and focused–the Hypatia segment being a prime example.

  • Dr. Tar

    Correct me if I’m wrong but if an idea can’t be expressed as a testable hypothesis then it’s not science. Bruno in his own time could not test his concepts nor draw his inferences from data that could be observed and verified by anyone else in his time.

    While in hindsight today his statements may seem visionary and ahead of his time, in his own time and in the proper context he was NOT engaged in science.
    So why did a program supposedly espousing science feature him in the first place? Doesn’t the whole controversy here under cut the claim that Cosmos is a program to introduce a wide audience to the concept of Science, which to me is fundamentally rooted in the Scientific Method?

    Are audience members to be misled to believe that mankind’s important breakthroughs are first expressed in mystic visions and obscure philosophies rather than a systematic approach to testing ideas and verifying the results?

    I must say the whole Bruno kerfuffle is going to make me highly skeptical and suspicious of the rest of the series. This problem could of been mitigated with a disclaimer or by comparing Bruno’s approach to understanding to how the scientific method actually works and explain Bruno happened upon some interesting ideas that would have to wait centuries to be verified. An opportunity squandered.

    • cactusren

      DeGrasse Tyson specifically said that Bruno was not a scientist, and that his view of the cosmos was a lucky guess that would only be verified much later. He also gave a great, very succinct description of the scientific method right at the beginning of the episode. The point of the Bruno segment was that in order for science to flourish, ideas (even those not yet testable by science) should not lead to punishment. That is, people should not be afraid to express their ideas, even if they run counter to current dogma (whether that dogma be religious or scientific in nature). Science works by constantly testing new ideas.

      I do wish they had been more accurate in the history of the Bruno segment, but I thought the overall message was quite good.

      • Dr. Tar

        I totally missed it. I wonder how many other people did as well.

        • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com West

          Just remember, virtually all of science begins with something that is unproven (though hopefully testable), namely, an hypothesis. This should be field by observation and rational consideration, but ti’s also driven by faculties that we currently label as ‘intuition’ or ‘imagination’. To say the least, these faculties are no small part of the ‘scientific’ process. In fact, they are forever the nascent step in “the scientific method,” and to that extent (which is no small extent,) Bruno and his forerunners were as scientific as they could be. And thus, if one is going to discuss the nascent or emergent history of human ideas about the cosmos, then there clearly a place for thinkers such as Bruno. To suggest otherwise is to be an unimaginative thinker with little understanding for what drives scientific thought from the get-go. Mind you, I wouldn’t want to place sole primacy on the faculty of the imagination, but I certainly wouldn’t want to obliterate it, just as the scientific method does not obliterate, but rather, incorporates it as the first step in its process. In short, science and the experimental method is–and needs to be–far more imaginative and flexible than (apparently) many of the rigid/relatively unscientific people in this forum.

          • Dr. Tar

            By claiming to be a program about science for the general public the creators of Cosmos takes on the additional burden of presenting science. A program about walking zombies or a high school teacher making meth can take some artistic license since their main goal is entertainment.
            A program on science should be very clear on where the natural philosophy / mysticism ends and the science begins. Personally I found the segment on Giordano Bruno confusing and or mixing the two. By including the material and leaving out much of what is known of the man the writers of Cosmos did not make a clear enough distinction and missed a great opportunity to better inform the general public what science really is – the Scientific Method.

    • DavidHarley

      Not only was Bruno not a “scientist,” using the “scientific method,” nor were Kepler, Galileo and Newton. These English-language concepts, along with our modern sense of the word “science” were not invented until the 19th century.

      These people were all natural philosophers, contributing to a field of study subordinate to theology, as they were well aware. They each held different beliefs about the relationship between God and creation, which profoundly influenced their contributions to astronomy.

      Hence, for example, Galileo’s refusal to accept, despite both observational and mathematical demonstrations from his Jesuit colleagues, that any celestial objects might have other than perfectly circular motion.

      • Dr. Tar

        Wait, so Kepler, Galileo and Newton never came up with hypothesis that could be tested by observation and verified by others?
        I’m going to have to disagree with you on all three accounts.

        • Guest

          Two words: Theoretical Physics

          • Dr. Tar

            See comment above to Golden Ratio Phi. I can’t post it twice.

        • Golden Ratio Phi

          Are theoretical physics testable?

          • Dr. Tar

            Was Bruno versed enough in physics that he was proposing mathematically based theory on physical phenomena ?

            Wasn’t the concept of gravity waves finally observed this last week because previous physicist created mathematical models that were eventually testable and observable? In other words other scientist were able to set up experiments and document their observations because those physicist who proposed the concept of gravity waves did so in a form that could be tested and observed. I don’t think Bruno was doing the same thing.

            I’m no expert on either Bruno or theoretical physicist, but I serious doubt you would find many (or any) physicist who believe they owe anything to Bruno or that he made any contribution to science.

          • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com West

            “I serious doubt you would find many (or any) physicist who believe they owe anything to Bruno or that he made any contribution to science.” Well, even though you admit that you’re no expert as a theoretical physicist, I guess Tyson just lost his credentials as a physicist. See, as you might recall, this is why the subject of this discussion came up in the first place. As for admitting that you’re no expert on Bruno, you might find it interesting that he wrote more than a few books on mathematics. No doubt, he was imperfect, but last time I checked, science wasn’t perfect and mathematicians still haven’t figured everything out, like, for example, good pickup lines at bars. I hear they still such at this. Anyway, sure, just as you might expect, Giordano Bruno didn’t deploy mathematics in the same way as modern physicists, but by that standard, we probably couldn’t consider Newton to be either a full-fledged scientist and/or physicist, since he clearly lacked contemporary methodology. I mean, for starters, geez, where are his peer-reviewed articles in 21st century academic journals? Of course, this would be an absurd way to look at history. I think a better approach is obviously to consider any alleged ‘contribution(s)’ relative to its situation in time, and then consider how it relates to what has happened since that time. In other words, it seems best to widen the lens to consider the whole of the situation, whereas you contract the scope of your vision to the point where you just might be right (i.e., when you exclude all other possibilities). But this is hardly a rational / duly proportional approach, one that leaves out the entire, complex picture of historic influences and their relations over the course of time.Thus, while your perspective has some merit as one possible angle with which to look upon history, there is an inherent limitation to your logic. inasmuch it matters not one bit whether or not the top branches of a tree deny the existence or influence of the root of the tree. After all, in terms of the root’s contribution to the overall form, it matters not one bit that we can’t see the root because it’s hidden beneath the ground; it matters not one bit that the root looks nothing like the branches at the top of the tree; and it matters not one bit that most of the root’s influence on the growth of the tree took place long ago, and now it merely exists as a kind of legacy pipeline unto the rest of the plant. Fact is, there is a relationship between the root and the outermost growth of the tree, and more than that, without the root, there’s neither growth nor fruit. In other words, you can debate the degree to which Bruno’s thinking and/or undeniable promotion of the Copernican system contributed to science and its development, but it’s absurd to suggest that the standard of judgment ought to be based upon modern mathematical methodology as practiced by contemporary theoretical physicists, or still more absurdly, their historical understanding of science–as if they were all experts in history, as well as physics. Oh, and by the way, even if they were fantastic historical scholars, let’s not forget that the very best theoretical physicists can hardly agree upon their various, sundry, and competing theories concerning the nature of our cosmos, much less their theories about historical figures and their contribution to physics, such as it is and/or such as it will be. After all, while the people of the past physically die, their influence lives on, lest we deny the science DNA or the existential facts that prior thought not only lives on, likewise embedding itself in our consciousness, where it stays alive, albeit usually in new and diverse forms.

          • Serene Voice

            Who knows what Bruno might have accomplished in terms of scientific contributions if he hadn’t been killed for having ideas that frightened the church. Those ideas were eventually proven correct, overall, and it seemed that mystic experiences, not religious ones, aided him in his imagination. In that light, Cosmos pulled off a double message: it was not only scientists who were persecuted by the church, and any thinking outside of contemporary church thinking will be attacked by religion, where it contradicts or overshadows the dogma of religion.

    • lisac

      This segment showed that important ideas can’t be proven until they can be imagined. I am amazed by Bruno’s ability to create such a complicated, seemingly impossible, hypothesis that turned out to be true. Why can’t you believe in the scientific method and divine intervention at the same time?

      • Dr. Tar

        There’s nothing wrong with speculating and purporting far fetched ideas, but that’s not science. A program that is suppose to be about science should clearly delineate the untestable, unobservable and unrepeatable from science, or at least demonstrate how the explanation of the world through shear mental exercise alone is not science until it is subjected to the scientific method and proven systematically to be true.

        Otherwise you just might end up with a psychic on a news program given air time to speculate on what happened to flight MH370 based on her “special ability” and no grounds for declaring the person’s input just as legitimate as a systematic scientific approach to finding the aircraft.

        http://www.mediaite.com/tv/i-tend-to-work-off-what-i-dont-know-hln-asks-psychic-to-investigate-missing-plane/

        • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com West

          No quibbling here for the most part. However, I would add a what I consider to be a highly significant caveat, namely, let’s not forget that speculation in the form of generating an hypothesis is inherent to the experimental method–in fact, it’s where it all begins, which is no small thing (albeit based on our prior knowledge and rational assessment of probability, which likewise is no small thing), not to mention the fact that quantum theory has often been forced to rely upon “thought experiments,” since it often lacks any existing means with which to physically test its theories, such as literally scoping out the smallest objects in the physical world (i.e., the still ‘theoretical’ strings of string theory), which is to say it uses careful speculation (heck, many theoretical physicists confess to using “intuition”) as a means of approaching otherwise and/or formerly “unobservable” phenomena. In addition, as you know, science generally assumes the habit of exploring the previously “unobservable,” which is to say the “unknown,” which is to say that which had been hidden from our sight, which is to say that which is “occult”), but it attempts to do so in a careful, calculated process and methodology, one that has proven fabulously successful (well, except for the part about it jeopardizing our future existence on this planet because we don’t seem wise enough to handle it, per our relatively undeveloped moral and social muscles). Nonetheless, the whole point of the program of science is to plunge into the unknown so that we might finally come to observe what we previously could not. Finally, I think it’s also worth noting that we should be careful when it comes to labeling any thinking as being “far-fetched” when in fact, it has proven itself to have been quite “closely-fetched” to the truth of our world as we know it. Such was the case with Bruno’s “far-fetched” assertions. Maybe if we stop ignoring the way thinkers like Bruno think and operate, we might learn a thing or two about the ever-mysterious first step in the process of generating hypotheses, because if nothing else, it must be conceded that Bruno was pretty damned good at that–for whatever reason. Well, we might want to explore those reasons, and if we don’t, to that extent, we’re that much less scientific, since we’re ignoring a key component in the experimental method. Personally, I think that ignoring in general is tantamount to, well, ignorance. Granted, we can’t pay attention to every crazy, crackpot theory that’s out there, and thus, ignoring some things is both wise and practical, that is, in the sense of being efficient. However, again, I would note that when we encounter something or someone that we dismiss because their way does not conform to our way, yet in spite of this fact, their speculations turn out to be amazingly accurate and/or influential, we might not want to be so dismissive. Heck, we might even want to embrace the spirit of scientific inquiry and check things out. Imagine that. A scientist exploring why certain results keep turning out correctly even when “they shouldn’t.” Yes, you might say, the shouldn’t part is key, and in this case, you might argue that we shouldn’t pay attention to Bruno because his methodology did not conform to the (as then, still undeveloped) experimental method. But then, even if this line of thinking were fully granted, isn’t this edifying in itself? That is, doesn’t it make for a worthy discussion in a show that addresses how humanity has come to view the consciousness? I mean, aren’t mistakes part of the process? Thus, if for no other reason, isn’t Bruno a good starting point for saying, gee, here’s where we started getting it right, BUT, not for the right reasons and methodology, and thus, from this experience, we learned how to more carefully analyze our cosmos? So that in this sense if no other, Bruno acted as a catalyst for the development of the experimental method, which saw Bacon taking it to the next level only a few decades after Bruno (and, in fact, he was influenced by Bruno, and not just merely “correcting” Bruno’s methodological deficiencies, but by taking heed of Bruno’s insistence upon observing the world around us to find the truths of our existence, and then formalizing it into the experimental method). To say the least, the ability to so strongly influence how we look at the cosmos is the key to consciousness as well as the key to consciousness. I’m just not sure why including Bruno in that discussion is so controversial. I mean, is it that unimportant to consider how scientists came to see that which they previously did not? Should we restrict ourselves to observing things yet never consider how we came to develop our sense of perception and relative focus? For that matter, do cosmologists themselves restrict their inquiry to addressing the “what” but never the “why” or “how things came to be?” I say no, obviously not, in which case, I have to ask, is it really far-fetched for Tyson to have included such a discussion in a program about the cosmos?

  • cgosling

    Thanks for the Bruno discussion. After doing extensive research on the Roman Inquisition I realized that the Roman church has been essentially exonerated. It appears that Catholic historians all agree that the church had little to do with the excesses of the Inquisition, and that civil and secular authorities are to blame. They claim the Church had a few excesses but can hardly be blamed for much more than a very few deaths by fire, deaths by torture, deaths by starvation and disease in prison, physical suffering from torture, confiscation of heretic’s property, disruption of families, forced conversion, etc. Civil authorities are blamed for most all of the atrocities and the Roman Church has been falsely accused. It’s amazing what a little research can uncover.

  • cgosling

    Concerning Bruno’s last day prior to being burned at the stake: “secularradiotheater” has an exciting radio show posted on YouTube. Check out “Giordano Bruno Murdered”

  • readytotransform

    I was quite put out, to be honest, that Bruno’s entire revelation and all that he went through on behalf of his deepest Truth was dismissed as a “lucky guess”.
    In fact, you might say I was stunned. I agree he was naïve, because he could not grasp how harshly he would be treated by so many – of all religious persuasions. The word used in the program was “fool”. And so, there is truth to this. He couldn’t see beyond his inner vision and realize the kind of political world he lived within. However…..

    It was not, in my own opinion, a lucky guess. For heavens’ sake, it was a full blown, dare I say such a thing, transcendent experience. It is called, “direct knowing”. I have had such peak experiences myself as a psychologist. And I can tell you that there are a lot of people who are quite thankful for this.

    I admire Bruno’s courage of his convictions, albeit, not the wisest of humans if he wanted to live a long life. And let us not forget, as a Catholic Monk, he would have possibly felt he was walking the path of Jesus, who was crucified by the powers that be, for speaking his ground breaking truth. Although, that message was not completely original either.

    Rita

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com West

    Look, it’s not Bruno vs. Digges, but both complimenting one another. And while it’s true that Bruno wasn’t a lone wolf in theory, in practice, nobody so publicly carried the torch of so-called “Copernicanism” than Bruno.

    I might add that…

    1) Bruno’s great intuition not only greatly influenced Bacon and the experimental method only a couple of decades after his death (per calling upon a reliance on observation of the physical world as a based for further investigation);

    2) he singlehandedly resurrected the study of the quantum world for the first time since antiquity and Democritus (note, he was concerned with the cosmic “minimum” and “maximum”, and largely devoid of spiritual considerations (albeit written in poetic verse), as we see in his Frankfurt trilogy, written in his latter years;

    3) he routinely engaged in what 20th Century quantum theorists would call “thought experiments” (i.e., lacking suitable instruments to explore the smallest constituents of matter, such as quarks or strings and things, just like Bruno, yet nobody care to claim that luminaries such as Heisenberg, Pauli, or Schrodinger are “unscientific”);

    4) Bruno used his through experiments to generate relativity theory 300 years before Einstein, sans the E=MC2 formula (a critical component, indeed, but Bruno clearly understood a communicated the essence of it);

    5) on the whole, Bruno’s thinking was clearly driven by the “holographic paradigm” centuries before holograms were discovered, or before Karl Pibram and David Bohm suggested any holonomic theories or notions of an “implicate order” (note that this idea was rife in Bruno’s writing, and can be seen in statements he commonly makes, such as “everything is in everything else”);

    6) Bruno laid out the basis for historical dialectic, which Hegel discussed, albeit in his own way, but he was entirely conscious of Bruno and wrote about him; not to mention the fact that according to leading experts in semiotics and mass media, such as Umberto Eco, rightly identify Bruno as the pioneer in those fields;

    7) heck, the guy was even a huge influence on Moliere, and it appears he was a strong influence on Shakespeare (and might have even met young Shakespeare during his stay in England in the early 1580s. Many scholars think the character of Propero in The Tempest is based on Bruno).

    So then, why is Bruno so overlooked given the unprecedented scope and scale of his contributions?

    Well, aside from the fact that moderns tend to be specialists who think in ‘either/or terms vs. both/and sensibilities, history doesn’t seem capable of digesting figures such as Bruno, who wasn’t a master of any given area of thought, but rather, he functioned as a masterful sewer of the seeds of great thought. We tend to hand out the blue ribbons of historic recognition to the guys and gals who cross the finish line with their theories, whereas guys like Bruno–the people who made the race possible in the first place, get overlooked.

    I’d like to think this is changing, and perhaps we’ll see a long-overdue reassessment of Bruno per objective studies of “The Nolan” and his work/influence by capable historians such as Hilary Gati (vs. fanciful, speculative and highly distorted works by historians such as Francis Yates, who mostly betrayed her own orientation in her outdated works on Bruno, or even worse, the apologists for religious polemics, who continue to burn Bruno with errant scholarship more than 400 years after they literally burned him at the stake).

    In any case, the most amusing thing about the obsessive need to insist that Bruno wasn’t “scientific” just because he didn’t have telescopes at his disposal is that nobody ever even bothers to discuss whether or not Copernicus was “scientific,” yet what instruments was he using?

    In fact, unlike Bruno, Copernicus waited until he was on his deathbed before daring to suggest that the Earth revolves around the sun. Moreover, he made this suggestion on briefly in his final book–giving his scant attention–and underscored the fact that this was merely an idea or theory and thus, he wanted to make it clear that he was not actually claiming that this was literally the case. In addition, even as he timidly suggested that the earth might revolved around the sun, he preserved the idea of celestial spheres–the notion that the planets swirled around us in some sort of crystalline layers.

    Well, Bruno not only had the good sense to say this was all preposterous, but he criticized Copernicus for not having the courage to say so because, unlike those who still fail to give Bruno his due credit. Bruno gave Copernicus credit for knowing better, yet fearing to tell the truth. Bruno never lacked for such courage, just as he never lacked for vision.

    Therefore, isn’t it high time he gets the credit he deserves No, not as some sort of be all and end all of science, but certainly as the greatest “sewer of the seeds” of the modern world–no more or less than this, which is quite a statement in itself.

    Perhaps the problem is as simple as this: The world has yet to catch up to Bruno’s all encompassing thinking. Until less reductionist writers and thinkers start re-reading Bruno, he very likely will continue to be labeled as “just an atheist,” “just an occultist,” “just a philosopher,” “just a Hermetist,” “just a heretic,” “just a poet,” “just a dramatist,” “just a difficult guy,” “just a guy with a few good hunches and lucky guesses,” etc., etc., etc. Too bad, since there’s still so much to learn from this revolutionary thinker.

    For that matter, some people might start asking themselves, gee, how exactly does a guy like that make so many correct guesses that turn out to be verified centuries after his death? Plus, if my head head was full of all of a perception of reality that the small-minded people of my own time couldn’t remotely understand, might I get a little cranky, too?

    • coreyspowell

      Many interesting points here, but I find your overall interpretation of Bruno’s ideas highly ashistorical. To understand Bruno you have to look at him in his detailed historical context, not through a lens of teleology.

      • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com West

        I beg to differ. I am indeed looking at Bruno through the lens of history, and I might add, any discussion of history as it relates to Bruno’s thought, and vice versa, needs to be anchored in a firm knowledge of said thought, lest it be ahistorical in the worst possible way. But then, misprision and ahistoricity is bound to occur when one does not possess half the contextual equation here, which is to say, the context of Bruno’s thought. From what I gather in your response to Soter, it appears you have only passing familiarity with Bruno (having only just recently read “On Infinite Worlds” or Ash Wednesday Supper)’. Perhaps your reading of Bruno goes well beyond this–I’m in no position to say. For what it’s worth, I can say that I’ve had the chance to read all of his available works–pretty much everything that wasn’t burned–but your response to me and to Soter seems to indicate a nascent investigation. In any case, ironically, I would suggest your view, especially in this regard, is patently ahistorical and likewise betrays a teleology, and unfortunately, such an argument is unlikely to progress given this seems to be the case.

        • coreyspowell

          All I can say is–I am discussing Bruno in terms of the Church theology and Copernican understanding of his era. You are discussing him in terms of quantum theory, holography, and general relativity from centuries later. Simply echoing my charge of teleology carries no credibility in that context.

          Perhaps you’ve read Stanley Jaki’s commentaries on Bruno. If not, I highly recommend them.

          • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com West

            The discussion seemed to have widened beyond that scope, but narrowing the lens to your focus, the understanding and/or promotion of Copernican ideas in Bruno’s era was virtually nil. There’s not much dispute about that, as a matter of historical fact, even if one widens the interpretive lens to include Digges or others. In short, all I can say is, nobody carried the flag for it as publicly as Bruno or brought as much attention to it, whether among scholars of his time or the general public. Nobody ventured into as many forums in as many places, making it a point of debate, if nothing else. That’s history. Moreover, per the original discussion based on your original article, this marks the history of the modern exploration of the cosmos, and as such, Bruno merits the attention given to him in the first new episode of “Cosmos,” which attempts to narrate this story, or history. And if Bruno did not give birth to this exploration, he certainly conceived (of) it, literally, metaphorically, or historically. This doesn’t mean he was the only one, or that he should be the only one given credit, and Bruno never made such claims himself, but on the eve of this modern revolution of inquiry, he certainly was a leading inquirer.

          • MeriMakr8298

            West: I love the way your mind works. I hope you continue to write here because I like that you are well reasoned, wide-ranging in your knowledge and analysis, and elegant in your presentation.
            The writer of this article would be well to pay attention to voices such as yours.

          • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com West

            Gee, um, thanks (blush). I think it’s just that I’ve read far too much of Bruno to countenance some of the things I’ve heard without at least stopping in to pop out a comment or two. I do have to confess that I sorta hate to pull the ole “did you even read his work?” card on people, but with Bruno–a guy who isn’t easy to read for many reasons, perhaps the key one being the breadth of his thought–it’s so critical. He really was a multi-dimensional thinker who was far ahead of his time, and so many ‘moderns’ rather anachronistically look back on his work through more specialized and/or narrow lenses, which Bruno himself rejected. Or worse, most people just don’t have the attention spans to stitch more than two thoughts together, much less to organically string together countless thoughts in an all-encompassing vision the way Bruno did. It’s not for nuthin’ that classic ‘holistic’ thinkers like Goethe or Coleridge were such great admirers. In any case, I’m not that familiar with the moderator of this group, so I might be speaking out of turn here, but he seems like a fairly reasonable bloke, even if I have a different perspective on this matter. Anyway, thanks so much again for your nice comment. : )

          • MeriMakr8298

            I just find it sort of appalling that our kind moderator (while reasonable) seems to be accusatory about things he seems unable to fully grasp.

            I in no way compare myself to Bruno, but I too try to look at things holistically and have studied a (looking back on it) ridiculous number of fields. I see The Tree of Knowledge (or Life depending on your orientation) growing up in all things.

            I understand gasoline engines from my work on nuclear ones.

            I instantly understood fractals because that’s the way I see the universe as a whole.

            But I’m just an amatuer. Though sometimes I think I am a bit hard on myself.

            An ex, who was doing bleeding edge physics for a living, said my mind was a good one (if overfilled with trivia and pop culture). He didn’t have to dumb down the concepts (though he did have to dumb down the nomenclature) for me to understand what he was doing.

            In any case, it has been a distinct pleasure listening to your words and I hope to get to speak with you more fully at a later date.

          • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com West

            Well, to begin with, anyone who can duly note a difference between the Tree of Knowledge vs. the Tree of Life must be fairly broad-minded, as well as depth-minded, if you’ll pardon an awkward turn of phrase. To say the least, if you can make distinctions like that while working on gasoline engines and/or nuclear engines and then simultaneously juggling pop trivia and chewing bubble gum at the same time, why, I’d say your spectrum of thinking must run both wide and deep. In which case, your style of thinking mirrors Bruno’s, for which I have an strong affinity–or at least I could only hope that my style of thinking mirrors thinkers such as he–and thus we have our mutual admiration society. In fact, I’d be inclined to compliment you more, except that given our shared disposition, I’d feel like I was just patting myself on the back by extension. Thing is, whereas sometimes we might feel hesitant to praise ourselves for a given habit or trait (i.e., being “hard on ourselves”), we nonetheless feel comfortable praising others for those exact same things. But then, to a certain extent, other people ARE extensions of ourselves, or if you will, fractals of ourselves–some more than others. We’re certainly genetic fractals of one another by birth, but far more significantly, I’d say we’re emotional and cognitive fractals, as well. In any case, as Bruno himself was fond of saying, “everything is in everything else,” which betrays his holographic sensibility, and of course, per that paradigm, our reality (or realities) can be seen as an ever-unfolding projection or emanation of the Tree of Life.. or Knowledge. This, in turn implies that–Holy Frac!–we’re all fractals of one another, as well as one big, all-encompassing whole, which logically must include the deepest possible thoughts right along with the most superficial trivia. Actually, one of the things I love best about Bruno is how he quite intentionally and meta-conscioiusly contemplated the relationship between the highest of things and the lowest of things. One minute he was reflecting on ultimate questions and the next he was making the bawdiest observations. No doubt, he saw some union between everything, and yet, by no means did he suggest that one thing is the same as the next in some sort of ecstatic Kumbaya vision of oneness. Distance matters, as this discussion bears out, and as Bruno’s panentheism bears out. But whatever the case, I definitely appreciate your proximity. As for the moderator and his thinking style and general orientation, he would seem a tad less proximate. And as far as I can tell, this seems to be THE critical factor in how people view Bruno and his contributions.

          • MeriMakr8298

            Well now, I thought I put a photo here. My phone sometimes gets wonky and refuses to allow me to pull up the keyboard thus reducing me to sending pictures of agreement. In any case, I found your comments both comforting and discomforting. I have a ‘natural’ modesty brought on by being told repeatedly and for years how dumb I was (all the while I was reading every book I could get my hands on). It was during one of my ‘let’s read 14 books at the same time while they’re spread out on a library table’ moments (a parlor trick I was fond of to see how well my mind could keep many balls in the air) I must have gotten overwhelmed by my lack of sleep and as I passed into dream state I could see this incredible image of a tree made of ideas/processes and I could see that no one idea existed without the other ideas. That life itself could be viewed the same way, that thought, motion, relative speeds of things all depended on their place in those trees. I actually saw all the other trees at the same time. ‘Our’ trees, and the trees from other versions of our universe. And the oddest thing was I wasn’t reading any science fiction books at the time, nor any books on physics. I was, if I recall, reading books on handicrafts (sewing, knitting) and books on agriculture and fiction books about true love and the like. It was a moment that changed me. Now, I have a reply to a reaction about something you said. I speak of your comment: ‘some sort of ecstatic Kumbaya vision of oneness’. I would point out that no less an expert on the subject, Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield sees value in that sort of ecstasy. Additionally, the Freedom Riders sang that exact song to bolster their spirits before they went out (and died) trying to show that we are, indeed, fractals of one another. It is, reasonably, an easy target. But from a great enough distance everything looks connected, and in fact is. For your other myriad points, I can only say: I really want to continue talking with you. In many ways it is like talking to a slightly different version of my self. But it is much, much more. I am of a specific genetic persuasion, and when I run into someone whose face looks like mine, I become much more engaged. When I meet my own edge of the fractal I holographically project from, I am delighted. I will say, using this article to speak is a bit cumbersome. If you’ve any interest in chattering with me further, let me know and I’ll try to figure out a way to inform you of an email address or the like that you and I could correspond through. Odd fact. If West is indeed your name my surname at birth was another direction and my given name was a derivation on your own.

          • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com West

            Lots of interesting stuff, indeed. For clarification, I personally believe we’re all one, and ecstatic visions thereof are real, if sadly ephemeral, or such is the tendency. So it is that we can have these feelings of oneness, and then suddenly you go to a store and some grocery clerk is annoying as Hell, or… whatever… there goes the whole oneness vibe. No doubt, the Dharmic state is certainly worth aspiring too as much as possible, but unfortunately, it’s awfully hard to hold in this world, wherein we might truly exist as part of whole continuous wave of being, or unified Tree of Life, yet we existentially experience life as ‘seeming’ packets of discrete and differentiated particles (i.e., separate branches on the Tree of Knowledge of good and evil). By the way, I think that the aforementioned hypostasis of oneness, if you will, is the meaning of the word Dharma, or at least the original meaning, which meant “to hold” (only later did it become associated with the law and/or other more limiting interpretations). In any case, the point that I was making–maybe being a bit too snarky–is that division is as much the rule of our world as union. Granted, I’d rather strive for the latter state of union, which is much more comforting, but to that end, I think the odds of success in achieving this state are much better when we recognize the discomforting forces of division. That sometimes get overlooked in our desire to get to the good stuff, at least in certain quarters. So, for example, at an extreme end of the spectrum, you’ve got all of these New Agey “law of attraction’ people out there who tend to emphasize union, and there’s nothing wrong with what they have to say, per se–i.e., said laws of attraction are true enough in and of themselves–it’s just that they ignore the plethora of competing laws of repulsion, distraction, division, alienation, separation, limitation, etc. Mind you, I don’t think the latter laws rule the roost either, but at least as far as I can tell, it’s a ‘both/and proposition and maybe the state of our reality depends on how artfully and consciously we deal with all of these factors. That can be pretty tough stuff to manage since, well, I suppose we can be pretty dumb at times. And yet, I can think of no dumber thing than to routinely call others dumb–even if they actually were dumb, relatively speaking. It’s just ridiculous and not nice. After all, relatively speaking, we’re all fairly dumb relative to all that can be known. I mean, sure, as you look around this world, there’s no shortage of dumb things, but then, we never need to look further than the mirror of our own minds to see that we’re all short a few fractals–as far as our eyes can tell, which isn’t very far, at least literal. What–a couple hundred feet maybe? Well, save for our inner vision–those ecstatic moments when the limits of our vision seem to shatter. But then, again, that state can be hard to hold, although well worth holding. It’s a pretty darned dynamic process, as your tree dream/vision seems to bear out. In that regard, I think the right sort of modesty and humility can be helpful in approaching that dynamic, so maybe some people were unconsciously doing you a favor with the whole ‘dumb’ thing. If nothing else, they unwittingly drove you to look further, whether to the east, West, south, or North (?), which is a good thing. Anyway, it appears this conversation has drifted far afield from the Cosmos show relative to Bruno, historiography, etc. so… hey_market@yahoo.com. : )

        • DavidHarley

          No, I don’t think you are “looking through the lens of history.” All your comments are rooted in the present, from which you are looking backwards, in the search for ancestors and precursors.

          It is the business of historians, as far as possible, to look from the further past forwards. That is the way that one attempts to avoid anachronisms.

          Present-mindedness embraces the ahistorical. Indeed, it can often barely see beyond it.

          • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com West

            This seems to be quite an overstatement to me, but lest I make an
            overstatemment about your overstatement, here’s why: For starters, I
            certainly cannot claim to be looking through the lens of history as if I
            were living within said history. Otherwise, it simply would not be
            history, but rather, it would be live reportage. Fact is, I live in the
            present, just as do you, just as any and every would-be historian on
            this board does, and in fact, the only way one can ever talk about
            “history” is if one is looking backwards onto a previous era. To put it
            another way, anybody who pretends to looks through the lens of history
            in some pure manner devoid of any present state of being is doing just
            that–pretending. Not that this is entirely a bad thing. For myself, I
            won’t pretend that such intellectual and/or imaginary “acting” has some
            merit and can yield some results, but the acting only goes so far (shy
            of clinical insanity), as do the results. In any case, I don’t want to
            degenerate too far into semantics, however, it seems worthwhile to point
            out that when I talked about looking through the lens of history, I
            didn’t mean to suggest this was my sole focus (I think my comments were
            pretty clear and obvious on that score and thus no reminder was
            necessary, but thanks anyway), however, this doesn’t mean that any merit
            my observations might carry do not also possess some due consideration
            of the historical context. (Plus, as a side note, one might consider the
            thorny difficulties of applying such restrictive logic when dealing
            with an historical figure whose greatest virtue might have been his
            ability to see beyond his own time, which is to say, what if someone’s
            thought is, by nature, ahistorical inasmuch as it is futuristic, and as
            that future bears out, correct?). In any case, a relative sensitivity to
            the sitz im leben was my point–even if I do not share your relative
            sense to the degree you prefer and/or imagine I do not. Meanwhile, do I
            embrace present-mindedness? I cannot help but do otherwise. In fact, I
            challenge you to do otherwise. For that matter, even if you could time
            travel to the year 1600, you’d still carry with you the fingerprints of a
            21st Century consciousness. The point is, we are forced to look onto
            history through the lens of the present time, whether we like it or not.
            And, again, nobody can do ‘history’ or even sensibly discuss something
            called ‘history’ unless they live in a time that extends beyond said
            history. In this limited sense (i.e., existential limits I have nothing
            to do with), we are all ahistorical, but then, it likewise would be
            nonsense we are ‘nothing but’ historical, lest we degenerate to
            Cartesian skepticism or blatant solipsism. I’m just trying to exercise a
            bit of common sense here, and I’m guessing more than a few thinkers
            share this perspective in common. Maybe not you. So be. But as far as I
            see it, this is a both/and situation (wherein to be ahistorical not
            only is not necessarily the case that a ‘present’ mindset is opposed to
            historicity, but, indeed, ahistoricity–at least in the sense of living
            in the present time and/or latter-days, is actually a prerequisite to
            doing history. Frankly, how could it be otherwise, logically speaking?
            And thus, any claims to possessing an either/or approach (i.e., you’re
            either in the now and thus ahistorical or you’re in the past, and
            somehow purely historical) is tantamount to a claim to being willfully
            blind.

    • Joe Blow

      “sewers of seeds” [sic] – Does it make me petty to point this out, silly for amusing myself with the image of somoeone sewing seeds, or inspired by Bruno’s allegedly-contrarian nature? You decide…

      I am enjoying the level of discourse here, thank you all. It greatens the causes of knowledge and understanding to be ably critical.

      Anecdotally, I have observed the trend to use cinematic/historical shorthand for making them appear sympathetic. In the screenplay for “Quiz Show” the afterword was all “And VanDoren Never. Taught. Again.” and made him single even though those were false. Thoreau wasn’t ‘living off the land’ at Walden Pond so much as camping for bouts and writing.

      So Bruno was a real shit-disturber eh? I can imagine that if we need to see him as rejected and annoying enough to be executed that the mention of patrons is left off. That it’s a cartoon shouldn’t lessen the accuracy of the narrative, necessarily, but maybe Bruno should have escaped his captors with some well-placed hadoukens? …just sayin’…

      • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com West

        LOL. Well, seeds do grow fast and strong in fertile ground, and so much the better if said ground is laced with fecal matter, which does require wallowing in a whole lotta waste as you intentionally disturb the current ground state of being, or rather, the current state of the ground, such as it is. Rowing the hoes of this world, as it were (pun intended). It’s a tough, nasty, smelly business, and it undoubtedly led to more than a few street fights for Bruno, mostly in academic halls, although there were literal ones, though they seem to have been strictly a matter of jostling with the crude crowds of London in the 1580s, wherein it was popular to hassle foreigners just for being foreign. As for the scholarly fights, they were every bit as serious, even unto Bruno’s execution, and so it is that historians rather oddly focus on labeling Bruno as being the proverbial irascible, argumentative, “bad guy,” apparently forgetting that 1) it takes two to tango; and 2) he held opinions that made him the center of dispute (not to mention something of a foul, although the sources for this may be dubious); and 3) when you (i.e., the church and secular authorities) start burning people for their perspectives, it just might be ‘you’ whose the troublemaker and not the folks you;re burning. Oh, but that’s an anachronistic view, right? Anyway, no doubt, being argumentative justifiably can be described or even ‘blamed’ on Bruno, who routinely “started it” with his highly unorthodox views (how dare heeeee?!!!), but this highly unsympathetic and rather cinematic characterization probably ought to be revisited when we consider the simple fact that most of what made Bruno so “annoying” was that his unconventional opinions were so damned radical and thus at odds with the sacred cows of his time. Again, how dare he? Surely he must’ve been a contararian just to be a contrarian, right? Why, he probably never really even believed that the Earth orbited the Sun, but just said so to cause trouble (never mind that he wrote how this was the sincere, literally truth, while it was Copernicus who went out of his way to basically say it wasn’t literally true, but rather, he was ‘just sayin’, a fact for which Bruno strongly criticized Copernicus, effectively saying that he knew better but didn’t have the stones to say so). The bottom line is that Bruno was sincere, which made him all the more maddening, and thus he was definitely marginalized as the odd man out. In short, not only was he an easy target, but he was routinely targeted (which I can imagine gets a bit old and more than a bit annoying), and yet, as history has since borne out, it’s the people of his time who held the odd and annoying and wrong opinions (no small consideration). In hindsight, they were, well, idiots, while in foresight, Bruno was uncannily accurate. Looking back (which one might imagine ought to be the job of an historian), If I were Bruno, I’d be pretty damned annoyed and disgusted by the sewer of unconsciousness that pervaded his age, and as a result, I might’ve become more than a bit edgy and cantankerous myself. And yet, despite the fact that historians routinely acknowledge the remarkable accuracy of Bruno’s intuitions, they give him little credit for it, largely because they reckon that he was right “for the wrong reasons.” Sadly, few of these people have actually read Bruno to understand the fullness of his reasons, just as few seem familiar with more recent scholarship (i.e., Gatti, Saibor, Catana, Ordine, Calcagno, Sturlese, etc., providing a far more well-rounded picture of an amazingly well-rounded thinker), as opposed to reading and still relying upon secondhand sources that are anything but current (Jaki is an exception in terms of being modern, yet his is bad scholarship inasmuch as his narrow focus is/was bound to see him failing to meet Bruno and his thought on its own level–heck, that’s not really what he’s interest in addressing or discovering from the outset, so it should come as no surprise–and thus he winds up fighting a kind of straw man in the form of foregone conclusions (at least those of one school) and/or persistent agendas for hyping Bruno vs. engaging the totality of Bruno’s thinking and vision). Ironically, it’s Jaki who turns out to be right about Bruno but for the wrong reasons, inasmuch as they are so limited and limiting. (Note: He’s certainly not right about the fullness of Bruno’s thought, because this simply isn’t his focus, but rather, he’s right per his predefined limits). In any case, these sorts of wanton examples of misprision and/or blatantly illiterate and deformed or uniformed perspectives are as true of those who still want to make Bruno into some sort of modern martyr for science and/or an atheist hero (the erstwhile Richard Dawkins of his time, I suppose) or of those apologists who are still banging the drum for the church and demonizing Bruno or trivializing him. Personally, I do see Bruno as a ‘kind’ of hero, but in his own rite, which is a hero of a very different type. Again, he was a sower of seeds in the sewers of the European culture of his time. We can use a lot more of those sorts of people in our own time, whether in science or religion or elsewhere. Frankly, I couldn’t care less if he was a “scientific hero,” per se, as if that’s necessarily some great shakes. Maybe yes, maybe no. It all depends on the science at hand and then what we do with it. Like so many things in this world, science can bring us wonders of wonders, but just as often, it brings us horrors of horrors. It’s how we use it that matters, and thus, I suspect that we need new science, or at least a new attitude that embraces a larger, more all-encompassing vision, one that does not reject formal science, but perhaps forever seeks to see a bit further (even beyond the ‘normal’ formal walls of science), or at least heroically strives to do so. That’s exactly what Bruno did, and in doing so, he helped to push the envelope (or sew the seeds) for what eventually became the formalized field of modern science. However, this field will continue to sew the seeds of ever-new horrors until it somehow includes or fully respects a more holistic perspective, the cautionary echoes of which we can hear in later great thinkers, such as Goethe, who was so strongly influenced by Bruno. However, those echoes have largely been ignored (just as the church told them to do), and as this whole discussion indicates. There still seems to be little room for anything but the most narrow-minded views of what science is and what it means. How ironic that this should be the case regarding a show called “cosmos.” One would think the very vastness of this subject would see us widening the lens of our perspectives a bit. However, it seems to evoke just the opposite spirit, and I say, if this reflects the spirit of science, we’re all in trouble. I’m sure Bruno would be only too happy to say, if that’s all science is or can be, count me out.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com West

    Look, it’s not Bruno vs. Digges, but both complementing one another. And while it’s true that Bruno wasn’t a lone wolf in theory, in practice, nobody so publicly carried the torch of so-called “Copernicanism” than Bruno.

    I might add that…

    1) Bruno’s great intuition not only greatly influenced Bacon and the experimental method only a couple of decades after his death (per calling upon a reliance on observation of the physical world as a based for further investigation);

    2) he singlehandedly resurrected the study of the quantum world for the first time since antiquity and Democritus (note, he was concerned with the cosmic “minimum” and “maximum”, and largely devoid of spiritual considerations (albeit written in poetic verse), as we see in his Frankfurt trilogy, written in his latter years;

    3) he routinely engaged in what 20th Century quantum theorists would call “thought experiments” (i.e., lacking suitable instruments to explore the smallest constituents of matter, such as quarks or strings and things, just like Bruno, yet nobody care to claim that luminaries such as Heisenberg, Pauli, or Schrodinger are “unscientific”);

    4) Bruno used his through experiments to generate relativity theory 300 years before Einstein, sans the E=MC2 formula (a critical component, indeed, but Bruno clearly understood a communicated the essence of it);

    5) on the whole, Bruno’s thinking was clearly driven by the “holographic paradigm” centuries before holograms were discovered, or before Karl Pibram and David Bohm suggested any holonomic theories or notions of an “implicate order” (note that this idea was rife in Bruno’s writing, and can be seen in statements he commonly makes, such as “everything is in everything else”);

    6) Bruno laid out the basis for historical dialectic, which Hegel discussed, albeit in his own way, but he was entirely conscious of Bruno and wrote about him; not to mention the fact that according to leading experts in semiotics and mass media, such as Umberto Eco, rightly identify Bruno as the pioneer in those fields;

    7) heck, the guy was even a huge influence on Moliere, and it appears he was a strong influence on Shakespeare (and might have even met young Shakespeare during his stay in England in the early 1580s. Many scholars think the character of Propero in The Tempest is based on Bruno).

    So then, why is Bruno so overlooked given the unprecedented scope and scale of his contributions?

    Well, aside from the fact that moderns tend to be specialists who think in ‘either/or terms vs. both/and sensibilities, history doesn’t seem capable of digesting figures such as Bruno, who wasn’t a master of any given area of thought, but rather, he functioned as a masterful sewer of the seeds of great thought. We tend to hand out the blue ribbons of historic recognition to the guys and gals who cross the finish line with their theories, whereas guys like Bruno–the people who made the race possible in the first place, get overlooked.

    I’d like to think this is changing, and perhaps we’ll see a long-overdue reassessment of Bruno per objective studies of “The Nolan” and his work/influence by capable historians such as Hilary Gati (vs. fanciful, speculative and highly distorted works by historians such as Francis Yates, who mostly betrayed her own orientation in her outdated works on Bruno, or even worse, the apologists for religious polemics, who continue to burn Bruno with errant scholarship more than 400 years after they literally burned him at the stake).

    In any case, the most amusing thing about the obsessive need to insist that Bruno wasn’t “scientific” just because he didn’t have telescopes at his disposal is that nobody ever even bothers to discuss whether or not Copernicus was “scientific,” yet what instruments was he using?

    In fact, unlike Bruno, Copernicus waited until he was on his deathbed before daring to suggest that the Earth revolves around the sun. Moreover, he made this suggestion on briefly in his final book–giving his scant attention–and underscored the fact that this was merely an idea or theory and thus, he wanted to make it clear that he was not actually claiming that this was literally the case. In addition, even as he timidly suggested that the earth might revolved around the sun, he preserved the idea of celestial spheres–the notion that the planets swirled around us in some sort of crystalline layers.

    Well, Bruno not only had the good sense to say this was all preposterous, but he criticized Copernicus for not having the courage to say so because, unlike those who still fail to give Bruno his due credit. Bruno gave Copernicus credit for knowing better, yet fearing to tell the truth. Bruno never lacked for such courage, just as he never lacked for vision.

    Therefore, isn’t it high time he gets the credit he deserves No, not as some sort of be all and end all of science, but certainly as the greatest “sewer of the seeds” of the modern world–no more or less than this, which is quite a statement in itself.

    Perhaps the problem is as simple as this: The world has yet to catch up to Bruno’s all encompassing thinking. Until less reductionist writers and thinkers start re-reading Bruno, he very likely will continue to be labeled as “just an atheist,” “just an occultist,” “just a philosopher,” “just a Hermetist,” “just a heretic,” “just a poet,” “just a dramatist,” “just a difficult guy,” “just a guy with a few good hunches and lucky guesses,” etc., etc., etc. Too bad, since there’s still so much to learn from this revolutionary thinker.

    For that matter, some people might start asking themselves, gee, how exactly does a guy like that make so many correct guesses that turn out to be verified centuries after his death? Plus, if my head head was full of all of a perception of reality that the small-minded people of my own time couldn’t remotely understand, might I get a little cranky, too?

  • tjhaines

    You can’t defend Bruno unless you abandon the historical record, and lean on fantasy instead. He was not a scientist. He was—at best—a philosopher…and even that is a stretch. He borrowed heavily from ancient Greek philosophy, paired it with his take on Jewish mysticism. His belief in an infinitely small inner space (the atomic or sub-atomic as we think of it today) wasn’t even his own idea; he was presenting the philosophy of Cardinal Cusa of Germany, who predates Bruno by about a hundred years. Emphasis on “philosophy” there. Even from Cusa, it was philosophy. Not scientific hypothesis. Cusa’s philosophy was for the purposes of proofs of God’s existence through the actions of creation itself.
    Nowhere in Bruno’s life do we see any hint of science whatsoever, except for his hijacking of Cusa’s philosophy, which we know today as scientific but it was just a philosophical component when it originated with Cusa…and was hijacked by Bruno. And it’s important to point out that Cusa was was not challenged, excoriated, or tried, or excommunicated for this line of thinking on inner space. Bruno on the other hand was excommunicated by both the Catholic Church, and then by the Calvinists. Not because of “science” and not because of a philosophy that discusses to an infinitely small inner-space, but because his theology was insane.
    Bruno was a pathological liar, a womanizer, and a fraud throughout his life. He traveled Europe posing as a priest, (long after he had renounced, and abandoned his order) causing civil upheaval and speaking against the kings of whatever country he was taking refuge in. Even against the King of France who had previously befriended him! That’s just how Bruno was. He was disloyal, dishonest, and insincere.
    He was excommunicated by the Church for his theology (not for science!) and then executed by the state for political crimes. Not for being a scientist. He wasn’t a scientist at all.

  • JWrenn

    So a few minute long description of a historical figures ideas, based on writings hundreds of years old, about complex beliefs and political intrigue, created so the greatest common denominator watching tv fairly late at night on a Sunday…was not quite accurate? Wow, I am shocked!

    Sorry to be so flippant, but through all of this you really did forget one major thing, the audience. You can’t get a kid, or an uneducated adult into science, or understanding science by explaining every details. You must gloss over some, you must simplify. You need to make some of it black and white or it would fly right over people.

    Remember what the average person is before deciding how the average person should be taught. Then remember that Cosmos is more about inspiration than teaching. Oh and then be nice, nitpicking is far too easy a thing on such a complex issue and there is very rarely a correct answer on this type of topic.

    • Ace

      Cosmos didn’t gloss over or simplify complex facts. It twisted the facts into a pretzel.

  • brad lena

    If you want to show courage these days pick an a dispute from 500+ years ago BUT an this is an important but stay far away from current malfeasance in contemporary politicized science that could get you burned at they stake so to speak

  • rrbb333

    1. If Bruno’s story has nothing to do with the Church’s “stifling” of science, and it is clear that is not, then why was it used that way? Someone has an agenda.

    2. If “freedom of thought” (not scientific freedom) is the issue and the author “admires(s) the way Cosmos tells this aspect of the Burno story”, why just the Church? Thousands of Catholics were killed in the name of “reason” during the French revolution. No freedom of thought there. What about freedom of thought under the Communists? What about the thousands of Christians persecuted today for their “thoughts”? Won’t see any cartons about that on “Cosmos”!!

    • Ace

      Excellent.

    • Physics Police

      1. Maybe not stifling of science, as the methods we know by that name today did not yet exist in the year 1600. But Bruno’s story has everything to do with the Church’s stifling of free thought, especially when it comes to heresy.

      Stifling of free though, especially when it comes to heresy, is truly stifling of science today, making the Bruno story relevant to the pursuit of science, today, in addition to telling, in chronological order, the story of how science got here in the first place.

      • rrbb333

        ” Maybe not stifling of science, as the methods we know by that name today did not yet exist in the year 1600.” Not really sure what this means….

        It is by no means accidental that the physical sciences in their modern form emerged when and where they did, that is to say, in the Europe of the 16th century. The great founders of modern science — Copernicus, Galileo, Tycho Brache, Descartes, Pascal, etc. — were formed in church-sponsored universities where they learned their mathematics, astronomy, and physics. Moreover, in those same universities, all of the founders would have imbibed the two fundamentally theological assumptions that made the modern sciences possible, namely, that the world is not divine — and hence can be experimented upon rather than worshipped — and that the world is imbued with intelligibility — and hence can be understood.

        This along with the numerous Catholic scientists at the forefront of discovery should inspire the shows producers to celebrate this collaboration and not widen the gab of misunderstanding. They unfortunately chose the latter.

        • Physics Police

          There was cooperation, as you say, and there were also intolerant dogmatism. Bruno was killed on account of the later. That’s important to the story of how we came to understand our Cosmos.

          You seem not to like it because it shows the Church in a bad light. Too bad. What they did, burning a man alive, comes off as reprehensible to most viewers of Cosmos, myself included. That’s because of what the Church did, not what the show’s producers did.

          Burning people for heresy does stifle scientific inquiry if the result of that inquiry happens to be seen as heresy.

          • rrbb333

            “There was cooperation, as you say, and there were also intolerant dogmatism. Bruno was killed on account of the later.” You, like the shows producers, are trying to draw a conclusion that is just not there. The relationship between science and the Church is totally, undeniably, separate from the relationship of Burno and the Church. Without a doubt.

          • Physics Police

            The story of Bruno happens also to be part of the story of our coming to understand the Cosmos. He happened to have been killed in part for heresy.

            The threat of retaliation by the church was, in fact, stifling to free thought, which happens to be an important topic in the beginning of our journey to understand the Cosmos, because it is an important ingredient in the scientific method.

            If it wasn’t the church, but was instead the French revolutionaries or the Communists who had killed Bruno (the man attributed with first having the thought that other stars are suns), I expect he would still be the hero of this episode.

            You’re the one making it all about the church.

            Not Cosmos 2014.

          • rrbb333

            The Church was not opposed to the truth. That is simply an assumption that you make without proof. Read what Cardinal Bellarmine said when he met with Galileo:,
            “While experience tells us plainly that the earth is standing still, if there were a real proof that the sun is in the center of the universe…and that the sun goes not go round the earth but the earth round the sun, then we should have to proceed with great circumspection in explaining passages of scripture which appear to teach the contrary, and rather admit that we did not understand them than declare an opinion to be false which is proved to be true.”

            Not the picture you, or “Cosmos” is painting…..

          • Physics Police

            I never said the church was opposed to the truth. I believe the church was opposed to heresy. Some things the church considers heresy might or might not be the truth. In order to find out, we must be free to inquire.

            Cardinal Bellarmine said a nice thing there. Thanks for sharing that quote. But it doesn’t take away from the fact that Bruno was killed for heresy. I find that barbaric, and a valid part of the story of the origin of our understanding of the Cosmos. We came from a time of darkness and oppression (by in large, in Europe) into an era where free thought is now better protected (some places, some times). Is that historically inaccurate?

    • Physics Police

      2. This objection is non sequitur. This show isn’t about the French revolution of Communism. It’s about our understanding of the Cosmos.

      • rrbb333

        The show is about science and Bruno was NOT a scientist, his theories were wild guesses based upon his personal religion, really the opposite of scientific inquiry…so why use him as an example? The French Revolution or Communism are equally valid examples if we are not talking about science.

        • Physics Police

          He isn’t a scientist, because he doesn’t follow what we today call the scientific method, but he was on the cutting edge of astronomy in his day.

          This first episode of Cosmos starts chronologically with our first fumbling steps at cosmology. It makes sense to start by talking about the prototype astronomy from which, much later, and after much improvement, what we recognize today as modern science did emerge.

          • rrbb333

            “Cosmos starts chronologically with our first fumbling steps at cosmology” It chose it’s “fumbling stepper”, for unscientific reasons. There were “fumbling” scientists around during the time. The show clearly wanted to call out the Church as an enemy of science. A myth that is propagated by those with agendas.

          • Physics Police

            I think Steven Soter clearly stated above that this was not his agenda. Yes, there were other historical figures who could have played star in this episode. Steven Soter defended his selection of Bruno. You’ve claimed this selection was made for unscientific reasons. Please explain which are those reasons which don’t contradict what Steven Soter claims he was in fact thinking at the time.

            Just as I take you for your word, I also take Steven Soter at his word.

          • rrbb333

            Steven Soter took 14 minutes of his show to tell the story of a non scientist who guessed at the structure of the plants based on personal religious option. He, of course, defends his choice. But is roundly criticized by even the non religious. As it should.

          • Physics Police

            Which non-religious criticize this choice?

          • rrbb333

            I like this one particularly:

            Historian of 16th century science Thony Christie:

            “Soter is also guilty here of quote mining, selecting those parts of Bruno’s fantasy that fit with our modern concepts and quietly ignoring those that don’t. This is a form of presentism known as searching for predecessors. One takes an accepted scientific idea and filters through history to see if somebody had the same idea earlier, then crying eureka and declaring the discovered thinker to be a genius ahead of his or her times.”

          • Physics Police

            That’s a good objection to a false claim that was *not* made in the show (that Bruno’s idea is of importance to science, the process).

            In fact, the show is trying to inspire people. Searching for predecessors and quote mining are fallacies when forming an argument, and yet they can apparently yield valuable stuff for an entertaining and inspiring TV show.

            The Thony Christie standard is just unrealistic and not applicable to a Fox television show, trying its best to at once both inspire people, primarily young people, present as much science as well as possible, and keep the audience entertained.

            Making such a mountain out of such a small mole hill seems to show your own insecurity.

            It also seems to show how passionate Thony Christie is about 16th century history, which is awesome. He might take a moment to reflect that his complaint exceeds what is reasonable for a science TV show. He probably hated the Sagan episode on Hypatia for the same reason.

          • rrbb333

            Bruno was not a real factor in science history, only an accidental one. He was chosen to make a point against the Church….like it or not.

          • Physics Police

            I think the argument is stronger for his being chosen for many reasons other than that the *church* happened to be the bullies who killed him. Some of them are accidental, in the sense that his was a guess about the stars, and his dream drawing just happens to be awesome for television, and that quote mining does reveal some convenient lines of his.

          • rrbb333

            The inflaming for conflict between science and faith is not a mole hill. You saying it is shows that you don’t have faith in your own arguments.

          • Physics Police

            That’s not what I meant. I mean that no “inflaming for conflict” was intended by Soter. He more or less said so, himself!

          • rrbb333

            You realize that the shows producer, Seth Macfarlane, is an vocal Atheist and no fan of the Church? If you don’t think that his agenda has power you are dreaming.

          • Physics Police

            Seth MacFarlane did not write the episode or choose Bruno for the first episode. I do not find this vague argument from influence and conspiracy a compelling reason not to take Soter at his word.

            Pointing to Seth MacFarlane’s lack of religious belief makes me think that you’re more strongly motivated to find an anti-religious message than were the writers motivated to insert one.

          • rrbb333

            Ignoring the producers obvious slant with half arguments makes me think you are eager to see the false divide between religion and science widen.

          • Physics Police

            I am not.

          • rrbb333

            “Making such a mountain out of such a small mole hill seems to show your own insecurity.” – You meant it as an insult, not as support for Soter.

          • Physics Police

            Sorry, I don’t mean to insult you. I mean to politely challenge you to reflect that perhaps your obsession with the depiction of the victims of the church as victims reflects over sensitivity. I ask that you please believe I arrive at this suspicion not from malice. I honestly see insecurity at the heart of this issue. In any case, I apologize for my impertinence in making a personal judgement.

          • rrbb333

            You are here defending as much as I am here criticizing. “Obsession” goes both ways.

          • Physics Police

            I admit to being obsessed by this curious discussion about this, the remake of my favorite TV show of all time, Cosmos 1980. I feel no need to hide this obsessive curiosity.

            You, on the other hand, made the accusation that “someone has an agenda” and, in my eyes, failed to provide a convincing argument.

            Instead, I’ve come to the opinion that you’re the one with an agenda. You play victim about a divide (read: threat) between science and religion.

            I acknowledge a sort of divide between the principles of religion (taking things on faith) and the principles of science (taking things on evidence, etc.) which are at odds, procedurally. However, I don’t think this is what you mean by “divide”.

            I think you’re talking about the challenge faced by religions in this age where science explains a lot, and the god of the gaps is shrinking.

            You’re afraid of this, and you project this insecurity onto the episode about Bruno. You want us to believe that showing the victims of the church as the victims that they were makes a victim out of the Church.

          • rrbb333

            You assume so much more without evidence.. “I think your”…”you’re afraid”…”I’ve come to the opinion”….wow, talk about assuming!!!! Very much like your mistaken assumptions regarding the church, I do not fear of the truth. It is truth that lead me to my conclusions and no Christian need fear any kind of truth. That is the Church’s position and mine. Your assumptions are not based on truth and betray your feelings regarding faith.

          • Physics Police

            And yet you’re the one claiming secret, sinister motivations of the writers of a TV show, denied by one of said writers.

            Bruno was a good choice for this episode for many reason, the least of which is that his sad end happened to be at the hands of the church.

          • EndreFodstad

            And why shouldn’t he be mad about Sagan’s Hypatia episode? A show meant to educate should not misrepresent history. Presenting the Hypatia myth as an established historical fact is as dishonest and misleading as presenting creationism as established biological fact would be.

  • seataka

    Bruno Giordano from his “Egyptian reflection of the Universe of the mind” : 1569 “Unless you make yourself equal to God, you cannot understand God: for the like in intelligible save to the like. Make yourself grow to a greatness beyond measure, by a bound free yourself from the body; raise yourself above all time, become Eternity; then you will understand God. Believe nothing is impossible for you, think yourself immortal and capable of understanding all, all arts, all sciences, the nature of every living being. Mount higher than the highest height; decend lower than the lowest depth. Draw into yourself all sensations of everything created, fire and water, dry and moist, imagining that you are everywhere, on earth, on the sea, in the sky, that you are not yet born, in the maternal womb, adolescent, old, dead, beyond death. If you embrace in your thought all things at once, times, places, substances, qualities, quantities, you may understand God.

  • Silvia Hartmann

    The point to me was that Bruno had A VISION before telescopes were invented and what he experienced and described, was correct. Now that is the part where the science mechanics get scared, and where the Wiki nerds come in with their “Alchemist denial” – leaving out that the “fathers of modern science” were all also alchemists, and studied magic. It’s about time science starts to ask some questions, rather than continuing to ignore where progress actually comes from – and how it’s done …

  • 013090

    I am a fan of Cosmos, but do agree with the main critique here. As someone who has read Bruno and his history before Cosmos aired, it is simply true that he was not persecuted for his scientific beliefs like Galileo was, but for his religious beliefs. All of his ‘scientific insights’ were either either drawn from others, or based in his philosophical and religious beliefs (such as the belief that other stars are suns; which by the way, I disagree with the author here, I do not think Nicolas of Cusa was referencing that idea.). Yes, the idea of stars being suns was correct, but it was a lucky guess. His thought process that led him to that belief was not scientific at all.

    Am I saying that it wasn’t wrong for the Church to persecute him for his religious beliefs? Of course not. But the first episode of Cosmos is misleading in that it leads one to think he was killed for his scientific ideas. True, they were listed as reasons for his convictions, but they were just add ons to his primary ‘crimes’ that dealt with theological issues.

    • Physics Police

      Why on Earth does it matter that is idea was a guess? Did you even read what Steven Soter said? It does not matter in the least where correct scientific ideas come from! The words coming out of Bruno’s mouth may have been less scientific, but the idea that the stars are other suns is, today, a scientific idea. You can trace it back to Bruno’s mouth, and his lucky guess. That’s a story worth telling in episode 1 of Cosmos.

      • 013090

        It is certainly a story worth telling, but the fact is that the animation sequence was historically inaccurate. It doesn’t matter if it is a good story, or if some of his beliefs ended up being correct. The simple issue is that it made him seem as if he was persecuted by the church for his scientific beliefs, and that was not true. But anyone who watched it without prior knowledge would certainly come away from it thinking that.

        So it may be a nice story, but that doesn’t excuse them for misrepresenting the historical reality. I do emphasize that I still am a fan and supporter of Cosmos, but that doesn’t mean they get a free pass on any criticism.

        • Physics Police

          Anybody who listened to the words coming out of Neil Tyson’s mouth knows that Bruno was not a scientist, and that his beliefs were inspired both by Copernicus and mysticism, so were not scientific as such. Why do *you* feel the need to rewrite history that happened only three weeks ago?

          You are expressing what sound to me like impossible and unrealistic standard for judging the historical accuracy a science-themed, animated cartoon. The script contained no false statements. The artwork contained no demonstrably false images, to my knowledge.

          If Bruno was a women, and they drew him as a man, this would be demonstrably false. If Bruno never spoke at Oxford, but they drew him inside a building in Oxford, this would be demonstrably false.

          They drew him go to bed alone, outside, in front of a fire, which he may well have done during his years of wandering.

          They drew him inside a prison cell, which is where he spent the last years of his life.

          Your objections aren’t demonstrable. They’re your opinion, which I do not share.

        • Physics Police

          Look, I understand why you’re put off by the episode. I don’t mean to deny your feelings. Just read the comments, and it’s abundantly clear that some people feel it’s biased and unfair to show victims of the church of the 1600s. Just pick another hero, right? Maybe one who’s end wasn’t so crispy. Is that so much to ask?

          Yes. Yes it is.

          This is how all bullies and abusers react when you threaten to expose their malfeasance. The real issue isn’t religion and the church. It’s bullies and the power to which they cling.

          Bruno was persecuted (tortuously murdered) by bullies, who happened in this case to be the church, but that isn’t the point.

          The point is the world he came from, where all of early science came from, with its barbarism and mysticism and yet, he had a beautiful, lucky if not prescient, but none the less shining idea that carried on, against all odds, to this day. This choice of hero pays superb homage to Sagan.

  • Mike

    I can therefore only assume that Bruno was instead chosen because of his fate. Being burned at the stake is a much more useful story for their purpose, namely dividing of camps, hardening of prejudices and sensationalism.

    • Ace

      Very astute observation. The cartoon figure of the church official who opposed Bruno was diabolical in appearance (with black lines under the eyes) establishing that the only thing that the Church had going for it was an evil opposition to the truth and the light of sweet reason. Bruno’s views were not informed by any actual observations, IIRC, and boy did he come with some weird baggage. Bruno’s address to the English academicians was a masterpiece of “Your pathetic ideas do not compare with the brilliance of my insights. See how I have chosen the most confrontational and dismissive way with which to express my imaginings. Note my brilliance.”

      Galileo himself got into trouble with his book for depicting the character representing the Pope (or his position?) as a dunce.

      Lese majeste is a risky strategy in any age and a little forethought and diplomacy could have helped both those gents. Galileo was a useful man and Bruno not so much, offering up only his (observationally unsupported) imaginings. Neither appears to have had the sense that God gave a duck when it came to expounding their views, however.

      • SquidEatinDough

        Lol. You Inquisition apologists are too much.

    • Physics Police

      Dividing of which camps? Are there people alive today who think it was right for Bruno to be burnt at the stake? I don’t think anyone professing to be a Christian would agree.

      Only supremacists cry foul when you show their victims as victims. This is true for secular and religious bullies, alike.

      If this was a TV show about the history of the Jews instead of the history of the Cosmos, it would be appropriate to mention the tragedy of the Holocaust. That wouldn’t be sensationalism. That would be historical accuracy. Showing a man burnt at the stake in the year 1600 is also historical accuracy. The pictures of torture devices, on the other hand, I agree were sensationalist. I would have cut that part out.

      The prejudice you see is a projection of your own insecurity.

  • Physics Police

    Corey, your first objection is bogus. Saying “for one man, X” introduces a subject, one particular man for whom X applies, but doesn’t exclude any other persons! Bruno wasn’t portrayed as a lone wolf. They give *ample* time to the “collaborative and cumulative” way he got some ideas, like the whole segment on Lucretius. Your Nicolas of Cusa quote does *not* show the same idea held by Bruno, who was indisputably the first person to grasp that the Sun is a star and the stars are other suns with their own planets. That is arguably the greatest idea in the history of astronomy.

    Your second objection also bogus. Cosmos specifically disclaims that Bruno wasn’t a scientist. They specifically note that his idea was a guess. But inside his idea is a small truth that has expanded into the modern understanding. Tracing that tenuous but real chain of cause from Bruno’s words to modern cosmology is totally valid, and totally in line with what Cosmos is and always has been, from Sagan to Tyson. Objecting to how Bruno got his idea, or what’s wrong in the details takes nothing away from its importance in the story of our understanding of the Cosmos.

  • deSitter

    Mr. Powell is of course completely correct. Positioning Bruno as some
    sort of martyr for science is patently absurd. For one thing – Bruno
    died in 1600, before the Church had made any decision *at all* about
    Copernican beliefs. Bruno could not possibly be a heretic for holding
    the Copernican viewpoint, because no such heresy was possible in 1600.
    For another – Bruno was given 10 years to stop preaching his own
    genuinely heretical version of religion, which was equal parts mysticism
    and Egyptian cult worship – in other words, the Church bent over
    backward to avoid the final bonfire of Bruno’s vanity. Finally –
    medieval science is often portrayed as backward and dark, but in fact
    there was a rich tradition of medieval science without which there would
    never have been a Copernicus to begin with. Bruno was completely
    foreign to that tradition.

    In short, the use of Bruno as some
    sort of martyr for science is right in keeping with the anhistorical
    excesses – and factual errors – of the original series, as well as the
    modern warped view of science as some sort of constant foment of genius
    and revolution. By the way – this Cosmos stink may stink, but the first
    one was no rose either. Meantime science cries out for someone who both
    understands it (Soter does not) and communicate it well (deGrasse is
    barely acceptable).

    -drl

    • SquidEatinDough

      lol

  • HSCI

    I am an academic historian of science. I am not an expert on Bruno and the Renaissance, but I do know a few things based on the standards of my field and where it has gone in the past 40 years.
    Soter’s response reeks of whig history, outdated categories, and false dichotomies between science and religion. Just look at the line on Newton (as it was also presented in the program). You can’t just anachronistically separate Newton’s “good” science from his “bad” science. The Principia was a theological book as much as a book on physics.

    Look also at the line about the “mystical obsession” of Kepler. Where is he getting his history of science from? Science textbooks? And look at all the assumptions of mourning the fact that the bold thinkers weren’t bold enough, as if the truths were as plain as day. There was no evidence for supporting many of those beliefs, and it’s like we should somehow be ashamed of the fact that a natural philosopher didn’t just make stuff up, like Bruno did.

    And historians of science have been trying to correct this stuff and this outdated, presentist, and whig perspective for only about 50 years. “While Kepler was a great scientist, unfortunately…” What is this contrast? Apparently Kepler would be a good scientist if he just relied on fancy and imagination, not on verifiable facts that we later claimed to be true. It’s like saying, “Although Newton practiced alchemy, he was also an actual scientist…” As historians of science have argued since F. Sherwood Taylor, alchemy is not some pseudoscience to be purged from the history of “good” scientist. Alchemists were the founders of modern chemistry.

    And, my god, that last statement could be pulled straight out of Enlightenment and later glorifications of heroes v. villains, and all the narratives that historians have been debunking for years. Next, Cosmos will discuss the “Chemical Revolution” or the “Darwinian Revolution.”

    To any writer of Cosmos, I recommend that you at least read the standard college textbook on the history of science. It will debunk your skewed history with a few historical facts. They may not be convenient for your heroes v. antimodern religious bad guys narrative, but it will teach you some historical truths. The book is Bowler and Morus: Making Modern Science.

    You people are making statements that my own students do not make, because they don’t learn their history of science from scientists who build up myths and legends about founding fathers and the epic battles of science vs. religion.

    Please read the textbook and come to lecture. Otherwise, you’ll be lucky to get a D in my class. If you care about scientific truths, care about historical ones.

  • Roger M. Wilcox

    When Nicholas of Cusa said “or another star”, could he have meant another planet? In several languages (such as German and Japanese), the words for “star” and “planet” are the same.

  • Silver Au

    « Ultimately, G. Bruno’s murderer is Cardinal Bellarmine. But because admitting a Cardinal can be a murderer is too damaging for the image of the Church, so let’s deny, let’s make excuses, let’s shift blame, let’s not talk about it.

    « That is the typical way of reaction of all the murderers in the history. They will never own up to their crimes, will never apology to their past victims, since their crimes are so heinous that they are still afraid of possible repercussions hundreds of years later.

    « That is the triumph of G.Bruno. Killing G.Bruno protects the power of those in command. Power generates Wealth and Status. So it’s not wrong to say that the red robe of at least one Church’s cardinal is tainted with human’s blood.

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Out There

Notes from the far edge of space, astronomy, and physics.

About Corey S. Powell

Corey S. Powell is DISCOVER's Editor at Large and former Editor in Chief. Previously he has sat on the board of editors of Scientific American, taught science journalism at NYU, and been fired from NASA. Corey is the author of "20 Ways the World Could End," one of the first doomsday manuals, and "God in the Equation," an examination of the spiritual impulse in modern cosmology. He lives in Brooklyn, under nearly starless skies.

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