Battle of the “Cosmos,” Round 3

By Corey S. Powell | March 16, 2014 11:35 am

The new Cosmos show is doing an inspirational job bringing the wonders of science to a mass audience. There was one segment of the first episode where I thought the writers went off-track, however. In an earlier post I described my concern about how that episode  depicts philosopher Giordano Bruno and his role in the discovery of the infinite universe. My column prompted a reply from Cosmos co-writer Steven Soter, along with my further thoughts.

The Spaceship of the Imagination voyages out to distant galaxies and into the mysteries of DNA in the new Cosmos. (Credit: Fox)

The Spaceship of the Imagination voyages out to distant galaxies and into the mysteries of DNA in the new Cosmos. (Credit: Fox)

Now, the third and final round: Soter offers some closing commentary on the matter, which appear below.

Inevitably, this dialogue has grown increasingly detailed, focused on the thoughts and actions of men who lived more than 400 years ago. To some readers the whole discussion may seem like nitpicking (a few have said as much in the comments), but I think it is greatly important. It offers a rare opportunity to debate the evolving relationship between science and religion. It is a window into the dramatic ways our conception of the universe has changed in modern times. And I must say, it is a tribute to Soter–and the whole Cosmos project–that he is taking the time to respond and share these ideas with the whole world.

The Case for Bruno, by Steven Soter

Your suggestion that Giordano Bruno was not the first to realize that the stars are suns is mistaken. You cited his predecessor Nicolas of Cusa, who referred in one passage to “the earth, the sun, or another star.” But Cusa did not mean that the sun is another star as we understand the term. Throughout his book, he used the word “star” indifferently to refer to the earth, the moon, the sun and the planets, as was common in his time. He also distinguished them from the “fixed stars” on the surface of the eighth celestial sphere. His pre-Copernican conception of the solar system was antithetical to any notion of the stars as other suns.

You claimed that “Cosmos confusingly presents Bruno’s infinite cosmology as a physical theory of the universe”, because Bruno believed the planets and stars had souls. It is true that Bruno’s worldview was vitalistic and magical. He imagined that the Earth had a soul like the other planets. But he passionately believed in the physical reality of the planets and suns, all made of the same material elements as understood in his time. He wrote:

“. . . every one of those bodies, stars, worlds and eternal lights is composed of that which is named earth, water, air and fire . . . Those in whose composition fire predominates will be called sun, bright in itself. If water predominates, we give the name telluric body, moon or such like which shines by borrowed light . . .” Bruno was the first to recognize this fundamental distinction between stars and planets.

Bruno described a universe of  “innumerable globes like this one on which we live and grow . . . In it are an infinity of worlds similar to our own, and of the same kind.” He urged his readers to “dissolve the notion that our earth is unique . . . we may perceive the likeness of our own and of all other stars . . . the substance of the other worlds throughout the ether is even as that of our own world.” Bruno made it as clear as he could, using the rudimentary understanding of matter available in his time, that this was a physical theory of the universe.

You said that Bruno took “a big step backward by interpreting the universe more in theological than mathematical terms.” Bruno was neither a mathematician nor a scientist, and his mind was not modern by any means. But he was without doubt the first to imagine a universe resembling the one we know today.

Again, you claimed 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.” However you characterize Bruno’s cosmology has no bearing on its essential correctness. Can we expect a philosopher living in a world steeped in mysticism, groping in the dark at the dawn of modern science, to see things in modern terms? Scattered among his many pages of metaphysical nonsense are nuggets of pure gold. We should be grateful for them and not expect more.

Finally you claimed that Thomas 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.” Digges made a major contribution by extending the realm of the stars into infinite space, but he then veered back from reality by describing the stars as “the palace of felicity . . . the very court of celestial angels, devoid of grief and replenished with perfect endless joy.” He is talking about the traditional theological heaven, not the material universe.

It was Bruno who used the opening made by Copernicus to give us the first glimpse of the modern astrophysical cosmos. And that was no incremental step. It was a giant leap.

Some Closing Reflections, by Corey S. Powell

It is crucial to remember that neither Bruno nor Digges was thinking about the universe in modern terms. This is, I think, one of the most meaningful upshots of this whole conversation. There is a natural tendency to project our current conceptions onto people who lived long ago. That leads to two kinds of errors.

First, we sometimes regard ourselves as inherently smarter than those in the past, simply because we start from a place of greater understanding. Such casual arrogance overlooks the incredible efforts required by people like Bruno, Digges, and thousands–no, millions–of others who have contributed to science and to the great march of human knowledge.

Second, there is a tempting inclination to view the past as a prelude toward an inevitable present. This attitude, which has been known to afflict academics as well, is known as Whig history. I still think Cosmos fell prey to this error, in trying to make Bruno’s universe look too much like our own. Seen in clear-eyed historical context, Bruno’s views still strongly resembled the spiritually ordered Church universe of the time–not to mention the philosophies of his ancient Greek influences, Lucretius and Anaxagoras.

Soter beautifully describes Bruno as “steeped in mysticism, groping in the dark.” In that context, his conception of an infinite universe full of stars and planets was an astonishing leap of insight–but it was still a theological one more than a conceptual one. Conversely, Digges made brave moves to create a cosmological model that blended the idea of a sun-centered solar system with infinite space–but he still regarded the expanse beyond our solar system as the realm of the angels.

In truth, it took both Bruno and Digges (and their many successors) to build–slowly, incrementally, with many stumbles along the way–toward our modern understanding of the universe. My biggest concern is that, in presenting Bruno as a lone hero and a lone martyr, Cosmos missed a fabulous opportunity to convey this communal and cumulative aspect of science.

In taking time to share his thoughts here, though, Soter has filled in many of those missing details. He has also shown a generous commitment to participating in the grand process of exploring the world through science. That is one of the happiest results of this whole exchange.

For more, watch the next episode of Cosmos and then join our Cosmos Rewind Google Hangout on Tuesday, March 18, at 8PM EDT. And follow me on Twitter: @coreyspowell


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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