Thursday, March 20, 2014

You Lost Me at Bruno: Review of Cosmos 2.0

Carl Sagan inspired my love for science as a kid. I eagerly followed everything he did from Cosmos, to Contact, to Carson. I eventually earned a Ph.D. in the history of science from Case Western Reserve University. And now as a Professor of History, I show a few of the Cosmos episodes in my history of science graduate course that I teach. 

However, I was very disappointed that in episode 1 of Cosmos 2.0, of all the things that could and should have been the focus, it was the story of Bruno that got the most airtime. It was very clear that in showcasing Bruno, Seth MacFarlane (executive producer) and Neil deGrasse Tyson (host) were transparently advancing an agenda. This overemphasis of an event in the history of religion is far removed from Sagan's beautiful and poetic wonderment of the mystery of the universe and our story within it.  

The tragic tale of Bruno's burning at the stake at the hands of the Catholic Inquisition also had very little in reality to do with science, though that seemingly "small" point was lost in Cosmos 2.0.
Consider what Sheila Rabin wrote the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, "in 1600 there was no official Catholic position on the Copernican system, and it was certainly not a heresy. When Giordano Bruno (1548–1600) was burned at the stake as a heretic, it had nothing to do with his writings in support of Copernican cosmology, and this is clearly shown in Finocchiaro's reconstruction of the accusations against Bruno."

That Cosmos 2.0 gives so much attention to a tale more appropriately told in the history of religion is further perplexing because Bruno lived between Copernicus and Newton, and Bruno was the one that received the most airtime. Galileo also garnered little more than a mention in the first episode.

The history of the relationship between science and religion is so much more interesting and complex than the naive "thought police" comment Neil deGrasse Tyson made in the first episode of Cosmos 2.0. Professional historians of science and religion have long moved past the simplistic "conflict model" that this series seems to want to promote. And that is unfortunate. 

To learn more from scholars who actually spend their lives studying the relationship between science and religion in an intelligent way, consider someone like David Lindberg, the Hilldale Professor Emeritus of History of Science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Writing a chapter in in Gary Ferngren's book Science and Religion: A Historical Introduction (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002) he said, "There was no warfare between science and the church. The story of science and Christianity in the Middle Ages is not a story of suppression not one of its polar opposite, support and encouragement. What we find is an interaction exhibiting all of the variety and complexity with which we are familiar in other realms of human endeavor: conflict, compromise, understanding, misunderstanding, accommodation, dialogue, alienation, the making of a common cause, and the going of separate ways."

Or consider what Lindberg had to say in his book The Beginnings of Western Science: The European Scientific Tradition in Philosophical, Religious, and Institutional Context, Prehistory to A.D. 1450  (University of Chicago Press, 2007.) He wrote that the interpretation of the conflict between science and religion historically "depends largely on the attitudes and expectations that one brings to the question." He further described it like this: "If we compare the early church with a modern research university or the National Science Foundation, the church will prove to have failed abysmally as a supporter of science and natural philosophy. But such comparison is obviously unfair. If, instead, we compare the support available from any other contemporary social institution, it will become apparent that the church was one of the major patrons—perhaps the major patron—of scientific learning."

There was much more blending between science and religion than we see now. Newton, who died in 1727, spent a significant portion of his life thinking about God. As Karen Armstrong wrote in her A History of God (A.A. Knoph, 1993): "Newton began with an attempt to explain the physical universe, with God as an essential part of the system. In Newton's physics, nature was entirely passive: God was the sole source of activity." In Gale Christianson said in Isaac Newton (Oxford University Press, 2005) that throughout his life Newton would "write an estimated 1,400,000 words on religion, more than alchemy, more than mathematics, more even than the physics and astronomy that made him immortal...Unlike many thinkers today, he saw no conflict between science and religion and wrote that the world could not operate without God being present."

And to conclude this point on the interesting blending between science and religion, J.L. Heilbron states in The Sun in the Church: Cathedrals as Solar Observatories (Harvard University Press, 1999) that historically the "Roman Catholic church gave more support to astronomy…than did any other institution."

Back to Cosmos 2.0 now. It should be clear that the horrible Bruno episode by itself really sheds little to no light at all on anything related to the history of science. Unless of course one wanted to advance an atheist position (which both Tyson and MacFarlane both are). Everyone has a right to their beliefs, but in making an arguments for said belief, one should not manipulate the past to make an inaccurate point in the present. 

Certainly it is quite clear that the Inquisition was a terrible thing. It is a sad testimony that any great mind is silenced. It is a period that even Catholic Popes have apologized for. If Cosmos 2.0 is making their point to sway religious Fundamentalists against their militant position against science and the teaching of evolution, then once again Cosmos 2.0 is attacking the wrong branch of Christianity. Catholics are not the ones that oppose teaching of evolution. As Pope John Paul II wrote, "In his encyclical Humani Generis (1950), my predecessor Pius XII has already affirmed that there is no conflict between evolution and the doctrine of the faith regarding man and his vocation…"
What the Cosmos 2.0's first episode fails to note (and this would have been an interesting aside as to how far the Catholic church has come from that time) is that the Vatican Observatory is one of the oldest astronomical research institutions in the world. 

Furthermore The Vatican Observatory Research Group operates the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope (VATT). This is done in partnership with the University of Arizona (and other universities). Real science is done here, and no one is being put to death for it. Remarkably they have not even threatened to burn any of the astronomers at the stake. 

As a brilliant astrophysicist, Neil deGrasse Tyson surely knows this. But somehow to him this seems insignificant to the much more compelling story of the horrors of the church and its supposed silencing of scientific genius.

My hope is that the remainder of the Cosmos 2.0 episodes can stick to the wonders of science and refrain from espousing the anti-religious agenda of its creators.