Thursday, April 24, 2014

Sorry Neil, They're Right, You're Wrong

Neil deGrasse Tyson opened his reboot of Cosmos with a retelling of the saga of Giordano Bruno, who was burned at the stake in 1600 for heresy. Critics of the show complained that Bruno was not, in fact, martyred for science, which in turn prompted defenders to label their stance "revisionist."

Well, it's "revisionist" only if it's "revisionist" to say that Indians hardly ever attacked wagon trains, or the Roman navy didn't use galley slaves as shown in "Ben Hur," or that no educated person in Western history believed the earth was flat in the last 2,500 years. In other words, it's "revisionist" only if you've never read much serious history.

Bruno's impact on Western science was described in Scientific American by Lawrence S. Lerner and Edward A. Gosselin in 1986 (28 years before the Cosmos reboot). The Cosmos episode accurately points out that Bruno successfully managed to get excommunicated from three religions. but leaves out the very important fact that he was a follower of the Hermetic Mysteries. These are writings attributed to Hermes Trismegistus  (Hermes the thrice-great) and purportedly dating from ancient Egypt. Modern scholars consider them of early Christian vintage, making their alleged prophetic content a bit less surprising.

In simple terms, Bruno was no more a scientist than the average Shriner is an imam, or Jenny McCarthy is an expert on autism. As Lerner and Gosselin point out in their article "Was Giordano Bruno a Scientist?"
But even when correct in their conclusions, Bruno's "scientific'' arguments do not exhibit any understanding of scientific reasoning or purpose. Rather they serve the totally unrelated function of allegorical descriptions of a metaphysical relationship between Man and God as well as Catholic and Protestant. Bruno sees Nature as the signature of God, and he believes that this signature can best be perceived through the hieroglyph of the Copernican theory. 
In contrast, Johannes Kepler, a thorough medieval mystic himself, was nevertheless engaged in serious scientific research, not just on planetary motions, but pioneering insights into crystallography and new discoveries in geometry. Kepler, like Bruno, saw nature as revealing the mind of God, but Bruno was only interested in using nature to bolster his theology, whereas Kepler used his convictions as the basis for believing that order must pervade nature.

Even a stupid squirrel occasionally finds a nut, even a stopped clock is right twice a day, and even the Religious Right can get something right once in a while. And making a mistake so egregious that even the Religious Right can spot it is something of an achievement.

The new Cosmos has some good moments, but with its insipid elevator music score and comically awful animations, its workmanship is definitely not up to the original.


Galileo and the Specter of Bruno, 1986; Lerner, Lawrence S. and Gosselin, Edward A., Scientific American, Vol. 255, Issue 5, p.126.

Was Giordano Bruno a Scientist?: A Scientist's View. Available from: [accessed Jan 6, 2016], Originally published in American Journal of Physics, 1973, v. 41, no. 1 p. 24-38.