Historians of science critique new 'Cosmos' series

Carina Nebula, NCG 3324. Credit: NASA, ESA, and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScl/AURA).

Scholars of the history of science have discussed the merits and shortcomings of the new television series “Cosmos,” saying that the first episode's discussion of Church history strayed from historical facts.

"I thought it was wonderfully done for the most part," said Robert Goulding, associate professor at Notre Dame University in South Bend, who studies the history of science, humanism, and magic in a March 14 interview with CNA.

“However, I'm surprised by the standards of the historical segment.”

The cable television series "Cosmos," narrated by physicist Niel DeGrasse Tyson, is a remake of the 1980s public television show of the same name narrated by Carl Sagan.

The show focuses on the universe and the galaxies, stars and planets within. However, it came under criticism from some commentators for its cartoon presentation of the story of Giordano Bruno, an Italian philosopher and former Dominican friar in the show's first episode.
 
Bruno was a 16th century thinker who came under investigation by the Inquisition for heresy and was burned at the stake in 1600.

During the cartoon segment in “Cosmos," the show stated that Bruno was a "free-thinker" spreading a "gospel of infinity," and that he was ousted from a position at Oxford, subjected to the Inquisition and burned at the stake, because of his beliefs about the infinite nature of the universe.

Notre Dame professor emeritus Michael Crowe, who studies the history of astronomy, praised the new show's "remarkable" graphics, but said some of the first episode's features were "needlessly inserted" into "what could have been a wonderful introduction to science, especially astronomy."

“Nonetheless, from its very first minute, I was put off,” Crowe told CNA.

The show's discussion of Bruno, Crowe said, cast him as the "hero of the first half of the show."

The show dramatically says "there was only one man who had the notion of an infinite universe filled with inhabited planets" and he was in prison. Instead, Crowe said, this idea had been promoted as early as the fifth century before Christ.

"Moreover, the new Cosmos shows a serious disregard to historical information" through its graphic animation of Bruno being burned at the stake "by the Catholic Church partly because of Bruno’s advocacy of extraterrestrials."

“What seems most probable from what records exist, is that the inquisitors were above all distressed by Bruno’s denial of such fundamental Christian doctrines as the divinity of Christ.”

Because the records of his trial were lost, Crowe said, "there is no way directly to show that his belief in extraterrestrials was of serious concern to the inquisitors.”

However, other theologians and philosophers such as Nicholas of Cusa, who later was named a cardinal, advocated for the belief in life outside of Earth.

Crowe also critiqued the show's opening statement, taken from the first series, that the “cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be,” seeming to promote a "materialist philosophy" that does not take into account spiritual roles or life. The narrator, Crowe said, "stresses that the show will deal with matters of science" that can be empirically verified.

"He does not seem to realize that the opening statement in both versions of Cosmos is not empirically verifiable."

The second episode, however, "seemed free of the scientism and gratuitous religion-bashing present in the first show," Crowe said, and he looked forward to seeing "whether the later shows give increased attention to including accurate historical information."
 
Goulding commented that Bruno's inclusion in the first episode was important because "they were trying to talk about the infinity of the universe and trying to start accustoming the viewer's mind" to the enormity of the universe and how "difficult of an idea this was for people to come to terms with" over the centuries.   

However, the show misrepresented the historical facts surrounding Bruno's work, trial, and execution. Goulding said that during his time at Oxford, Bruno was not unveiling to hostile authorities a vision of the universe where the Earth revolved around the Sun.

During late 16th and early 17th centuries, he said, England and Northern Europe were already very informed and supportive of the heliocentric model of the solar system proposed by Copernicus. It seems from the historical records, Goulding said, that "Bruno knew nothing about Copernicanism before coming to England."

Instead, history suggests that Bruno left Oxford not because of a battle with academic and religious authorities, but because he "seemed to have made a bit of a fool of himself."

During his time at Oxford, "Bruno started giving these lectures about Copernicanism, but also about magic." He was also caught  plagiarizing the work of other scientists in public lectures, and Bruno "started writing these very angry essays" after he was privately confronted by other Oxford scholars.

“Bruno was called out doing something a little bit dishonest.”

Goulding also said it was Bruno's theological beliefs, rather than his beliefs about the universe, that were troubling to the inquisitors in Rome. Bruno "doesn't seem to believe in the divinity of Jesus in quite the way that the Church talked about," he explained, noting that Church officials were concerned about his time in England and if he received Communion from Protestants while there.

"They didn't do it to him because of his beliefs in astronomy."

He also questioned the first episode's framing of Bruno's trial as a case of the Church versus free thought.

"It seems indisputable," Goulding said, "that a spirit of reaction does take place within the Church" in the 17th century because of the Protestant reformation that led to harsh treatment, torture, and execution of religious dissidents.

However, "the Church was not a single monolithic entity," Goulding said, pointing out that there was intellectual questioning during that period, and that intellectual thought was supported from within the Church. "Galileo's closest collaborators were monks and priests," he stated.

"The writers seem to drawing upon a very 19th century bed of thought," Goulding said of the show's framing, in which "there's science on one side, religion on the other. And that's not true either."


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