The Cartoonish View Of History In Cosmos, Ctd

Lots of readers are pushing back against the following claim from David Sessions:

Bruno was killed because he flamboyantly denied basic tenets of the Catholic faith, not because religious authorities were out to suppress all “freedom of thought.”

One reader:

If the church is gracious enough to declare that it does not deny all freedom of thought, but still manages to murder you for denying the wrong tenet, pray tell, what freedom do you have if you’re at risk for declaring anything? All you have is the freedom to be afraid and live in fear.

So, was Bruno really killed because he was … flamboyant? If you can lose your life by challenging the Church’s basicGiordano_Bruno tenets, at what point is it sane or just for the church to declare that it’s not suppressing all freedom just because murder is not the response for doing so? The struggle to make the church seem rational or sane is ludicrous. Bruno was killed because he didn’t think correctly. This is about totalitarianism. Faith has absolutely nothing to do with it. Very few heroes of the Enlightenment were atheists because they would have been killed before they could influence anyone. It doesn’t seem improbable that many of the clergy who were responsible for the Enlightenment would have remained in the clergy if their lives were not at risk for leaving it.

Another adds:

Bruno may have been a mean son-of-a-bitch, but those expounding revolutionary thoughts tend to be difficult to get along with. As Cosmos writer Steve Soter noted in a response to Discover’s critique, Bruno was an “extremely difficult person,” but “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.”

Another goes into greater depth:

First, the Church long suppressed the reasons cited for Bruno’s execution. Second, these reasons reveal that Cardinal Bellarmine executed Bruno explicitly with the charge that Bruno said the Earth orbits the Sun: “The idea of terrestrial movement, which according to Bruno, did not oppose the Holy Scriptures, which were popularized for the faithful and did not apply to scientists.” Bruno was murdered precisely because the Church sought to suppress freedom of thought. Anyone who doubts this should read the historical account of Bruno’s execution, which Cosmos did not describe because it is too violent and horrible to relate to a primetime audience:

As the parade moved on, Bruno became animated and excited. He reacted to the mocking crowds, responding to their yells with quotes from his books and the sayings of the ancients. His comforters, the Brotherhood of St. John, tried to quiet the exchange, to protect Bruno from yet further pain and indignity, but he ignored them. And so after a few minutes the procession was halted by the Servants of Justice. A jailer was brought forward and another two held Bruno’s head rigid. A long metal spike was thrust through Bruno’s left cheek, pinning his tongue and emerging through the right cheek. Then another spike was rammed vertically through his lips. Together, the spikes formed a cross. Great sprays of blood erupted onto his gown and splashed the faces of the brotherhood close by. Bruno spoke no more. …

As the fire began to grip, the Brothers of Pity of St. John the Beheaded tried one last time to save the man’s soul. Risking the flames, one of them leaned into the fire with a crucifix, but Bruno merely turned his head away. Seconds later, the fire caught his robe and seared his body, and above the hissing and crackling of the flames could be heard the man’s muffled agony.

– Michael White, The Pope and the Heretic : The True Story of Giordano Bruno, the Man Who Dared to Defy the Roman Inquisition 

This violent suppression of knowledge cannot be wished away by denying the historical record. Even Cosmos’s cartoon history of Bruno’s execution is accurate, relevant, and important to know.

Another gets snippy:

I suspect that you dislike Cosmos because Tyson attacks superstition head-on in every single episode, unapologetically and using rigorous science as his weapon. Our media is filled with seemingly infinite positive references to religion every single day. Forgive me if I have zero sympathy for you if a single fact-based, supernaturalism-free mini-series makes you so uncomfortable. From where I sit – in a world where billions of people believe in idiotic ideas disproved long ago simply because hoary books promising eternal life tell them they must do so – we need more like Cosmos, and quickly.

That is simply untrue. I find the series’ candid defenses of the scientific method refreshing. It just made me wince at its cheesiness. Another considers the miniseries a work of art:

Cosmos, in its current form or in Sagan’s original, isn’t designed to teach science or history to its audience. That would be an impossible task, given the scale of the material that’s being presented. The most important thing that a program like this needs to do is to create a sense of wonder and amazement at the universe that we live in. It’s not the cartoons or the awkwardly patronizing host that keep me tuning in. Rather, it’s the beautiful renderings of our universe – deep space, vast galaxies, black holes, solar systems, micro-organisms – that I find both thrilling and exciting.

There are a few things that Cosmos needs to do, on a strictly narrative level: it needs to define terms, explain context, and demonstrate ideas. The first part is relatively boring, but essential. You can’t very well talk about the time and space without defining “light speed” or explaining what an Astronomical Unit is. The second part is where most of the Cosmic complaints seem to come from, and that’s fair. But it’s the third area where I think the series really shines. The images and animations do such a fantastic job of simply showing the audience what something is that you can almost turn off the sound and just marvel at it.

Watching Cosmos won’t make you a “master of the universe.” That’s not the goal. What it should do, though, is whet your appetite by showing you how much there is out there, how little we know, and how important it is that we keep trying to learn more. It’s a success, if you ask me.

I think it’s only fair to revisit this after I’ve watched a few more episodes of the series. They’re DVRed. Update from a reader:

I just thought I would weigh in on Cosmos through the eyes of a parent of a nine-year-old. My nine-year-old son has been tuning in to the show with me every Sunday night, and for him it is full of the wonder that one of your readers described. Now he’s a science-oriented kid to begin with (my husband is a biologist), and somewhat precocious at that, but Cosmos has a great deal to offer him. It gets his mind going and imagining all the things that could be, it makes him want to expand on the ideas that Tyson is presenting, he talks non-stop through the commercials. He sees nothing but wonder in all of it.

At one point during the first episode I asked him why he thought some people might not like to learn about the universe, was it because it made them feel small or not important? He replied: “They shouldn’t feel that way! There are so many interesting things out there, and they might be able to discover one of them!”

So Tyson and crew seemed to have pitched this just right for a young mind to cultivate a broader interest in science. At the same time, I am filling in some gaps in my complete ignorance of planetary physics, so I can hold my own in conversations with my son. It might seem simplistic to people more sophisticated in some aspects of these disciplines, including the biographies of the scientists and of Bruno, but it is serving a purpose to engage people with science who might not otherwise have reason to consider the Cosmos at all.

I guess it’s hard to do something that can truly capture the imagination of a nine year old and that satisfies a curmudgeon like myself.