Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Cartoons and Fables - How Cosmos Got the Story of Bruno Wrong

The Giordano Bruno Monument - Campo di Fiori, Rome - October 2013
(I was invited to write a post on this subject by Thony Christie for his excellent history of science blog, The Renaissance Mathematicus.  Many thanks to him for the invitation.  I'm reproducing my post here for Armarium Magnum readers)

A few months ago while visiting Rome I did something a tourist should not do in a strange city - I took a short cut.  Walking back from the Forum to my apartment over the Tiber, I should have taken the obvious route down the Corso Vittorio Emanuele II toward the Castel  Saint 'Angelo, but I decided I knew where I was going, so I took a more direct path through some back streets and soon became completely lost.  After winding my way through a maze of smaller laneways trying to find a major road I saw a piazza up ahead and so decided to use that to get my bearings.  I stopped under a statue in the middle of the square to get out a map, looked up at the statue and immediately knew where I was.  I realised I was in the Campo de'Fiori, because the statue was the famous monument to Giordano Bruno, raised on the spot where he was burned at the stake in February 1600.

Bruno is the poster boy of the Draper-White Thesis - the idea that science and religion have always been at war and an idea beloved by the New Atheist movement despite the fact it was rejected by actual historians of science about a century ago.  Try to engage in an attempt at intelligent discussion of the real and much more complex and nuanced interrelations between religion and what was to emerge as modern science in the medieval and early modern periods and Bruno is usually brandished as "proof" that the Church was the implacable and ignorant foe of early science.  After all, why else did they burn him for daring to say the earth wasn't the centre of the universe and that the stars were other suns with planets?  For those who prefer simple slogans and caricatures to the hard work of actually analysing and understanding history, Bruno is a simple answer to a intricate question.  Nuance and complexity are the first casualties in a culture war.

So when I saw the first preview clips of the revamped version of Carl Sagan's Cosmos, this time presented by Sagan's genial protégé Neil deGrasse Tyson, and noticed an animated sequence of someone being menaced by Inquisitors and burned at the stake, I knew that the revived Cosmos was going to be presenting some bungled history.  This was also following in Sagan's footsteps, I suppose, since in the original series he veered off into a mangled version of the story of Hypatia of Alexandria that fixed the false idea of her as a martyr for science in the minds of a generation, as I've discussed elsewhere.

So when the first instalment of the new series - Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey -  went to air last week, at its heart was an eleven minute version of the Bruno myth.  I often refer to the simplistic moral fable that people mistake for the history of the relationship between the Church and early science as "the cartoon version", because it's oversimplified, two-dimensional and reduced to a black and while caricature.  But in this case it really is a cartoon version - the sequence was animated, with the voice of Bruno provided by the series' Executive Producer, Seth MacFarlane, of Family Guy fame, which seems to be why Bruno has an Italian accent of a kind usually heard in ads for pizza or pasta sauce.

The clichés didn't end with the silly accents.  In the weirdly distorted version of the story the program tells, Bruno is depicted as an earnest young friar in Naples who was a true seeker after truth.  But DeGrasse Tyson assures us that he "dared to read the books banned by the Church and that was his undoing."   We then get a sequence of Bruno reading  a copy of Lucretius' On the Nature of Things which he has hidden under the floorboards of his cell.  The first problem here is that Lucretius' work was not "banned by the Church" at all and no-one needed to hide it under their floor.  Poggio Bracciolini had published a printed edition of the book a century before Bruno was born and it had never been banned when the medieval manuscripts Bracciolini worked from had been copied nor was it banned once his edition made it widely available.  The idea that the Church banned and/or tried to destroy Lucretius' work is a myth that Christopher HItchens liked to repeat and which has been given a lease of popular life via Stephen Greenblatt's appalling pseudo historical work The Swerve, which somehow won a Pulitzer Prize despite being a pastiche of howlers.

The DeGrasse Tyson cartoon goes on to depict Bruno having his mind opened to the idea of an infinite universe by Lucretius' book but then being kicked out of his friary by a mob of Disney villain-style Church types who turn up unexpectedly like Monty Python's Spanish Inquisition.  This, of course, makes for a much better parable than the truth - Lucretius' work wasn't "banned by the Church" and Bruno actually ran away from his religious house and wasn't thrown out for reading naughty books.

It would also have complicated this simplistic cartoon fable to note where Bruno got his ideas about a vast cosmos where the earth was not the centre, where the stars were other suns, where there was a multiplicity of worlds and where some of these other worlds could even have been inhabited just like ours.  Because this was not something Bruno got from Lucretius nor was it something he dreamed up himself in a vision, as the Cosmos cartoon alleges.  It's something he drew directly from the man he called "the divine Cusanus" - the fifteenth century natural philosopher and theologian Nicholas of Cusa.

If the writers of the series were actually interested in the real history of the origins of scientific thought, there are many people whose stories would have been far more worthy of telling than Bruno - people who actually were proto-scientists.  The writers of the show, Steven Soter and Sagan's widow Ann Druyan, seem to have known enough about Bruno to know they could not present him as a scientist and DeGrasse Tyson's narration does mention that he was "no scientist" at one point.  But they delicately skim over the fact that the guy was, to our way of thinking, a complete mystical loon.  In his defence of the criticism the Bruno sequence has since attracted Soter notes that several  other early science figures also pursued studies that we find abjectly unscientific, such as Newton's obsessions with alchemy and apocalyptic calculation.  But the difference is that Newton and Kepler pursued those ideas as well as studies that were based on real empirical science, whereas Bruno's hermetical mysticism, sacred geometry and garbled and largely invented ancient Egyptian religion were all of his studies - he did no actual science at all.

But if they wanted to be truly accurate they should have detailed or even merely acknowledged Bruno's debt to Nicholas of Cusa, who expounded on a non-finite cosmos without a centre 109 years before Bruno was even born.  Here is Cusanus on the subject in his book De docta ignorantia

" The universe has no circumference, for if it had a centre and a circumference there would be some and some thing beyond the world, suppositions which are wholly lacking in truth. Since, therefore, it is impossible that the universe should be enclosed within a corporeal centre and corporeal boundary, it is not within our power to understand the universe, whose centre and circumference are God. And though the universe cannot be infinite, nevertheless it cannot be conceived as finite since there are no limits within which it could be confined."

That's the insight that the Bruno cartoon attributes solely to Bruno.  So why not attribute it to "the divine Cusanus"?  Well, that would ruin the whole parable.  Because far from being kicked around by grim-looking Disney villains imprisoned and burned at the stake, Cusanus was revered and actually made a cardinal.  So that doesn't lend itself very well to a moral fable about free-thinking geniuses being oppressed by dogmatic theocrats.

The cartoon then goes on to depict brave Bruno lecturing at Oxford, with grumpy and aristocratic-sounding scholars there objecting to his espousal of Copernicanism and eventually throwing fruit at him and driving him away.  Again, the reality wasn't quite as worthy.  There is zero record of any objection to heliocentrism and the problem the Oxford scholars had with Bruno was actually his plagiarism of another scholar's work.  But, again, that doesn't lend itself to a fable about a pure and persecuted freethinker.

Throughout the cartoon the idea is that he is afflicted because he supports heliocentrism and the idea of an unbounded cosmos  where the earth is not the centre.  As we've seen, the latter idea was not new and not controversial.  By the 1580s Copernicus' heliocentric hypothesis wasn't particularly new either, though it was more controversial - virtually no astronomers accepted it because it was recognised as having severe scientific flaws.  The important point to remember here is that at  that stage it was not considered heretical by religious authorities, even though some thought it had some potentially bothersome implications.

Copernicus had not even been the first proto-scientist to explore the idea of a moving  earth.  The medieval scholar Nicholas Oresme had analysed the evidence that supported the idea the earth rotated way back in 1377 and regarded it as at least plausible.  The Church didn't bat an eyelid.  Copernicus' calculations and his theory had been in circulation long before his opus was published posthumously and it had interested several prominent churchmen, including Pope Clement VII, who got Johan Widmanstadt to deliver a public lecture on the theory in the Vatican gardens, which the Pope found fascinating.  Nicholas Cardinal Schoenburg then urged Copernicus to publish his full work, though Copernicus delayed not because of any fear of religious persecution but because of the potential reaction of other mathematicians and astronomers.  Heliocentrism didn't become a religious hot topic until the beginning of the Galileo affair in 1616, a decade and half after Bruno's death.

Again, the Cosmos writers seem to be at least vaguely aware of all this and so do some fancy footwork to keep their parable on track.  In the cartoon's depiction of Bruno's trial we get the first hint that the Church's beef with Bruno might actually have been to do with ideas that had zero to do with an infinite cosmos, multiple worlds or any cosmological speculations at all.  So the Disney villain Inquisitor reads out a list of accusations such as "questioning the Holy Trinity and the divinity of Jesus Christ" and a few other purely religious charges.  The depiction gives the impression that these are somehow less important or even trumped up accusations, when in fact these are the actual reasons Bruno was burned at the stake, along with others beside.  As horrific as it is to us, denying the virginity of Mary, saying Jesus was merely a magician and denying Transubstantiation did get you burned in 1600 AD, though only if you refused repeated opportunities to recant.

But the cartoon wants to stick to its parable, so they tack on the final and, we are led to believe, most serious charge - "asserting the existence of other worlds".  As we've already seen, however, this was not actually a problem at all.  Here's NIcholas of Cusa on these other worlds in the book that inspired many of Bruno's beliefs:

"Life, as it exists on Earth in the form of men, animals and plants, is to be found, let us suppose in a high form in the solar and stellar regions. Rather than think that so many stars and parts of the heavens are uninhabited and that this earth of ours alone is peopled – and that with beings perhaps of an inferior type – we will suppose that in every region there are inhabitants, differing in nature by rank and all owing their origin to God, who is the center and circumference of all stellar regions .... Of the inhabitants then of worlds other than our own we can know still less having no standards by which to appraise them."

Again, remember that Cusanus was not burned at the stake, he was revered, praised and made a cardinal.

The only mention of other worlds in the accusations against Bruno specifies that he believed in "a plurality of worlds and their eternity".  It was that last part that was the problem, not subscribing to an idea that a prince of the Church had espoused a century earlier.

The cartoon concludes with DeGrasse Tyson's caveats about Bruno being "no scientist" and his ideas being no more than a "lucky guess".  Some commenters seem to think that this somehow absolves the whole sequence of its distortions and that it means the show depicts Bruno only as a martyr to free thought and a lesson on the dangers of dogmatism.  But the problem with the cartoon is that it makes up a silly pastiche of real history, fantasy and oversimplified nonsense to achieve this aim.  The real story of Cusanus would actually have been a much more interesting one to tell and wouldn't have had the Draper-White inspired baggage of the Bruno myths.  But the whole sequence seems to have had an agenda and a burned heretic story served that agenda's purpose in a way that a revered and untrammelled medieval cardinal's story would not have.

The objective here was to make a point about free thought and dogmatism in the context of the culture wars in the US about Creationism.  That Bruno was a believer in God was an idea that was repeated several times in the cartoon, even though he was actually more of a pantheist than anything.  But he is depicted as an open-minded and unconstrained believer who is oppressed and finally killed by the forces of dogmatic literalism.  The cartoon Bruno's cry to the fruit-throwing Oxford scholars  - "Your God is too small!" - is actually the point of the whole parable.  This entire sequence was aimed at the dogmatic literalists in the American culture war while still trying to appeal to believers, given the majority of the show's American audience would have been theists.  That's the framework of this fable and the writers chopped up bits of the actual historical Bruno story and then clumsily forced them into this modern message.  

Which brings me back to my encounter with the statue in the Campo de'Fiori.  The statue was created by Ettore Ferrari and erected in 1889 in the wake of the unification of Italy in the face of Church opposition.  The monument, raised by members of the Grande Orient d'Italia Masonic order, was a deliberate political symbol of anti-clericalism.  Atheists and free thinkers revere it to this day and commemorate Bruno's execution on Febrary 17 each year.

Of course, anyone who points out that Bruno is a rather ridiculous icon for atheists, given his kooky mystical views and magical practices is usually ignored.  And anyone who has the temerity to point out that he was executed for purely religious ideas and not any speculation about multiple worlds or a non-finite cosmos is usually (bizarrely) told they are somehow justifying his horrific execution.  As I've often noted, for people who call themselves rationalists, many of my fellow atheists can be less than rational.  Unfortunately, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Ann Druyan, Steven Soter and Seth MacFarlane's silly Bruno cartoon will definitely not help in that regard.