A strange defence

This week saw the broadcast of the first episode of the remake of the legendary television series COSMOS, originally hosted by Carl Sagan and now being presented by Neil deGasse Tyson. Although I have now had the chance to view it thanks to the good offices of the man for all things Darwinian, Michael Barton (@darwinsbulldog), I’m not going to blog about it as Tim O’Neill, Renaissance Mathematicus reader and commentator, and fellow invincible warrior in the struggle against bad history of science,  is writing a guest post on the subject, which if all goes well will appear here on next Monday. However this post is directly concerned with one part of the show.

The centrepiece of the episode was an anime style carton on the life and thoughts of infamous Renaissance heretic Giordano Bruno. This immediately led to a raising chorus of voices on Twitter wondering what my views on this would be. Having in the mean time seen it I labelled it on Twitter an “Anime Draper-White for the Twenty-First Century”. For anybody who doesn’t know John William Draper (1811 – 1882) and Andrew Dickson White (1832 – 1918) are the two nineteenth century American academics who created the myth of a war (their term) between science and religion. A myth still unfortunately believed in by many a gnu atheist.  I’m not going to say anything more about this unfortunate piece of animated bollocks, as I’m sure that Tim will comment extensively in his guest post.

However the rest of the Intertubes has not remained silent on the issue and I can recommend the eminently sensible post on the subject by Meg Rosenburg (@trueanomalies) and the wonderfully provocative post by Becky Ferreira (@beckyferreira) “What ‘cosmos’ got wrong about Giordano Bruno, the heretic scientist, which contains the absolutely brilliant description of Bruno: “Bruno was a walking, talking shit storm, with a black belt in burning bridges”.  How I wish that I had coined that sentence!

The debate continued at Discovery Magazine with a blog post by Cory S. Powell, “Did “Cosmos” pick the wrong hero?”, in which Powell suggests that Thomas Digges would have made a better subject for the cartoon than Bruno. Personally I side with Meg Rosenburg who asks whether we need any heroes at all when discussing the history of science; a rhetorical question to which the answer is no.

Powell’s post finally provoked a response from the makers of “Cosmos” in the form of a post by Steven Soter, astrophysicist and co-writer of “Cosmos”, titled The Cosmos of Giordano Bruno (now with added response from Powell) and it is to this post that I now wish to reply, as it contains a number of very questionable statements.

In his second paragraph Soter writes the following:

Powell’s critique dwells on the well-known facts that Bruno was a mystic and an extremely difficult person. Well, so was Isaac Newton, who devoted as much time to alchemy and biblical numerology as to physics. But that has no bearing whatever on his good ideas.

I could write a whole post just about this one paragraph. First off Soter is putting Bruno a man who had one half correct cosmological idea during an intoxicating religious fantasy, that makes you wonder if he’d been hitting the magic mushrooms, with Isaac Newton who produced some of the most important new mathematics, astronomy, and mathematical physics in the history of mankind. That’s one hell of a lopsided analogy Mr Soter! Secondly as anybody knows, who is up to date on his Newton research, or who has simply read some of my blog posts on the man, Newton’s theology and his alchemy did have a massive bearing on his ‘good ideas’.

Soter then corrects Powell as to who first claimed that the universe was infinite, which to be fair Powell got wrong, although neither of them remarks that Lucretius, Bruno’s source, didn’t think of this himself but actually got the idea from the Greek atomists.

We now come to the core of the matter and the reason why Soter et al claim to have included the Bruno cartoon in their show:

Bruno’s originality lies elsewhere. He was indisputably the first person to grasp that the Sun is a star and the stars are other suns with their own planets. That is arguably the greatest idea in the history of astronomy. Before Bruno, none of the other Copernicans ever imagined it.

Leaving aside the hyperbole about ‘the greatest idea in the history of astronomy’, as he says the question is highly debateable, this paragraph still has several issues. Firstly the Greek philosopher Anaxagoras had already suggested that the sun and the stars were one and the same in the fifth century BCE, although he didn’t hypothesise the presence of other planets. Secondly if this was the real reason for including the Bruno cartoon in this episode, why was the main emphasis of the cartoon placed on the Church’s treatment of Bruno as a heretic even to the extent of presenting the Church officials as demons with red glowing eyes, I smell a rat.

If you think I’m misinterpreting the message of the cartoon I offer this comment from Meg Roserburg’s post, Albeit says:

No offense, but I think you’re missing the point here. The moral of the story, as stated in Cosmos, is: don’t let your beliefs stand in the path of reality. Bruno’s necessarily oversimplified story is just a warning about anti-science and dogmatic thinking.

Throughout the Internet you can find similar interpretations, so either the message of the cartoon was other than claimed by Soter or they really made a balls up of scripting it.

Soter than attacks Powell’s suggestion that Thomas Digges should have been featured rather than Bruno, after all he did suggest that the universe is infinite before Bruno. Soter’s argument is a little strange he writes:

But Digges regarded the stars as “the court of the celestial angels” not as the suns of other material earths. And that was a big step backwards. In contrast, Bruno wrote, “the composition of our own stars and world is the same as that as many other stars and worlds as we can see.” His profound intuition had to wait three centuries to be verified by the spectroscope.

First off Digges’ claim that the stars were the court of the celestial angels is just bog standard medieval cosmology, so in that sense is not a step backwards. Secondly Digges wrote and published earlier than Bruno, so in that sense it is also not a step backwards.

That the composition of everything in the cosmos was the same is neither new nor original to Bruno. The Stoics had believed this in antiquity and there had been a major revival in Stoic scientific philosophy in the sixteenth century making Bruno considerably less original on this count than Soter would like to see him.

Soter is also guilty here of quote mining, selecting those parts of Bruno’s fantasy that fit with our modern concepts and quietly ignoring those that don’t. This is a form of presentism known as searching for predecessors. One takes an accepted scientific idea and filters through history to see if somebody had the same idea earlier, then crying eureka and declaring the discovered thinker to be a genius ahead of his or her times. This activity can best be observed in popular histories of atomism where everybody who ever believed that matter consists of some sort of particles are all swept up into one glorious heap and declared to be predecessors of John Dalton. In Bruno’s case one has to ignore the rather inconvenient fact that he thought that the whole of space was filled with identical solar systems placed throughout space at equal intervals, a conception that doesn’t quite fit with our actually understanding of the universe.

Soter now attacks Powell for saying that neither Kepler nor Galileo thought much of Bruno. Soter mocks and ridicules Kepler for believing in a finite universe.  This is ironic given that Soter thinks it is irrelevant that Bruno produced fifty tons of shit including rejecting the use of mathematics in science because he produced one tiny little diamond of thought.

Soter then quote mines again making Kepler to a supporter of Bruno. He correctly quotes a passage from Kepler’s Dissertatio cum Nuncio Sidereo (1610) his response to Galileo’s telescopic discoveries.

What other conclusion shall we draw from this difference, Galileo, than that the fixed stars generate their lights from within, whereas the planets, being opaque, are illuminated from without; that is, to use Bruno’s terms, the former are suns, the latter, moons or planets?

Here Kepler is referring to the difference in the images of planets and stars when viewed through the new invention the telescope. Kepler would here be appearing to support Bruno’s theory and that is the impression that Soter wisher the reader to have but this is actually an illusion. Kepler says let us use Bruno’s term, he doesn’t say let us adopt Bruno’s theory. You might think I’m splitting hairs and that by adopting Bruno’s term Kepler is of course adopting Bruno’s theory but this is very definitely not the case. How can I be so sure? Because Kepler himself tells us so, he does so by evoking what is now known as Olbers’ paradox.  Kepler argues, as did Heinrich Olbers, a German astronomer, in the nineteenth century, that if the heavens were filled with an infinity of suns equally distributed in all direction, as Bruno claimed, then there would never be a night, these suns lighting up the skies twenty-four hours a day. His, incorrect but rational solution, to the paradox was that the Sun and the stars are fundamentally different and thus Bruno was wrong. Far from being a tacit supporter of Bruno’s hypothesis, as Soter would have us believe, Kepler actually refuted it with a good solid, if incorrect, scientific argument. A further irony in this situation is that Kepler was not the first to realise that an infinity of suns would lead to Olbers’ paradox, thus seeming to invalidate Bruno’s hypothesis, Thomas Digges, who hypothesised an infinity of stars before Bruno, also explicitly recognised the problem.

Having abused Kepler Soter now moves on to Galileo accusing him of plagiarism and cowardice, in the process again making a false claim:

Galileo never once mentioned Bruno’s name. Of course in the land of the Inquisition he had good reasons. But in his “Dialogue on the Two Chief World Systems” (the book that got him into deep trouble), he discretely accepted Bruno’s greatest idea, writing that the fixed stars are other suns.

Don’t let anybody tell you that being a pedantic history of science blogger is an easy life. Although I possess two different translations of Galileo’s magnum opus I don’t know it off by heart and was not aware of Galileo “discretely accepting Bruno’s greatest idea”, so I spent about four hours yesterday evening going through every single reference to star, stars or sun listed in the index to the Drake translation comparing with the Finocchiaro translation and searching for further information in five volumes of secondary literature. The only consolation for all of this effort was that I found the passage to which Soter is probably referring. On The Second Day in a discussion on the movement of the heavenly bodies Salviati makes the following observation:

Now behold how nature, favoring our needs and wishes, presents us with two striking conditions no less different than motion and rest; they are lightness and darkness – that is, being brilliant by nature or being obscure and totally lacking in light. Therefore bodies shining with internal and external splendour are very different in nature from bodies deprived of all light. Now the earth is deprived of light; more splendid in itself is the sun, and the fixed stars are no less so. The six moving planets entirely lack light, like the earth; therefore their essence resembles the earth and differs from the sun and the fixed stars: Hence the earth moves and the sun and the stellar sphere are motionless.

This passage is, like the Kepler quote above, very clearly based on Galileo’s telescopic observations of the stars and planet and their respective telescopic images and is not borrowed from Bruno. It is also clear that here Galileo is only referring to the stars and the sun both being self-illuminating, his discussion only treats of one attribute, lightness or darkness, but he doesn’t take the next step of saying that therefore they are the same. He might possibly have thought so but then again he might not. It is also clear here that with his reference to the stellar sphere Galileo s still accepting a traditional bounded finite cosmos.

I now turn to the implicit argument that Galileo didn’t reference Bruno because of the Inquisition, either through caution or, as I provocatively said above, through cowardice. This argument is not unique to Soter but has been used by numerous commentators in the Internet in the last few days. In the Roman Inquisition had, like the FBI, had a Most Wanted list, then during the first part of Galileo’s life Numero Uno on that list would have, without any doubt, been the Servite monk Paolo Sarpi (1552 – 1623).  To quote John Heilbron’s Galileo biography, “…the Servite Sarpi, would present the Vatican with a graver threat than Bruno”. During his years in the Republic of Venice, as professor of mathematics at the University of Padua, Galileo’s best mate and intellectual sparing partner was Sarpi, a fact that was publically well known. Unlike Bruno, who they regarded as a nuisance, the Venetian authorities, who were very proud of their intellectual rebel, Sarpi, who was Venetian born and bred, refused to deliver him to the Roman Inquisitions. Making him even more of a thorn in the side of the Church. Galileo’s close friendship to Sarpi was far more dangerous to his relations with the Church than any casual scientific reference to Bruno would have been. Galileo did not quote Bruno because he didn’t want to, not because he was scared of the Inquisition.

It is worth noting in this context that when Galileo applied for and was granted the position of court philosophicus and mathematicus to the Medici in Florence his Sarpian friends in Venice warned him against leaving the comparatively safe haven of thr Republic, where he was free to think and say almost anything he liked, for the shark infested waters of court intrigue and religious orthodoxy of Florence and Rome. However fame, fortune and social status were more important to Galileo than freedom of thought and speech so he ignored his friends’ warnings with the well known historical consequences.

To close this already over long post I would like to address a historiographical point related to Soter’s deification of Bruno in the history of science. Wirkungsgeschichte is a German term that refers to the historical impact of a scientific theory, invention, or discovery. Some ideas make little or no impact and disappear from the historical stage requiring them to be rediscovered at a later date. A classic example of this is the correct explanation of the cause of the rainbow. Theodoric of Freiberg discovered the correct explanation through empirical experiments in the thirteenth century. However his discovery had almost no impact and got lost, meaning that it wasn’t until the seventeenth century, when Descartes rediscovered it, that the correct explanation of the rainbow became generally known. Bruno’s lucky guess that the stars are suns or that the sun is a star had almost no impact and was largely ignored and forgotten. This makes him in a historical sense a dubious figure to elevate to the status of a scientific hero, as Soter apparently wished to do with his very strange animation in the COSMOS broadcast.

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28 Comments

Filed under History of Astronomy, History of science, Myths of Science, Renaissance Science

28 responses to “A strange defence

  1. Both Bruno and Newton were in fact party to that ridiculous Cabalistic (with a C for Christian pretense) cult of magic that Rabelais lampooned so well.
    See his ridicule of Agrippa aka Herr Trippa: http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/r/rabelais/francois/r11g/book3.25.html

  2. laura

    I read in a different Galileo biography the claim that Galileo was probably imitating Bruno by writing the Dialogue in dialogue form! There seems to be a tradition in trying to make Galileo a secret follower of Bruno.

    • Yes, Ingrid D Rowland claims that in her otherwise good Bruno biography. Somewhat bizarre given that Galileo is clearly writing Platonic dialogue.

  3. Pingback: Want to know more about Giordano Bruno? | True Anomalies

  4. laura

    Sorry to comment twice, but I was thinking about that Soter post last night and why it annoyed me even though I actually agree with the general thrust that Bruno is a perfectly reasonable character to profile on the new Cosmos. The thing that sent up flags about it for me was his claim that Digges’ theory of infinite space represented “a step back” because it involved angels. Besides being untrue in time as you point out (a step back from what?), why in the context of the 16th/early 17th century would anybody consider tying Copernican ideas to the acceptable Christian metaphysics (something Lansbergen also did with a lot of success, though he thought the universe was big but finite) represent a step back even if Bruno had come first? I’m worried that what he really means is that “brilliant insights” (as opposed to “mystical obsessions” or “steps back”) are the ones that sound the least conventionally Christian and that tie into the popular idea that the big changes in natural philosophy in the 16-17th centuries were less about understanding the physical world and more about throwing over god and the church. If that’s the attitude of the show’s writers, then the new Cosmos is going to be just another crappy/boring salvo in the culture war.

  5. Popular history is always a cartoon. When the makers of Cosmos decided to resort to animation, they merely matched form and content. That doesn’t mean we can’t hold out for better over-simplifications, though and it doesn’t explain why you have to repeat purely factual errors when what actually happened is no more complicated than the traditional fables.

    Well, I always look at these things backwards. If I want to learn about the history of science I read Renaissance Mathematicus. If I want to understand the obsessions and fantasies of my own times, I watch TV. Bruno was an interesting guy in his own right, a fantastic character in an era of fantastic characters (Paracelsus, Della Porta, Pico della Mirandola, Campanella, Agrippa, Kircher); but the story of his evolving reputation is also illuminating. When Ettore Ferrari erected his statue of Bruno at the spot where Bruno had been burnt at the stake in 1600, he wasn’t just memorializing a hero of reason. He was giving the Vatican the finger in the midst of a campaign for Italian unification. Tyson et.al. have their own motivations.

    Once again, I don’t think that political subtexts justify mere falsification, especially when it is done cynically as it often enough is. When I reread White’s Warfare of Science and Theology last year, I was scandalized at how often White wrote things that he had to know were literally false granted the sources he cited. He wasn’t just a bemused ideologist: he was a propagandist. You have to wonder whether the writers of scripts for science shows also lie, cheat, and steal with premeditation for what they consider a good cause or a good check or whether they just don’t have much understanding of history.

    • As always a superb comment Mr Harrison. I totally agree with your list of fascinating characters all of whom have already occupied some of my reading and research time in the past and will certainly do so again in the future. On your comment on evolving reputations, Herbert Butterfield said that writing history consists of using the past as a mirror to reflect particular aspects of our present. He wasn’t far wrong

    • Will Thomas

      I tend usually to favor Jim’s point of view. Symbolic history of science is so prevalent, and the history of science profession is so obscure, that it is hardly fair to complain that busy people don’t have time to familiarize themselves with the relevant scholarship.

      However, Tyson is well known as a persnickety critic of the portrayal of science in films, so I say fair game. He has to take as good as he gives. Anything else would be unscientific.

    • Ian H Spedding

      I think you have to view the show in the cultural context in which it was made. My impression is that the sectarian hostility towards science in the US is more intense than you see in Europe. Right-wing politicians can attack it secure in the knowledge that, in many areas, it will appeal to a sizable portion of their electorate. In fact, it is not hard to get the impression that there are backwoods regions of the United States where, in terms of ignorance and superstition, little has changed in 300 years. Given that background, it is not hard to see why Cosmos/i> is seen as an opportunity to launch a counter-attack in this particular theater of the Culture War. What is remarkable, as has been noted before, is that it is produced by Fox which is notorious for its right-wing sympathies.

      The choice of Bruno to illustrate this in the first episode is clearly controversial and, perhaps, was intended to be. The consensus seems to be that he was not a scientist (allowing that such a profession did not exist at that time) of the caliber of a Copernicus or a Kepler or a Brahe. There is also the inescapable simplification that must occur when trying to compress a lifespan of 52 years into less than half that number of minutes of screentime. A caricature is bound to be the result. Perhaps that was why they chose to use animation rather than a live-action dramatization by actors in period costume.

      That said, Bruno was an independent thinker (and awkward character) who paid a significant personal price for that stance during his life and was ultimately prepared to die for what he believed. The real man may have been no more like the caricature than the real Thomas More was like the character brilliantly portrayed by Paul Scofield in the movie version of A Man For All Seasons but their appeal lies in giving a human face to otherwise abstract concepts. A popular science show needs to appeal to a wide audience. Rightly or wrongly, they may have calculated that a Bruno was “edgier” and more interesting to that audience than a Kepler whose contributions to science were actually greater.

      Besides, when all is said and done, if you want to watch great TV science programming, go back and watch The Ascent Of Man. That has yet to be bettered in my view.

      • laura

        “What is remarkable, as has been noted before, is that it is produced by Fox which is notorious for its right-wing sympathies.”

        Is it really so surprising? Fox is above all a for-profit network and the culture war in the US is big $. The viewers of Cosmos may be on one side of the culture war and the show made to keep them interested and involved (in part by culture warring but also by delving into and showcasing cutting edge science). The people who react against Cosmos will typically be on the other side of the culture war and there is plenty of room for outrage, and outrage is also profitable.

        I hope i’m wrong and that the new Cosmos turns out to be something smarter than mainly controversy-bait (and I certainly don’t think that’s the intention of everybody involved). But based on the first episode I wouldn’t bet on it.

  6. M Tucker

    I am a regular visitor to this site because I know I can depend on getting good history and good science. Again I was not disappointed and I thank you Thony for your dedication to the general public and all the work you do.

    I did interpret the diversion into the Bruno story on Cosmos as a weak attempt to promote the religion vs science argument. I say weak because Tyson did say something to the effect that Bruno was not a scientist. So I did agree with your comment, “So what the fuck was it doing as the centerpiece of a documentary film about science?” Although I would not call it “the centerpiece” it was memorable and it seemed to take a considerable amount of air time that could have been devoted to other topics. I could only conclude from the time spent on Bruno and the obvious demonizing of the Church officials that the writers and Tyson wanted to present religion as the enemy of science. Soter’s sad attempt to justify the inclusion of Bruno has not changed my mind.

    I think there is a very real attempt to foment a war between science and religion today. It is not between formerly mainstream religion and science but between the young earth creationists and science and has been going on for quite some time. As YEC thinking seems to have invaded the religious beliefs of nearly half of the American public I think it is now fair to consider it as mainstream as well. Atheist scientists have recently risen to the challenge and it is now common to hear and read attacks on all religious thought. Hence the Cosmos / Bruno story.

    The history of science does not need heroes but it is a common practice when writing journalistic pieces and many political, social and warfare histories have suffered from the authors desire to elevate people to the rank of hero.

    I will save the rest of my thoughts for after the Tim O’Neill piece.

  7. Mike Jacovides

    I appreciated the effort that you put into finding the relevant passage in Galileo, which is really interesting. I’m a little skeptical about your gloss on the passage.

    It is also clear that here Galileo is only referring to the stars and the sun both being self-illuminating, his discussion only treats of one attribute, lightness or darkness, but he doesn’t take the next step of saying that therefore they are the same. He might possibly have thought so but then again he might not.

    This is the sort of question that may need to be settled by looking at the Italian (which I don’t read), but, in the passage that you quote, the reflective character of the Earth and the moving planets is given as part of an argument for the subconclusion that the Earth and the moving planets share an essence (that is, perhaps, are fundamentally the same sort of thing) on the way to the conclusion that the Earth and the moving planets move and the sun and the fixed stars don’t.

    I think the argument is the earth and the moving planets don’t give off their own light, so, probably, they share an essence, so, probably, they are alike with respect to motion or rest, and so the Earth moves. Likewise, but tacitly, since the Sun and the fixed stars do give off their own light, they are probably alike with respect to essence, and so alike with respect to rest, and so, probably, the Sun is at rest. Galileo doesn’t explicitly say that the Sun and the fixed stars share an essence, but I don’t see how he gets to the conclusion that the Sun is at rest without it.

    • I certainly agree with you that I could have devoted considerably more time and effort on the Galileo quote but I didn’t want to make an already overlong post even longer.

      The quoted passage is quite remarkable, here we have a man who is supposed to be the great empirical scientist arguing that dark bodies move because that is their essence whilst illuminated ones are still because that is their essence. An argument that one would expect from one of Galileo’s opponents rather than from him. Also as you correctly point out the argument is totally Aristotelian and that from a man who is supposed to be the scourge of the scholastics!

      • Mike Jacovides

        It’s a nice illustration of some claims that William Wallace made about Galileo’s methods.

  8. Mike Jacovides

    As a follow-up, the text that precedes the one you quotes suggests that Galileo/Salviati does accept the principle that things that agree with respect to essence agree with respect to eternal rest or perpetual motion: “Common sense says that motion ought to be deemed to belong to those which agree better in kind and in essence with the bodies which unquestionably do move, and rest to those which differ most from them. Eternal rest and perpetual motion being very different events, it is evident that the nature of an ever-moving body must be quite different from that of one which is always fixed” (pp. 309-10 in the 2001 Modern Library edition).

    The principle that things that are alike with respect to motion are alike with respect to nature follows, for what it’s worth, from the Aristotelian definition of ‘nature’ as an internal principle of motion or rest.

  9. Ian H Spedding

    Alas, I’m a child of my times. Whenever I hear the name Bruno my first thought is of Frank “Know what I mean, ‘Arry”. Not much of a cosmologist, I grant you, but ” ‘E was a good, strong boy” and he did see stars quite a few times as I remember.

  10. Jonathan Burke

    I found this a bit odd.

    “Bruno’s originality lies elsewhere. He was indisputably the first person to grasp that the Sun is a star and the stars are other suns with their own planets. That is arguably the greatest idea in the history of astronomy. Before Bruno, none of the other Copernicans ever imagined it.”

    Long before Copernicus, the Greek Christian grammarian John Philoponus of Alexandria (6th century), argued that the sun was a great big ball of fire made from the same materials as the earth and everything else, and that all the stars were likewise great big balls of fire made from the same materials as the earth and everything else.

    On this basis he made the even more astute observation that different stars are brighter or dimmer, and differ in size and colour, according to their chemical composition.

    • Thank you. I didn’t know about that aspect of Philoponus’ work just his criticisms of Aristotle’s theory of motion.

      • Jonathan Burke

        You’re welcome, I’m glad to have contributed something useful. I have been fascinated by Philoponus for some time. He is definitely the most under-appreciated and little known of the early medieval Christian philosophers, and his impact on later scholars (including Galileo and Newton), was massive.

      • His impact on Arabic thinkers was also substantial.

      • Jonathan Burke

        Yes, I usually dust him off and present him when confronted with the claim that ‘Renaissance scholars like Copernicus and Galileo were just copying what they stole from the Arabs of the Middle Ages’. Pointing out that those ‘Arabs of the Middle Ages’ such as al-Ghaza ̄lı ̄ had in fact borrowed from Philoponus, is a bit of a shock. It’s also a good way to introduce Jewish commentators who also used Philoponus, such as Saadia and Maimonides.

      • The complex process of knowledge transfer, appropriation, assimilation, development and retransfer is a fascinating topic and one that is delt with far to superficially by most historians of science.

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