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Neil deGrasse Tyson's 'Cosmos' stumbled with faulty history

Neil deGrasse Tyson
Neil deGrasse Tyson
Photo by Michael Buckner

Neil deGrasse Tyson’s “Cosmos: A SpaceTime Odyssey” aired its first episode “Standing Up in the Milky Way” on Sunday, March 9, 2014. The much touted paean to science and the wonders of the universe, a reboot of a similar series first aired by the late Carl Sagan in 1980, has been long anticipated.

First, the good. With modern special effects, the new “Cosmos” was a feast for the eyes. From the revamped “spaceship of the imagination” soaring through the universe with Tyson at the helm to the clever use of a calendar to illustrate how brief human history has been, the show effectively displays the wonders of both space and time.

Tyson, a celebrity astrophysicist, is in his element as a presenter. The most heartfelt part of the show was his account of how, as a teenager, he met Carl Sagan for a wondrous day at Cornell. The story of how Sagan mentored Tyson is a compelling one.

Now for the bad. Part of the episode related the story of Giordano Bruno, a 16th Century Italian philosopher and Franciscan monk whose ideas on cosmology, derived from the insights of Copernicus, were far ahead of his time. He not only suggested, like Copernicus, that the sun and not the Earth was the center of the solar system, but that stars were in fact other suns seen from a great distance. He also believed that the universe was infinite and contained an infinite number of worlds inhabited by intelligent beings. His theories were, to say the least, controversial wherever he espoused them.

“Cosmos” implies that Bruno was eventually burned at the stake on orders of the Roman Inquisition for his scientific theories, setting up a classic religion suppresses science narrative. However, as Patheos points out, Bruno was executed not for his scientific theories, but rather for heretical musings on the divinity of Jesus Christ and the Trinity according to Roman Catholic doctrine. This was heinous, especially from a 21st Century perspective, but does not fit with the religion vs. science narrative.

Also, even though Bruno’s insights were remarkable, they did not come from science, through observation and testing the evidence, but rather as revelation. This also did not come out in the first episode of Cosmos.