Cosmos and Giordano Bruno: the problem with scientific heroes

Cross-posted from The H Word blog.


Statue of Giordano Bruno, erected at Campo de' Fiori in Rome, 1889.
Statue of Giordano Bruno, erected at Campo de’ Fiori in Rome, 1889.

Although it’s not as big news in the UK as it has been in the US, readers of the Guardian science pages may have noticed that Carl Sagan’s classic series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage is being remade by Fox and presented by Neil deGrasse Tyson as Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey.

Broadcast in the US last Sunday, I saw a lot of love being expressed on my Twitter timeline. However, it has also prompted some interesting comments from historians of science. We in the UK can see it for ourselves this Sunday (if we have access to the right channels), but here are some articles and posts that give food for thought.

In The Atlantic, Audra Wolfe looked at the Cold War context in which the original Cosmos succeeded, or could, at least, be credited by many with having kicked off a decade-long “popular science boom”. What the Cosmos effect actually was does not seem to have been measured but, even if real, Wolfe points out that times have changed. She argues that Cosmos Can’t Save Public Support for Science today, particularly if it is “weigh[ed] down with Cold War-era fantasies that confuse the public understanding of science with its appreciation.”

Other historians have been prompted to comment on Cosmos because, as in the original, history of science is part of the package. Much has been said about the importance the remake, as a high-profile broadcast that can reflect the extent to which science has moved on since 1980. History of science has also moved on: is this reflected in the new series?

The answer, it seems, is yes (a bit) and (mostly) no. In the first episode, a rather hefty portion of airtime (11 out of 43 minutes) is devoted to an animation on the life of Giordano Bruno. Burnt at the stake by the Roman Inquisition in 1600, he was there to play the role of scientific hero and martyr. It is an ill-fitting part for this idiosyncratic Dominican monk.

Laudably avoiding any temptation to snark, Meg Rosenburg took the sudden interest in this reasonably obscure figure as an opportunity to help those who might Want to Know More About Giordano Bruno. While Bruno’s cosmological poetry and mystical thought included heliocentrism, he was not, of course, a scientist, nor was he sentenced to death for “scientific” ideas or anything like “the nice-mannered, doe-eyed dissenter” that appears on the screen.

In fact, Bruno is so obviously a problematic choice as a scientific martyr that several non-historians have also picked up on the issue. Corey S. Powell in Discover Magazine suggested that Cosmos picked the wrong hero, and that another – even more obscure but significantly more astronomical – early Copernican, Thomas Digges, might have been a better bet. Hank Campbell at The Federalist picked the Bruno problem as the most significant of Five Things that Cosmos Gets Wrong.

Becky Ferreira at Motherboard carefully explained What Cosmos Gets Wrong About Giordano Bruno, the Heretic Scientist, although, as she notes, it was not all bad as the account “did a pretty good job of covering its butt by shoehorning in some of Bruno’s contradictions, like the fact that he was a crappy scientist (and many historians argue he shouldn’t be considered one at all).”

Yet, nevertheless, the overriding message appears to have been about heroic passion for truth against dogma and science versus religion. And, despite the nod the nuance, this is a case of turning history into parable.

This is problematic for many reasons, one of which is that it doesn’t exactly sit well with claims to champion evidence-based knowledge. Another is that hiding parts of Bruno’s story that undermine the image of the scientific martyr plays into the hands of those who are only too pleased to highlight what might appear to be anti-religious propaganda coming from the scientific and media establishment (thanks to Rosenburg for tweeting that link).

Historical figures who lived in a very different world, very differently understood, cannot be turned into heroes who perfectly represent our values and concerns without doing serious damage to the evidence. It reminds me of one of the 19th-century men of science-cum-historians I researched, who learned this lesson the hard way.

In 1831 David Brewster published a short biography of Isaac Newton, portraying him as a hero that represented everything the author wanted to say about the moral status of science and its practitioners, and how they should be supported in late Georgian Britain. A couple of decades later he produced a much expanded biography, this time based in part on the unpublished archive. Lo and behold: Newton was a nasty piece of work, he was unorthodox in his Christian belief and he was a dedicated alchemist.

Poor Brewster! Although, as a reviewer said, he attempted to “do his best” by his hero, he was sufficiently dedicated to the evidence to “admit” the faults in public. It undermined his overriding narrative and seems to have caused him real personal anguish. Let this be a cautionary tale against those who invest too much in their heroes – and a call for some evidence-based history to help us better understand what science has been, is now and could be in the future.


Faraday’s motivation

Yesterday David Colquhoun send me this on Twitter:


I had a look at the article and decided that it would take a bit too much time and space to add my thoughts on this to a comment stream really focusing on Vice Chancellors at UCL, so I’ll do it here.

Among his comments, David had written: “A lot of those who have commented here are obsessed with idea that taxpayers’ money should not be spent on education or research. I expect if “Pete”, “Anon” and “Sean” had lived in the days of Michael Faraday, they would have told him to stop wasting time playing with wires and coils, and told him to do something really useful, like inventing better leather washers for steam engines.

One reply suggested that Faraday was doing applied research – leading to electric motors – suggesting that “Industry today would have no problems in supporting Faraday as whatever did had immediate applications“. David responded that the applications were not obvious “at the time [Faraday] was playing with wires and coils“, since the electric motor was 40 years off. Again, in response, it was suggested that Faraday “was a person who was interested scientific applications , and was not merely interested dong it for its own sake“.

Further down, another commenter, John Dainton, added “The Royal Institution employed Michael Faraday to improve the quality of optical glass. He asked to leave to study some questions that interested him concerning electricity and magnetism (presumably because he was interested in understanding what electricity and magnetism were all about?). Without Faraday’s individual curiosity, no-one would have been able to invent the electric motor, in industry or indeed anywhere“, before going on to name and describe the curiosity-driven or authority-ignoring work of other heroes: James Lovelock, George Gray, Alec Gambling, Max Perutz, John Kendre and Tim Berners Lee.

Anyone else who’s interested can comment on this argument as they wish. I’ll stick with Faraday.

It is hard to think of anyone more closely linked to the idea that scientific work would lead to practical applications. The Royal Institution, which dominated Faraday’s working life, was founded on such an idea: for “diffusing the knowledge, and facilitating the general introduction, of useful mechanical inventions and improvements; and for teaching, by courses of philosophical lectures and experiments, the application of science to the common purposes of life“. On the agenda were topics like tanning, brewing, fertilisers, analysis of foodstuffs etc. Educating people to understand the importance and usefulness of science was also practical, applied work.

At the RI, as correctly pointed out above, Faraday was employed on eminently practical work to develop better optical glass (for, in fact, a Board of Longitude and Royal Society committee). He didn’t particularly enjoy this task but, like Davy, his day-to-day work was also to include carrying out chemical analysis for private individuals, companies, including the East India Company, and advising government, the Admiralty, Trinity House and more.

Work on electricity and magnetism was not separate to this. Davy, of course, pioneered the use of electricity in chemical analysis, and, unsuccessfully, applied his scientific knowledge in recommending to the Admiralty the use of copper sheeting on ships to prevent corrosion by sea water. Faraday did the follow-up analysis, he also made recommendations about the possibilities and practicalities of electrifying lighthouses and bouys (from the 1840s) and in making and laying telegraph cables. Finding a new way to generate, and sustain, electric power, and to understand its relationship with magnetic attraction, was never going to be seen as merely curious. Applications for electricity had been found or imagined since the 18th century, and everyone, Faraday included, would have assumed that any discoveries or workable theories in this field would be very useful indeed.

As I wrote some time ago in my post about the history of ‘pure’ science, it was during Faraday’s career that the claim that speculative scientific work should be supported by government because it would, someday, have practical pay-offs took root, even if it was only really acted on in the later 20th century. Such a claim was, undoubtedly, possible and meaningful in part because of the successes of Faraday’s career in linking his science with practical applications. The need for scientific workers and their funders to know likely or possible ‘impact’ or work being done is, over history, much more the norm than the notion that scientists can’t or shouldn’t consider the applications of their work.

Faraday was deeply embedded in a culture – in his nation, his time and his institution – that said science should be supported because it was useful. None of this is to say that he was not curious, that his curiosity did not drive him to new experiments, nor that he did not appreciate the beauty of the physical world. Faraday was, perhaps, most deeply motivated by his religious belief and his sense that he was making discoveries about God’s creation. However, he undoubtedly also believed that God had given man the ability to make sense of his creation not just in order to worship, but also to benefit humankind.

So, I must respectfully disagree with David on the matter of Faraday’s fiddling with wires and coils. No industrialist, business entrepreneur or Vice Chancellor, would have told him to stop, even if they would also like him to continue with a whole range of other activities and advising roles at the same time.