Cross-posted from The H Word blog.
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.