Monday, March 10, 2014

The Return of Cosmos

The brain is like a muscle. When it is in use we feel very good. Understanding is joyous. ~ Carl Sagan

I don't mind saying that I had a lot of concerns when I heard that Fox was going to show a reboot of Cosmos. I had plenty of faith in Neil Degrasse Tyson to do a good job, but having seen the work of Seth Macfarlane, and seen the previews featuring lots of glitz and explosions, I was worried that this was just going to be a caricature of Carl Sagan's brilliant series.

The good news is that Dr. Tyson is as good as I would have hoped, the show was not filled with explosions, and it is a fine homage to Sagan's memory. Given the propensity of so-called non-fiction television (History, Discovery, and Science) to show phony-baloney reality nonsense, alien “investigations”, and other dross, this show is a breath of fresh air.

That being said, I can see there is going to be one tiresome aspect to the show: The cartoons. If future animations are as overwrought as the business dedicated to Giordano Bruno (evidently voiced by Mr. Macfarlane), the only thing we can hope is that they will be brief.

What, you might say, was wrong with it, aside from the rather poor animation technique? Well, mostly, it was a misrepresentation of the whole Bruno story. To be fair, like the Galileo inquisition, the story is often told in an abbreviated fashion, but I had higher hopes for Cosmos.

I have written before about what I called the Galileo Caper. I wont' go through the whole thing again (you can follow the link), but the basic deal is that Galileo was actually in good graces with the Church over his amazing discoveries that seemed to confirm the Copernican system. As I explained, the Church wasn't against new knowledge, it just wanted to be sure it could fold that knowledge into the belief system in a way that didn't contradict doctrine. That is not to imply that the Pope and friends were flaming liberals, because they certainly could suppress anything they wanted to. But, as was seen with the publication of Galileo's Starry Messenger, they recognized that observational evidence was fact and couldn't be hidden forever.

Galileo's mistake was in his later attempt to write a dialog about the Copernican system. The problem was that the view of the Church was put in the mouth of a character called Simplicio, which means basically “simpleton”. Essentially, Galileo was putting the words of the pope into the mouth of Mortimer Snerd. This did not go over well with the Vatican.

In the case of Bruno, he most certainly was burned at the stake as a heretic. But, it wasn't just his views on the makeup of the universe that got him into hot water. Basically, his argued against pretty much all of Catholic doctrine.

  • He argued against the divinity of Jesus.
  • He didn't accept the virgin birth.
  • He didn't believe in transubstantiation or other elements of the Mass.
  • He believed in reincarnation.

Oh, and he was accused of practicing magic and divination.

Aside from that (and a few other things) he was a solid Christian.

Now, the inquisitors were not a nice group and cooked a lot of people for less, but Bruno pushed the envelope as far as he could and was still given the chance to recant. When Galileo got that chance a few ears later, he took it and lived a relatively comfortably home imprisonment. Bruno could have avoided the stake.

None of this is to excuse the Inquisitions, the hindering of the spread of knowledge, and the general Aristotelian hangup of the Church. As it has turned out, fundamentalist Protestants have been even more resistant to scientific advance, as seen in the modern day attempts to force the teaching of creationism in public schools.

Unfortunately, the animation in Cosmos serves only to be a heavy-handed condemnation of religion.

Instead of the melodramatic animation, they could have simply said that for his depiction of the universe and other heretical statements, Bruno was condemned by the Inquisition.

Having got that off my chest, I can say that I will definitely be watching the series because it still is a potential beacon of knowledge is what was once called the vast wasteland of television. After all, as Carl Sagan once said:

“Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.”