Part II: Where Neil Tyson’s Cosmos Went Wrong


Screen Shot 2014-03-15 at 10.54.47 PMIt has inspired several columns about Bruno, and the way his story was told in this new edition of Cosmos. It was biases. Just reading Steven Soter’s defense of the why they used his story in the new series is interesting. It also points out the reason why Carl Sagan was so superior to anyone else who attempted what he did, and why he succeeded. Carl Sagan was a Renaissance man. He was just as interested in history, religion, art, literature, and music as he was astronomy.

The problem with Tyson is that he is no Carl Sagan and never will be. He lacks the charm of Sagan, who was tolerant, to a point, of people and their foibles. He has no tolerance for any opinion other than his own. It’s hard to see him doing a three hour panel with the likes of a Ray Bradbury, Gene Roddenberry, and Carl Sagan and not spew intolerance because Bradbury and Roddenberry were involved in science fiction. There were several other science giants on the panel – maybe an astronaut or two. (I have a tape of it somewhere).

I must admit that I am such a fan of Carl Sagan that I feel no one can replace him. This probably gives me an automatic bias against Tyson. I will admit it. I am trying not to let my bias get in the way of a good time, and what I hope will turn out to be an excellent series. I truly hope it will be. We need good science.

My argument with Tyson is not about religion. He gets to believe what he wants, and I get to believe what I want. He’s right about conservatives and the religious right, who are basically ignorant wretches, trying to control what goes on in schools. Frankly, unless it is a comparative religion class, I don’t want religion even mentioned in school. I don’t want prayer in school. That is the job of a child’s parents and family, not the community. Tyson is 100% correct about that.

Science always has been and always will be ‘cherry picked’, and not just by the religious. You’ll get more ‘cherry picking’ of science via industry, than religion. The beauty of science is that, once certain constants are dealt with, there’s a heck of a lot of speculation, and infinite ways to view constants. It is not static. It is changeable. There’s nothing worse than a very good scientific mind going to waste because it is so dogmatic that the infinite possibilities of science are missed.

And, for the record, I am a believing Christian. I believe the planet is around 4.5 billion years old (at last count?), evolution makes a heck of a lot of sense, and that we are dealing with climate change, but I have a very difficult time swallowing the whole global warming scam which is made up of scientists cherry-picking facts to prove their point, without considering alternative theories. And yes, the climate change we are facing is quite serious. I find troglodyte creationists to be just that – cave dwellers who give Christians a very bad name.

That’s why I love science! It is like a good game of baseball, where seasoned fans can argue a lifetime over who was better, Williams (of course he was) or DiMaggio. You can use stats and numbers to prove anything, If Tyson was as intellectually honest as Sagan, he would admit it.

My biggest complaint about the new Cosmos is the cartoons. I don’t like them. They detract from what could be an exquisite production. They are very poorly done, even if the executive producer is a hot-shot cartoonist. Sorry. They are cheesy, counter-productive, and detracts from what should be a magnificent program. I wanted so much to just sit down and watch the program. The cartoons ruined it for me.

The original Cosmos was about a sense of wonder, of science so exciting it was almost magical. The music was perfect – and there were no cheesy cartoons. I’m disappointed. There is a very good reason why Tyson chose to use Giordano Bruno in the first episode. It was NOT about science and was a shot across the bow of Christianity, thumbing his nose at the church. The Giordano Bruno Foundation was created by Herbert Steffen in 2004. It is critical of religion which harms cultural evolution. They chose the wrong martyr. Even Slate picks up on the problem.

The sad truth is that Giordano Bruno was, at best, a danger to himself. Today, he would be tolerated because he was ‘quirky’. In the turbo-charged world of the Reformation, he was a disaster waiting to happen. This is where I get ticked with people like Tyson for ‘cherry-picking’ their historical facts. Bruno was a disaster waiting to happen. If he did not meet his end in Italy, he could just as easily have been executed for his beliefs by the Calvinists, or even in England. In a different era, he might have managed to get away with what he did. BUT – his biggest mistake was when he was born. Issac Newton was something of a religious nut. But, he came along after the Reformation. He was part of the Age of Reason. If he were of Bruno’s age, he might have met the same fate.

What Tyson ignores is the fact that Bruno wore out his welcome, no matter where he went. What triggered the one of the more revealing episodes of his tragic life was the fact that he was accused of plagiarizing – stealing – a scientific instrument. Fabrizio Mordente, a real scientist, was furious with him. His wrath was so great, than in 1885, Bruno basically lost any hope of finding support in Italy. He insulted Tycho Brahe. In 1578 Italian scientist Giovanni Mocenigo, denounced him to the Inquisition.

“…Bruno made the fatal move of returning to Italy. At the time such a move did not seem to be too much of a risk: Venice was by far the most liberal of the Italian states; the European tension had been temporarily eased after the death of the intransigent pope Sixtus V in 1590; the Protestant Henry of Bourbon was now on the throne of France, and a religious pacification seemed to be imminent. Furthermore, Bruno was still looking for an academic platform from which to expound his theories, and he must have known that the chair of mathematics at the University of Padua was then vacant. Indeed, he went almost immediately to Padua and, during the late summer of 1591, started a private course of lectures for German students and composed the Praelectiones geometricae (“Lectures on Geometry”) and Ars deformationum (“Art of Deformation”). At the beginning of the winter, when it appeared that he was not going to receive the chair (it was offered to Galileo in 1592), he returned to Venice, as the guest of Mocenigo, and took part in the discussions of progressive Venetian aristocrats who, like Bruno, favoured philosophical investigation irrespective of its theological implications. Bruno’s liberty came to an end when Mocenigo—disappointed by his private lessons from Bruno on the art of memory and resentful of Bruno’s intention to go back to Frankfurt to have a new work published—denounced him to the Venetian Inquisition in May 1592 for his heretical theories….”

Bruno’s condemnation was as much political as it was religious. When he angered Mocenigo, he finally insulted the wrong person. The Mocenigo family was one of the most powerful in Italy at the time. It is amazing he managed to survive as long as he did. Anyone who came into contact with him eventually either kicked him out of their lives or denounced him. He was a difficult person, at best. I suspect he was seriously disturbed, narcissistic, and almost delusional. This combination, was lethal during the era in which he lived.

There is one other little thing Tyson ignored with his cherry-picking of history. He couldn’t even get along in the world of Rudolph II, who was one of the most free-thinking leaders of Europe at the time. This was the world of Kepler and Brahe, yet Bruno couldn’t cut it.

As much as Neil Tyson dislikes the religious right ‘cherry-picking’ science, I dislike skeptics ‘cherry-picking’ history. I also dislike skeptics. If you were to approach someone like Tyson about people like Barry Fell, if he knew who the man was, he would laugh. He would do the same with Graham Hancock or even Loren Coleman. I suspect he makes fun of cryptozoology, and would not even give Dr. Jeff Meldrum the time of day.

What bothers me most with Tyson is his dogmatic view of science.  In his introduction (or was it the closing) of the first episode of Cosmos, he touched on the pure magic of science.  In its purest form, science should almost be magic.  It should inspire awe, fear, and excitement.   As a little kid, one of my first science books – that I could read – was a book about the moon.  I remember taking it outside the old house (as opposed to the one the parents built a few years later) and watching the moon rise up over the treeline.  My mother let me borrow her binoculars.  I could see a crater on the surface of the moon. And – that’s where my love affair with science began.

I started collecting rocks.  I still collect rocks.  The difference is now I have really annoyingly large museum specimens that take a front-end loader to move.  My coffee table is large enough and sturdy enough for me to have several magnificent mineral specimens sitting there, with books on science and baseball.  I have my laminated piece of Skylab on the table, with them. On my living room walls are 3 signed/numbered prints by Alan Bean.  I have my space art hanging.  Going down the stairs, to my bedroom hang signed photos by all the Mercury astronauts, numerous Apollo astronauts, and the original Star Trek promo photos.

I grew up in a very faith-oriented family.  Religion was a spectator sport for my father’s family.  They lived it.  One of the reasons I am able to so critique what is going on within the Christian community is because I grew up studying theology and the Bible.   But – I also grew up studying science and history.  The great tragedy today is the fact that for some odd reason the far right is being led and controlled by pathetic, insignificant little people who so doubt what they believe that they must control what everyone else believes.  On the left, there are equally pathetic little men and women who so detest religion that they must attempt to control what people think and believe.

Science is about inspiring open minds.  It’s too bad that Neil Tyson, who is a worthy successor of Carl Sagan, doesn’t have his open mind.