“Standing Up in the Milky Way”
Cosmos is a reboot of the 1980 Carl Sagan miniseries of the same name. It seeks to define our place in the universe from a scientific perspective by teaching history and using easy-to-understand metaphors to represent complex astrophysical concepts. It’s also an unofficial flagship for those of us who are offended that the very scientific backbone that made the United States a world leader has been under nonstop political attack for the past decade.
So does Cosmos carry the torch ahead? Well, to quote those flat-Earth maps of yore, “Here, There Be Dragons.” And by dragons I mean very selective factuality. Don’t get me wrong. All of Cosmos‘s science is in the right place. But its use of history in the first episode to frame a narrative of scientific endeavor is saddening and deceptive.
Cosmos does capture a lot of broad scientific information in a small amount of time. Neil DeGrasse Tyson is the most appreciated and popular scientist of his generation for a reason. The man has earned the right to relaunch what – for many of us – is the holy grail of science programming.
While it wastes the first 10 minutes by following Tyson’s “imagination ship” around and marveling at their special effects budget to the point of distraction (he talks about the planets, but all we get to see is the ship), things settle down for the show’s remainder. Tyson spends the first episode defining our place in both time and the universe.
Such a broad scope means that, if you’re even a semi-regular viewer of documentary programming on PBS, National Geographic, or Discovery, this is all old hat. It’s a good starter for those uninitiated into documentaries that are more specific in their focus, but I can’t help but feel Cosmos could deliver more complete information if it didn’t spend so much time appreciating its own flashy delivery.
THE HISTORY and THE PROBLEM
This is where Cosmos jumps the megalodon. This first episode involves Tyson telling the extended story of Giordano Bruno. It’s an affecting tale, told in graphic novel-styled animation, of a man who stood up for his scientific beliefs and was burned at the stake in 1600 by a scientifically backwards Catholic Church. There are some major problems with the account Cosmos chooses to tell, however.
Firstly, why does Cosmos choose to focus on Bruno, who it acknowledges did very little scientific work to prove his theories of heliocentrism (that the earth revolved around the sun) and multiple stars? There’s a reason he’s not historically as important as Nicolaus Copernicus, who laid out the first medieval European mathematical proof for heliocentrism five years before Bruno was even born. Similarly, why don’t we follow the Greeks Aristarchus or Seleucus, who suggested heliocentrism 1,800 years before Bruno’s time? Why not the Indian Aryabhata, who was still a millenium prior? Why not Copernicus’s proponent, Johann Widmannstetter? Why not Bruno’s more science-oriented contemporaries (Galileo, Kepler, Digges, Maestlin, Rothmann, or Stigliola)?
If it’s about Bruno’s proposal of an infinite universe of other stars and worlds, astronomer Nicholas Cusanus had proposed this a century before, based on the works in antiquity of Democritus and Lucretius. Cusanus was later named a cardinal in the Church, and later vicar general of the Papal States themselves.
Secondly, Cosmos portrays Bruno as a one-man missionary for modern science in an age of scholarly rejection and religious fervor. The Church was very close-minded about heliocentrism, even after Cusanus, because it threatened certain teachings that had helped it become the dominant political power of its time. It certainly persecuted a number of scientific minds of the era, but it also invited to Rome many scholars like Copernicus to discuss the potential ramifications of the theory.
Heliocentrism had gained far more widespread support than Cosmos poses, and Bruno wasn’t some poor, nomadic wretch. He enjoyed many patronages, chief among them that of the French King Henry III, who employed Bruno as a salaried lecturer and gave Bruno support and protection for most of his life. Bruno was also published and widely read. Cosmos dresses Bruno in rags and has him wander the wilds when, in fact, he was well-paid, protected, and garnered a great deal of interest.
Heliocentrism was still a minority opinion that would take another century to fully take hold, but the fight between Bruno and the Church had very little to do with the heliocentric theory of the era as Cosmos claims. It had more to do with his denial of divine creation and salvation.
I’m not exactly champing at the bit to defend the Catholic Church of this era. They did burn Bruno – and other innocents – at the stake, for godssakes. It is an undeniable, historical fact that in Bruno’s time, the Catholic Church imprisoned, tortured, and barbarically put to death its political opponents, dissenters, and followers of other religions. Just because they burned Bruno for one thing instead of another doesn’t suddenly make it acceptable…it just makes Cosmos‘s complete overhaul of the narrative inaccurate.
Thirdly, complicating Cosmos‘s Bruno narrative is the near-perpetual issue of the way we teach a Eurocentric view of scientific history. Aside from Aryabhata, why not discuss the advances Muslim astronomers of the 11th century made, or the way they fought for incremental scientific modernizations in their own theocracies? Why not acknowledge or discuss entire cultures composed of millions of people in Latin America whose religious leaders had mathematically proven and whose cultures had recognized the earth moved around the sun 3,000 years ago, when Europe was still stuck squarely in the Bronze Age? The Aztechs weren’t exactly being treated to tea and crumpets by the Church during Bruno’s time.
So why shoehorn Bruno into an inaccurate narrative, and why leave out so much of the complete story surrounding him? Well, none of those others were burned at the stake by the Church, and it really seems like Cosmos wants a scientific hero who was. Even as Cosmos claims, out of one side of its mouth, to attempt to join theology and science by grasping that God is greater than a narrow vision that separates science and religion into different branches, the Bruno story presents the very contentious (and generally academically unsupported) view that this man was a martyr for science, so we could stand up and say, “Our heroes have suffered and died for their beliefs, too.” They even create a fictional narrative for Bruno’s trip to England. In reality, Bruno went there for three years as a guest of the French ambassador and with the sponsorship of a king. In Cosmos, Bruno gives a single lecture at Oxford and is stoned – albeit with books – by his fellow scholars. This stoning – or booking – never happened, although Cosmos presents it as fact.
If they wanted to create a Jesus analogue for science, there are dozens of other nominees far more deserving and for whom lies would not have to be created. I mean, those Latin American cultures numbered in the millions and were being annihilated. It’s a deep shame that the first episode of Cosmos is so undercut by the very same disrespect for the importance of history that it’s trying to argue shouldn’t be shown for science.
SHOULD YOU WATCH?
It’s a shame to say this, but I can’t recommend it…not when there are much better options available. There’s too high a ratio of flash-to-substance in Cosmos. If it were just that, I’d still recommend it for Tyson himself (he’s enthusiastic and tells a touching story of when he first met Sagan), but the reframing and shoehorning of the Bruno story into propaganda is unforgivable and a step back in the popular fight for scientific understanding. Let me explain why:
I’m reminded of The Day After Tomorrow, that B-movie about global warming causing the Earth to freeze over. Wait, freeze? Exactly. Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe declared that everyone should see the Roland Emmerich mess because it would teach them about the real dangers of global warming. Now, when people went to see a movie about giant ice cyclones that had the scientific value of Sharktopus or Sharknado or Jersey Shore Shark Attack (a classic, I tell you), do you think they were convinced to take global warming more seriously, or less seriously the next time Democratic leaders talked about it?
I find the same danger in the way Cosmos handles history. Any amount of research reveals a huge amount of crucial information is excluded from Cosmos‘s version of Bruno’s story. If doubters or those on the fence realize they’ve been lied to, do you think they’ll take anything else of what Cosmos – or by extension the scientific community – has to say with more trust, or less? The kind of factual exclusions and outright historical lies Cosmos designs to make a point endanger the popular validity of what we have to say about astronomy, evolution, and the world we live in at a time when science is unduly under attack in this country.
Carl Sagan was not the biggest fan of organized religion. In his Cosmos, he told an allegorical story about a culture that valued scientific pursuits above all others, and he did so in a poetic reverie that made viewers realize he was deeply spiritual and inspired by his own personal idea of divinity. That demanded respect. In Tyson’s Cosmos, he tells an allegorical story about an historical rebel freed from the very necessity of detail and fact that Tyson – and Bruno, for that matter – championed. Sagan fought a culture war through inclusion and knowledge. I don’t know whether to blame it on Tyson, the producers, the writers, the animators – I don’t know who, but Tyson’s the frontman, and his Cosmos fights a culture war through divisiveness and misinformation. This is not the kind of documentary a PBS baby like me was raised to value.
If the scientific community and its supporters demand that our opponents base their arguments in evidence, then we damn well better do the same. It’s not worth it to sacrifice history in the name of science. History and science are two scholarly pursuits that are supposed to be on the same side.
Beyond the Wormhole with Morgan Freeman (or Through the Wormhole) on the Science Channel is the most complete documentary show about the same concepts Cosmos covers. Each episode interviews scientific experts about a specific topic – black holes, the search for alien life, quantum mechanics, the multiverse, and multiple episodes about time. The information is very thorough yet given in a tremendously accessible way.
How the Universe Works on Discovery Channel is a close runner-up and pegs itself as a user’s guide to the universe. It describes complex concepts through practical explanations, visual metaphors, and interviews.
Wonders of the Solar System was a 2010 BBC show explaining the natural wonders in our solar system by mirroring them against extreme geological locations on Earth. The Universe on the History Channel is a fairly complete view of the discoveries we’ve made in astronomy. Deadliest Space Weather on the Weather Channel has a profoundly ridiculous title, but goes into depth on the science behind specific weather phenomenon on other planets and moons in our solar system, something which is typically discussed only in passing on other programs.