A few days ago I sat down with my son and watched the premiere episode of Cosmos: A Space-Time Odyssey, the sequel/followup/re-imagining of the pivotal 1980 miniseries created and hosted by the late Dr. Carl Sagan. I had loved the original miniseries as a child, mostly because it was overstuffed with scientific goodness that still spoke to the common viewer.
This new version filled me with a bit of dread, however, since 1) it was being produced by Seth MacFarlane, the man behind Family Guy and American Dad, and 2) it was being presented on FOX. I'm not sure what I expected, but I suppose that it would have involved farting galaxies or a wise-cracking animated sidekick to its host Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson
I am pleased to report that I was wrong (so far). The first episode was a marvel; I was transported back to the time I watched its predecessor on a 13 inch television in my parents' house in the mountains of North Carolina. My son was also pulled in by the show. Afterwards I gave him an informal quiz and was pleased to note that he had retained most of what Dr. Tyson had presented on the show, including the cosmic address of the Earth.
To my surprise, the show was a learning experience for me as well. Though I knew many of the facts presented, I was hit with a segment that covered an important moment in history that I had not learned about previously. It was the story of Giordano Bruno, a 16th century monk who challenged the orthodoxy of the Catholic church with his views of cosmology.
Up into the late 1500's, the prevailing (Ptolemaic) view of the universe was terracentric, meaning that the Earth was at the base of the universe and the sun, moon and planets all revolved around it. There were complex models built that demonstrated the "celestial spheres" which each of these bodies inhabited. As far as they were concerned, the stars were fixed points at the outermost sphere of the universe.
In 1543, however, Nicholas Copernicus created the idea of heliocentrism; in his model, the sun was the center of the universe, and Earth was just one of the planets that revolved around it. It was slow to adoption, even within the scientific community. Its simple and more elegant view of the universe began to win over converts who expanded upon his ideas, however, including Tycho Brahe, Thomas Digges and (of course) Bruno.
The Italian monk expanded upon the Copernican model with a thought experiment: what lay beyond the edge of the universe? Bruno approached the problem as that of looking at a wall that would either be the be-all end-all of the cosmos, or merely a stopping point to the next "wall". Bruno, following in the work of Nicholas of Cusa, surmised that there was no end to the universe, just as there was no end to God. Likewise he proposed that the planets were bodies just like the Earth, and that the stars were mobile bodies like the Sun, with planets (and perhaps life) of their own.
When he presented his ideas to the Church, he was censured, stripped of his position as a monk, and eventually imprisoned on charges of heresy. At his trial, Bruno was questioned about his theory and its conflicts with church doctrine. Bruno replied:
"Your God is too small."implying that their manner of thinking was too limited by dogma to consider the possibility of an infinite universe, one that might even have multiple worlds with their own distinctive life forms. Bruno was sentenced to death at the stake, but as he was condemned, Bruno pointed at the inquisitor and declared
"Maiori forsan cum timore sententiam in me fertis quam ego accipiam (Perhaps you pronounce this sentence against me with greater fear than I receive it)"He was eventually burned for his "sins", and most of his books and papers were destroyed, but his legacy remained. Ten years after his death, on January 7 1610, Galileo Galilei trained a telescope on Jupiter and discovered that it had three (later four) small bodies in orbit around it. The discovery of these moons led to further telescopic explorations that served to prove Bruno's assertions correct.
So what does this have to do with politics? Plenty. It seems impossible to believe, but even with the technological advances that have been made in the 34 years since the original Cosmos aired, in some ways we have fallen backwards. The curiosity to explore the universe outside our world has been stunted by lack of funding and an apathetic and incurious public. A recent survey by the National Science Foundation reveals that one in four Americans believes the Earth is the center of the Solar System. Less than half believed that man evolved from prior species. Debates on creationism vs evolution are still gathering major headlines in this country. A leading candidate for the US Senate in Georgia (and current ranking member of the House Science Committee) has even declared evolution and the Big Bang theory "lies straight from the pit of Hell".
All of these facts have an impact on public policy, whether it's in the discussion over funding for scientific studies or even the debate over the Affordable Care Act. The outright dismissal of provable fact because it conflicts with one's personal beliefs or belief system is a dangerous approach to life. At a time when American students are falling behind other nations in education (particularly in science), it does not help matters when people proudly displace their ignorance and disdain of scientific discoveries.
As my son and I walked together and talked over the episode of Cosmos we had seen, I found myself looking at him and considering the state of science in the US. He has always been an exceptional child, both in my own personal opinion and in evaluations by our local school district. While the word can have positive connotations, it can also be used to denote someone who is alone (or nearly so) in matters of opinion or deduction. Sometimes I wonder, or even outright fear, that as he grows up my budding science nerd of a boy may end up being an exceptional man for all the wrong reasons.
Just so you know, our cosmic address is:
The Solar System
The Milky Way
The Local Group
The Virgo Supercluster
The (known) Universe
You're gonna need extra postage.
NOTE: This diary also appears on the Four Freedoms blog (link at right).