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What 'Cosmos' Got Wrong About Giordano Bruno, the Heretic Scientist

He was hailed as a bonafide science martyr in last night's Cosmos premiere. Not so fast, Tyson.
Rome's memorial statue of Bruno. Image: Jastrow

Last night, Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey premiered in 181 countries and 45 languages, complete with an introduction from President Obama. That would be an epic launch for any show, but it is particularly impressive for an educational program, and speaks volumes about the continued respect and interest in Carl Sagan's 1980 PBS series.

The reboot paid tribute to its progenitor with a tear-jerking segment about Sagan's life and career (spoiler alert: dude was the best). But creators Neil deGrasse Tyson, Seth MacFarlane, and Ann Druyan also showed their respect by emulating many of the tropes and flourishes of the PBS series, like the visualization of a Cosmic Calendar and the use of a historical figure to support the larger themes of the episode. In the original pilot, Sagan showcased Hypatia of Alexandria as an example of a classic science martyr. In the reboot, Giordiano Bruno, the famed Italian cosmologist executed for heresy, was cast for that role.


As a longtime Giordano Bruno fangirl, I had trepidations when I heard that his excruciating life story would be put front-and-center of the pilot. Though he is one of the most fascinating thinkers of his time (and that's a seriously competitive category), his story is often mangled by the impulse to try to pin it neatly into a parable. But there is only one consistent thing about Bruno: the more you try to peg him down, the more he resists categorization.

Thankfully, the reboot 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). They even hit upon what is fundamentally extraordinary about Bruno: that he managed to divine the universe's plurality with no hard evidence. The guy not only figured out that stars are distant suns from pure intuition, he staked his life on it (bad pun, I know). By including these subtleties, the new pilot was far more historically accurate than Sagan's segment on Hypatia, which oversimplifies her life almost to the point of facepalming.

Still, you'd need a whole series to really flesh out Bruno's weirdness, so we're going to take a crack at filling in two big gaps that Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey missed. The first is his legitimacy as a science martyr, an archetype he is commonly strong-armed into. Last night's episode not only reinforced that reputation, but relished in it, playing up the violent tensions between the Catholic Church and Renaissance scientists.


But the truth is that Bruno's scientific theories weren't what got him killed. Sure, his refusal to recant his belief in a plurality of worlds contributed to his sentence. But it's important to note that the Catholic Church didn't even have an official position on the heliocentric universe in 1600, and support for it was not considered heresy during Bruno's trial.

On top of that, his support for Copernican cosmology was the least heretical position he propagated. His opinions on theology were far more pyrotechnic. For example, Bruno had the balls to suggest that Satan was destined to be saved and redeemed by God. He didn't think Jesus was the son of God, but rather "an unusually skilled magician." He even publicly disputed Mary's virginity. The Church could let astronomical theories slide, but calling the Mother of God out on her sex life? There's no doubt that these were the ideas that landed Bruno on the stake.

The second liberty last night's episode took was animating Bruno like some well-mannered guy who just wanted people to revel in the immensity of Creation. The cartoon depiction of him was manga-level emotive, with soulful eyes and an earnest body language. That could not be farther from the truth.

Bruno was a walking, talking shit storm, with a black belt in burning bridges. He constantly ranted about how idiotic his fellow friars were, calling them asses and lamenting their adherence to Catholic doctrine.


For years, he'd set up shop in some city, find new patrons, and promptly make enemies of them with his combative sarcasm and relentless arguments. Even fellow Copernican pioneers Galileo and Kepler had no love for Bruno. In fact, in light of his difficult personality, it's kind of a mystery that he survived as long as he did.

Far from the demure explorer portrayed in Cosmos, Bruno was an iconoclast in temperament as well as in philosophy. But to the episode's credit, they nailed his courageous defiance in the face of execution. When he received his death sentence, he genuinely did have the guts to tell the Inquisition: "Perhaps your fear in passing judgment on me is greater than mine in receiving it."

Let that dig sink in, because it is textbook Bruno. The man may have been cantankerous and borderline nuts, but a coward he was not. His scathing response was validated by the Inquisition's choice to render him speechless before his execution. His jaw was locked down with an iron gag, and his tongue and palate were pierced with iron spikes. Today a domineering statue of him stands in the Campo dei Fiori, where he was burned to death (the Vatican has sort of apologized for the execution, but tellingly maintains that Bruno was a heretic).

All things considered, Cosmos provided a decent—if incomplete—portrayal of the great Italian freethinker, and it's refreshing to see his story get mainstream treatment in the first place. But we encourage you to barrel headlong into Bruno's spectacularly messy life for yourself. From his superhuman memory, which makes Sherlock Holmes'' "mind palace" look like a mind shack, to his bizarre comedic plays, Bruno's biography dovetails with his lifelong obsessions. Examining his story invariably leads to a queasy feeling of infinite regress.