Bruno was not scientific

Worth repeating!

The Renaissance Mathematicus

Jason Rosenhouse at EvolutionBlog has been reading Ronald Number’s Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths About Science and Religion and is unhappy about the following statement made by Numbers

No scientist, to our knowledge, ever lost his life because of his scientific views, though, … the Italian Inquisition did incinerate the sixteenth century Copernican Giordano Bruno for his heretical theological notions. (Emphasis in original)

Jason thinks that this claim is evasive because as he says:

It is absurd to pretend that Bruno’s theological views can be treated as completely separate from his scientific views. That the stated reasons for Bruno’s execution involved his heretical theology does not mean that he was not also killed because of his scientific views. One suspects that for Bruno, as for so many modern thinkers, his science and theology complemented each other, to the point where it is difficult to say which aspect of…

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Good or Bad Bruno?

Giordano Bruno, who was embroiled in a long trial which would end with him being burned at the stake in 1600, is sometimes referred to as “a martyr for science”. But he was not.

It is often thought that Bruno was burned because of his support for the Copernican model. The truth is that he really was a heretic, he was burned for his religious beliefs, and it was just unfortunate that the Copernican model got tangled up in the whole business.

The principal reason that Bruno, who was born in 1548, came into conflict with the Church was because he was a follower of a movement known as Hermetism. This cult based its beliefs on their equivalent of holy scripture, documents which were thought in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries to have originated in Egypt at the time of Moses, and were linked with the teaching of the Egyptian god Thoth (the god of learning). Hermes was the Greek equivalent of Thoth (hence Hermetism), and to followers of the cult he was Hermes Trismegistus, or Hermes the Thrice Great. The Sun, of course, was also a god to the Egyptians, and there have been suggestions that Copernicus himself may have been influenced by Hermetism in putting the Sun at the centre of the Universe, although there is no strong evidence for this.

This is no place to go into the details of Hermetism (especially since the documents on which it was based later turned out not to originate from Ancient Egypt), but to fifteenth century believers the documents were interpreted as, among other things, predicting the birth of Christ. In the 1460s, copies of the material on which Hermetism was based were brought to Italy from Macedonia, and stirred great interest for well over a century, until it was established (in 1614) that they had been written long after the start of the Christian era, and so their “prophecies” were produced very much with the benefit of hindsight.

The Catholic Church of the late sixteenth century was able to tolerate ancient texts that predicted the birth of Jesus, and such thoroughly respectable Catholics as Philip II of Spain (who reigned from 1556 to 1598, married England’s Queen Mary, and was a staunch opponent of Protestantism) subscribed to these beliefs (as, incidentally, did John Dee, Thomas Digges’s guardian). But Bruno took the extreme view that the old Egyptian religion was the true faith, and that the Catholic Church should find a way of returning to those old ways. This, needless to say, did not go down too well in Rome, and after a chequered career wandering around Europe (including a spell in England from 1583 to 1585) and stirring up trouble (he joined the Dominicans in 1565 but was expelled from the order in 1576, and while in England he made so many enemies he had to take refuge in the French Embassy) he made the mistake of visiting Venice in 1591, where he was arrested and handed over to the Inquisition. After a long imprisonment and trial, it seems that Bruno was finally condemned on the specific charges of Arianism (the belief that Christ had been created by God, and was not God incarnate) and carrying out occult magical practices. We cannot be absolutely sure, because the records of the trial have been lost; but rather than being a martyr for science, as he is occasionally represented, Bruno was actually a martyr for magic.

Although his fate may seem harsh by modern standards, like many martyrs Bruno to some extent brought it on himself, since he was given every opportunity to recant (one reason why he was held for so long before being condemned). There is no evidence that his support for Copernicanism featured in the trial at all, but it is clear that Bruno was a keen supporter of the idea of a Sun-centred Universe (because it fitted with the Egyptian view of the world), and that he also enthusiastically espoused Thomas Digges’s idea that the Universe is filled with an infinite array of stars, each one like the Sun, and argued that there must be life elsewhere in the Universe. Because Bruno’s ideas made such a splash at the time, and because he was condemned by the Church, all these ideas got tarred with the same brush. Moving with its customary slowness, it still took the Church until 1616 to place De Revolutionibus on the Index of banned books (and until 1835 to take it off the Index again!). But after 1600 Copernicanism was distinctly frowned upon by the Church, and the fact that Bruno was a Copernican and had been burned as a heretic was hardly encouraging for anyone, like Galileo, who lived in Italy in the early 1600s and was interested in how the world worked. If it hadn’t been for Bruno, Copernicanism might never have received such adverse attention from the authorities, Galileo might not have been persecuted, and scientific progress in Italy might have proceeded more smoothly.

Adapted from my book Science: A History.


My review of

Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs

Lisa Randall

Bodley Head

Almost as published in Literary Review


This book comes garlanded with tributes, headed by the claim “Only Lisa Randall can take us on such a thrilling scientific journey.” I beg to differ. Off the top of my head, I can think of half a dozen science writers who could do a better job of describing this particular scientific story (and some of them have covered almost all of the material presented here). The clue is in the words “science writers”. Randall fits into as particular niche which has recently become over-full. She is a world-renowned scientist, in her case based at Harvard University, and wrote a splendid book about her own area of expertise, Warped Passages. So far, so good. But since then, like others in a similar situation, she has strayed, or been encouraged to stray, authorially, into territory outside her own specialist area, territory that is already better covered by writers who understand science but, at least as importantly, are gifted communicators. George Musser, in her homeland, and Brian Clegg, on this side of the pond, are two that spring to mind.

If it were not for her academic status, Randall’s latest book would pass by as just another rather humdrum account of the origin and evolution of the Universe (and probably I would not be reviewing it). Its only claim to be special is a rather desperate one – the tenuous titular link between dark matter and the fate of the dinosaurs, which is no more than a highly speculative variation on an idea that has been around for decades.

That idea is that as the Solar System bobs up and down on its route around the Galaxy, and repeatedly crosses the disc of the Milky Way like the needle of a sewing machine bobbing up and down through a piece of cloth, gravitational forces shake loose comets from the region known as the Oort Cloud, far beyond the orbit of Pluto. Some of these comets fall inward towards the Sun, where they may collide with the Earth, with devastating consequences. The idea is based on some rather dodgy statistics linking alleged periodicities in so–called mass extinctions of life on Earth (including the death of the dinosaurs some 65 million years ago) with the periodicities associated with the bobbing movement of the Sun in its orbit around the Milky Way. The statistics are made no less dodgy by Randall’s wild suggestion (even Randall herself calls it “a speculative scenario”) that a layer of dark matter within the galactic disc, like the meat in a hamburger, is what provides the gravitational tug that shakes the comets loose.

This does, of course, provide an ideal opportunity to discuss the nature of dark matter, and its role in the evolution of the Universe. But any scientifically aware person must by now be familiar with the idea that the kind of stuff we are made of (in essence, atoms) makes up only a small proportion of the matter in the Universe, so that stars and galaxies are embedded in a sea of invisible dark matter, which interacts with our kind of stuff only through gravity. Anyone who has an interest in cosmology also knows about dark energy, and the discoveries about the cosmic background radiation recently made by satellites such as NASA’s WMAP and ESA’s Planck. Randall covers all this, and a discussion of the Solar System and our place in it, in workmanlike fashion. But workmanlike really isn’t good enough, when the stories have been covered so often, and so well, already. I quite like the personal vignettes, such as Randall’s description of meteor watching in the Rocky Mountains. But these ought to be the icing on the cake, not the highlights, of a book like this. Even the discussion of dark matter is over-familiar, except for the minor (and unconvincing) twist in the tail.

A bit less than the last quarter of the book actually addresses the topic of the title (I’m being generous; arguably less than half that) and a large chunk of this is taken up with telling us, with commendable honesty, about all the uncertainties in the claim. Dinosaurs sell books (as do cats), and I don’t blame Randall for trying to sex up her subject. But all the new and interesting (though probably wrong) stuff here could have comfortably been encapsulated in an article for Scientific American. Who might benefit from the book? A complete newcomer, maybe the proverbial teenager who as yet knows nothing about the Universe and the place of the Earth in space. Who will be disappointed by it? Anyone interested in dinosaurs. And what should the book have been called? The Speed of Dark, as any Terry Pratchett fan could tell you.

It would not be fair to say that I am disappointed by the book, because I had low expectations. But it is fair to say that those expectations have been fulfilled. The real disappointment is that if she had not been busy writing this very average account of the Universe, Randall could have been concentrating on her research, which really is thrilling. There is an expression about cobblers and lasts which is apposite.