Like many people who grew up in the early 1980’s I remember being enthralled with Carl Sagan’s original Cosmos. I have always loved science since I was a child, especially astronomy and I was captivated by Cosmos’s visual wonders as Dr. Sagan flew across time and space in his Ship of the Imagination. Even the poetic, unearthly score by Vangelis added to its mystery. I was not alone and even today, 34 years later, Carl Sagan’s overly emphasized, “Billions and Billions” is part of our collective lexicon.
So, it was with great anticipation that I watched reboot of Cosmos produced by Ann Druyan (Carl Sagan’s widow) and Seth MacFarlane (yes, the producer of Family Guy) and hosted by Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson. The new Cosmos is a badly needed nostalgic respite from today’s “popular” science shows that put more emphasis on entertainment then on the diligent application of the scientific method. Don’t believe me? Then just surf through the latest offerings from Discover Channel, Learning Channel, History Channel, Animal Planet (Finding Bigfoot anyone??)… Pseudo-science reigns supreme on cable TV.
For the most part, episode one did not disappoint. Dr. Tyson, with much gravitas, explored our place in the universe from the beginnings of our solar system right up to the horizon of our visible known universe. Dr. Tyson wrapped up the episode with a moving tribute to Carl Sagan and how he inspired him with a love of science during a visit to Cornell as a young man. The show was visually stunning and I am planning to continue through all 13 episodes.
However, certain aspects of Cosmos also left me troubled and disappointed. As Dr. Tyson stated at the helm of the Ship of the Imagination at the edge of the visible universe: “many of us believe that our universe is contained within a multiverse.”
You may have heard about the Multiverse, a term which has become a fashionable buzzword in cosmology. What is the Multiverse you ask? The Multiverse is a theoretical construct that surrounds our own universe. The Multiverse is infinite in size with no beginning or end in time. Our universe, according to the Multiverse theory, is just one of an infinite number of universes floating within the Multiverse. What Dr. Tyson failed to mention though is that the Multiverse theory is not supported by any scientific evidence. In fact, there is there is no scientific experiment, even in theory, which could prove or disprove the existence of the Multiverse.
Interestingly, Multiverse cosmology is also independent of any experimentally verified theory of physics. In other words, it makes no difference to the validity of theories like General Relativity, Special Relativity, or Quantum Mechanics whether or not you assume the truth or falsehood of the existence of the Multiverse. The Multiverse is transcendent, self-sustaining, infinite in time and space and has the power to create whole universes to include ours. Listen to that again…transcendent, self-sustaining, infinite and creative power… Sound familiar? It should since these are attributes that some people use to describe God. The Multiverse Cosmology straddles right up against the line between Physics, Metaphysics and Philosophy. I don’t know if we live in a Multiverse but for many scientists, belief in it, dare I say it, is a matter of faith.
So why is the Multiverse important to many modern physicists, scientists, and cosmologists? Because it answers a nagging question first raised by the Big Bang: What came before the Big Bang and what caused it? As I stated in an earlier post, it was Belgian Physicist and Catholic Priest Fr. Georges Lemaître that first proposed what is now known as the Big bang Theory in the early 20th Century.
Father Lemaître’s theory met significant resistance at first because of the troubling implications of a universe that had definitive beginning instead of the comfort of a “Steady State Universe.” The Multiverse Cosmology provides a way around this dilemma by surrounding the Big Bang with a steady state, infinite Multiverse. In effect, Multiverse Cosmology is the “god in the gaps” theory for what happened before the Big Bang.
Speaking of Fr. Lemaître, he didn’t even rate a mention as Dr. Tyson was observing the Big Bang from the safety of his Ship of the Imagination. Not a word… But that doesn’t mean that faith was ignored.
Almost a full third of episode 1 of Cosmos was dedicated to the “martyrdom” (Dr. Tyson’s words) of Giordano Bruno, a 16th Century monk who came to believe that the universe was infinite but was burned at the stake by secular authorities after being convicted by the Italian Holy Office (Inquisition). The animated Bruno sequence is brilliantly drawn with sharp, eye catching colors as supervised by Seth MacFarlane.
According to Dr. Tyson and Cosmos, Bruno was a nature loving friar whose belief in an infinite universe with infinite worlds proclaimed the glory of God. However, that enemy of reason and free thinking, the Roman Catholic Church, condemned Bruno for not only the heresy of denying the divinity of Christ but also for his belief in an infinite universe and for the belief in a Copernican solar system in which the Earth goes around the sun. Dr. Tyson uses the words like “Thought Police” and “Torture” when describing Catholic Church officials and in case you missed the point Seth MacFarlane’s animated Roman Catholic Cardinals are dark, sinister figures hiding in shadows.
The truth of the sad story of Giordano Bruno is just a bit more complex then Cosmos would have us believe. For one, we do not know exactly what Bruno was convicted of since the original records were lost. However, we are certain it wasn’t for his scientific views of the solar system. In Bruno’s time, the Copernican view of the solar system was not condemned by the Catholic Church. Dr. Tyson also fails to mention that Bruno also believed in a mish-mash of beliefs ranging from reincarnation, divination, magic and that Demons caused disease. Bruno also dismissed scientific methods as espoused by nascent scientists like Nicholas Copernicus. Bruno’s near contemporaries like Galileo and Kepler had no use for him as a scientist or philosopher. In short, Cosmos’ focus on Bruno as a Martyr of Science is a bad history of a bad theologian and an even worse scientist.
As readers of my blog will understand, I find all of this contemporary antagonism between some scientists and faith unnecessary and sad. Even more so, Dr. Tyson’s own beliefs in the incompatibility between Philosophical Truth, Religious Truth and Scientific Truth would have been incomprehensible to great scientists he admires like Isaac Newton, Nicolas Copernicus,Galileo Galilei, and Johannes Kepler. Even more unfortunate is this all seems as one sided as it is unnecessary. Search as I may, I cannot find one contemporary Catholic leader attacking science as an enemy of faith.
Ann Druyan, Seth MacFarlane and Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson deserve all the credit for putting this show together. Science needs Cosmos and to be frank, so does television. We need it too, if only to inspire our imaginations and rekindle a thirst for knowledge, understanding and truth. Unfortunately,Cosmos’s anti-religious bias keeps one foot of this otherwise outstanding journey firmly planted in the divisive politics of our home world.
Post Script: Still working on my next post on the Poor Clare Monastery in Jamaica Plain Boston. See you on April 1st