Neil deGrasse Tyson Shows Why Small-Minded Religious Fundamentalists Are Threatened by Wonders of Universe
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The new Cosmos TV series airing on Fox is a worthy reboot of Carl Sagan's original. Following in Sagan's footsteps, host Neil deGrasse Tyson takes viewers on a voyage through the outer reaches of the solar system and beyond, showing how our sun is just one star out of a hundred billion in the majestic spiral of the Milky Way galaxy, and even the Milky Way itself is a speck in the observable universe. As in the original series, he compresses the history of the universe into a single year, showing that on that scale, the human species emerges only in the last few seconds before midnight on December 31.
Sagan's Cosmos was due for an update, and not just because our computer graphics are better. Since the original series aired, we've sent robotic rovers to Mars, sampling its rocks and exploring its history. We've detected hundreds of alien planets outside the solar system, finding them by the slight gravitational wobble they cause in their home stars, or by the brief dips in light as they pass across the star's face as seen from Earth. We've found the Higgs boson, the elusive and long-theorized particle that endows everything else with mass. We've discovered that the expansion of the Universe which began with the Big Bang is accelerating, driven by a mysterious force called dark energy. All these scientific advances deserve to be recognized and celebrated.
The story of Cosmos is also the story of human beings. For the vast majority of our history as a species, we were wanderers, small hunter-gatherer bands. Civilization is a recent innovation, arising within the last few thousand years, and science is more recent still, appearing only in the last few hundred. But in just those few short centuries, we've made dramatic strides, from wooden sailing ships to space shuttles, bloodletting to bionic limbs, quill pens to the Internet. We've drawn back the curtain on ancient mythologies and glimpsed the true immensity of time and space. Compared to that vastness, we're unimaginably small and insignificant; yet we possess an intelligence and a power of understanding that, as far as we still know, is unique among all the countless worlds. As Carl Sagan said, "We are a way for the cosmos to know itself."
However, not everyone accepts this as a positive development. There have always been those who prefer a small, comprehensible cosmos, with human beings placed firmly at the center. The religious belief systems that posit such a universe were our first, fumbling attempts to explain the origin of the world, and they rarely share power gladly. Those who clash against conventional wisdom, who dare to suggest that the cosmos holds wonders undreamed of in conventional mythology, have always found themselves in grave peril from the gatekeepers of dogma who presume to dictate the thoughts human beings should be permitted to think.
The first episode of the new Cosmos graphically illustrates this with the story of Giordano Bruno, a 16th-century monk who argued that the sun was a star like all the rest, and that every star had its own planets and its own living beings. Bruno wasn't a scientist, as the show makes clear: his cosmological views flowed from his mystical, pantheist theology, not from evidence. But that made no difference to the Inquisition, which imprisoned and tortured Bruno, and when he refused to recant, burned him at the stake. His statue still stands in the Campo dei Fiori where he was executed, facing the Vatican as if accusing those who murdered him.
There's also Bruno's contemporary, Galileo Galilei, the astronomer who discovered the moons of Jupiter and argued for the heliocentric solar system. As a reward for his revolutionary scientific work, he was judged suspect of heresy by the Inquisition and forced to abjure his own work under threat of torture; his books were banned and he was sentenced to house arrest for the remainder of his life. The story of Galileo's persecution is so well-known that I'd hesitate to retell it yet again, if it weren't for the fact that church apologists like Jay Wesley Richards are still defending and soft-pedaling it.