Friday, March 21, 2014

Three cosmic historical errors—UPDATED

Hypatia of Alexandria: astronomer, mathematician,
philosopher ... martyr of Science?
Yesterday morning (3/20/14) I shared on Facebook a link to Artur Rosman’s CosmosTheInLost post, “Walker Percy on the College Dorm Arguments of Sagan and deGrasse Tyson”. Rosman reprints an extensive footnote by Percy in the latter’s book Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book (New York: Picador, 2000), in which he bemoans the “unmalicious, even innocent, scientism” of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos: A Space-Time Odyssey. Neil deGrasse Tyson comes into the matter because of his reboot of the Cosmos miniseries, which includes Sagan’s highly-defective history of scientific development illustrated in cartoons (how appropriate!) by Seth MacFarlane.

One of my best friends, a Methodist, didn’t see the problem:

Being a fan of both of these men (Sagan and Tyson) and a fan of the original and the new one, I don’t understand the need to find an anti-theistic agenda in the productions. These men have made careers in astrophysics and increase the wonderment that is our world. The production value is huge and the entertainment value is bigger still. Am I so different from the supposed slack jawed, numb skull, UFC watching set that are supposedly changed in mindset with a show like this? My beliefs are not changed by the fact that this show grabs my attention and entertains me with all matters of the universe.

The problem isn’t an anti-theist agenda in the productions. Rather, the problem is in the perceived need to strip Christians and Christianity of all contributions to scientific development, and to add distortions of history in support of the “Christians hate science” trope. Three stand out in the Cosmos series, two of which Sagan elided together: 1) The murder of Hypatia; 2) the destruction of the Library of Alexandria; and 3) the death of Giordano Bruno.


The death of Hypatia

Hypatia was a Neoplatonist scholar, a mathematician and astronomer who flourished in Alexandria between the end of the fourth and beginning of the fifth centuries. The Alexandria of the classical period has something of a reputation for riots. Founded by Greek followers of Alexander the Great, populated by Greeks, Egyptians and Judeans, ethnic tensions periodically erupted into violence, as did political tensions. One Pharaoh was literally torn apart by an angry mob when he had his popular sister/wife killed! These tensions gained a new dimension with the introduction of Christianity, cutting a cleavage between Copts and Greeks who took up the faith and those who retained their old religion, as well as introducing the rivalry between Jews and Christians.

The only contemporary source for Hypatia’s death, the Ecclesiastical History of Socrates Scholasticus, tells it as the climax of a political struggle between the Roman governor, Orestes, and the Bishop of Alexandria, Cyril, both of whom were Christians. In nature the conflict was between Jews and Christians, with Cyril defending the Jews; Hypatia got dragged into it because the Alexandrian Christians believed she was influencing Orestes against a reconciliation with Cyril.

In fact, it wasn’t until John of Nikiu’s much later and more biased account that her pagan status became an issue; Scholasticus and another derivative source claim that she was widely admired and included Christians among her students. Scholasticus, himself a Christian, mourned her needless death; John of Nikiu, a seventh-century bishop, trashed the characters of Orestes and Hypatia to justify the Christian mob’s actions. While the story doesn’t show Christians in the best light, Hypatia’s murder had nothing to do with her being a mathematician or an astronomer. It should also be noted that Hypatia, who died in 415, was a contemporary of the famous bishop of Hippo, St. Augustine, who was as well educated as any of his pagan friends and enemies.

The Great Library of Alexandria

The year of Hypatia’s death is known. On the other hand, the year of the Great Library’s destruction is uncertain; in fact, it’s not even settled whether the Library was destroyed in one incident or simply decayed over time.

Some ancient sources, such as Plutarch, claim it was destroyed during Julius Caesar’s occupation in 48 BC; however, Strabo (64/63 BC – 24 AD) claimed to have studied there. In any event, it seems likely that a good portion of it was destroyed when the Emperor Aurelian took the city in 272, long before Hypatia was born; more may have been burned in 391, over twenty years before her death, when Patriarch Theophilus ordered the pagan temple Serapeum leveled in response to Theodosius I’s edict illegalizing paganism. Later Moslem account attributes the Library’s destruction to Caliph Omar in 642, but these reports are doubted.

By the time the Library passed from the Mediterranean scene, other cities had supplanted it as centers of learning, and much of its material had already gone elsewhere. In any event, there’s no facts to support a deliberate burning of the books by Christian haters of profane literature, nor did classical philosophy die with Hypatia.

Giordano Bruno

Other writers, both religious and non-religious, have picked apart the Giordano Bruno sequence. MacFarlane’s Cosmos admits that Bruno wasn’t a scientist, and that his backing of the “infinite worlds” theory was a “guess”. But in fact Bruno wasn’t “guessing”; rather, he was propounding it as part of a syncretic, idiosyncratic heresy. Of the eight charges against him, only one had to do with the infinite-worlds theory, and that theory had not been proven fact. (Indeed, heliocentrism would not be proven for many decades.)

The argument then becomes whether Bruno should be held out as a martyr to religious freedom and intellectual inquiry. Ironically, had not Bruno been a baptized Christian and Dominican friar, he wouldn’t have come before the Inquisition at all, even for the charge of practicing witchcraft: the Inquisition served only to fight off heresy and apostasy, not to force the conversion of non-Christians.[*] In any event, there was considerable academic freedom at the time — arguably as much as there is now, he muttered sardonically — a fact which the Giordano Bruno sequence was constructed to deny. As for religious tolerance ….

Isn’t that what we’re discussing here? The refusal on the part of at least some atheists — not all, I insist, but some — to tolerate religion in the laboratory? The bigotry on the part of some atheists that leads them to assert dogmatically, “Faith-heads can’t do science”? A dogma so powerful it warps the history of science so it can only allow clerics into the story as villains?

*     *     *

Ironically, while the Cosmos reboot is playing on the air, the astrophysics world is going gaga over evidence of the rapid expansion of the universe in the first trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second. Explains physics professor Chao-Lin Kuo, “Inflation is the theory about the ‘bang’ of Big Bang. It explains why we have all this stuff in the universe.” Said Stanford’s Andrei Linde, who helped develop the inflation model, “If this is true, this is a moment of understanding of nature of such a magnitude that it just overwhelms and let’s just hope that it’s not a trick.”

It’s ironic because forgotten in the midst of this hubbub is the man who first proposed the expansion of the universe, to derive what’s now called Hubble’s law, and to make the first estimation of what’s now called the Hubble constant: Monsignor Georges LemaĆ®tre, astronomer, physicist and Catholic priest.

Far more influential than Giordano Bruno, I’d say.

Update: Same day, 9:47 am CDT
Frank Weathers at Why I Am Catholic has screencaps of the credits, and noticed a definite difference of degrees — as in number of Ph.D.s — between the scientists and the historians. Oh, and the number of people with "Esq." after their names. "5 science Ph.D.s, and 5 attorneys. Only in America!"

As Frank told me, at the end of the day this version of Cosmos is "Seth MacFarlane's baby", and if he wants to use it as a vehicle to spread atheism, that's his call. But if atheism is true, then it doesn't need a "Whig history" of science to support it; if it's not true, then falsifying history won't make it true. Either way, MacFarlane et Cie. are playing fast and loose with the facts ... which, given the medium, is probably par for the course. But just how long are we going to excuse lies on the grounds of entertainment?


[*] This was a major error in Mel Brooks’ History of the World, Part I: The only Jews persecuted by the Spanish Inquisition were the so-called “crypto-Jews”, conversos who were accused of secretly practicing Jewish rituals while publicly holding themselves out as Christians. Jews who hadn’t converted were previously expelled by order of King Ferdinand.