The Story of Giordano Bruno
Episode script of Cosmos: a Time and Space Odyssee - Season 1 - Standing up in the Milky Way
A mere four centuries ago, our tiny world was oblivious to the rest of the cosmos. There were no telescopes. The universe was only what you could see with the naked eye. Back in 1599, everyone knew that the Sun, planets and stars were just lights in the sky that revolved around the Earth, and that we were the center of a little universe, a universe made for us. There was only one man on the whole planet who envisioned an infinitely grander cosmos. And how was he spending New Year's Eve of the year 1600? Why, in prison, of course.
There comes a time in our lives when we first realize we're not the center of the universe, that we belong to something much greater than ourselves. It's part of growing up. And as it happens to each of us, so it began to happen to our civilization in the 16th century. Imagine a world before telescopes, when the universe was only what you could see with the naked eye. It was obvious that Earth was motionless, and that everything in the heavens - the Sun, the Moon, the stars, the planets revolved around us and then a Polish astronomer and priest named Copernicus made a radical proposal. The Earth was not the center. It was just one of the planets, and, like them, it revolved around the Sun. Many, like the Protestant reformer Martin Luther, took this idea as a scandalous affront to Scripture. They were horrified. But for one man, Copernicus didn't go far enough.
His name was Giordano Bruno, and he was a natural-born rebel. He longed to bust out of that cramped little universe. Even as a young Dominican monk in Naples, he was a misfit. This was a time when there was no freedom of thought in Italy. But Bruno hungered to know everything about God's creation. He dared to read the books banned by the Church, and that was his undoing. In one of them, an ancient Roman, a man dead for more than 1,500 years whispered to him of a universe far greater, one as boundless as his idea of God.
Lucretius asked the reader to imagine standing at the edge of the universe and shooting an arrow outward. If the arrow keeps going, then clearly, the universe extends beyond what you thought was the edge. But if the arrow doesn't keep going say it hits a wall then that wall must lie beyond what you thought was the edge of the universe. Now if you stand on that wall and shoot another arrow, there are only the same two possible outcomes it either flies forever out into space, or it hits some boundary where you can stand and shoot yet another arrow. Either way, the universe is unbounded. The cosmos must be infinite. This made perfect sense to Bruno. The God he worshiped was infinite. So how, he reasoned, could Creation be anything less? It was the last steady job he ever had.
And then, when he was 30, he had the vision that sealed his fate. In this dream, he awakened to a world enclosed inside a confining bowl of stars. This was the cosmos of Bruno's time. He experienced a sickening moment of fear, as if the bottom of everything was falling away beneath his feet. But he summoned up his courage.
"I spread confident wings to space and soared toward the infinite, leaving far behind me what others strained to see from a distance. Here, there was no up, no down, no edge, no center. I saw that the Sun was just another star, and the stars were other Suns, each escorted by other Earths like our own. The revelation of this immensity was like falling in love".
Bruno became an evangelist, spreading the gospel of infinity throughout Europe. He assumed that other lovers of God would naturally embrace this grander and more glorious view of Creation.
"What a fool I was".
He was excommunicated by the Roman Catholic Church in his homeland, expelled by the Calvinists in Switzerland, and by the Lutherans in Germany. Bruno jumped at an invitation to lecture at Oxford, in England. At last, he thought, a chance to share his vision with an audience of his peers.
"I have come to present a new vision of the cosmos. Copernicus was right to argue that our world is not the center of the universe.
The Earth goes around the Sun. It's a planet, just like the others. But Copernicus was only the dawn. I bring you the sunrise. The stars are other fiery suns, made of the same substance as the Earth, and they have their own watery earths, with plants and animals no less noble than our own".
"Are you mad or merely ignorant? Everyone knows there is only one world."
"What everyone knows is wrong. Our infinite God has created a boundless universe with an infinite number of worlds."
"Do they not read Aristotle where you come from? Or even the Bible?"
"I beg you, reject antiquity, tradition, faith, and authority. Let us begin anew, by doubting everything we assume - has been proven".
"Your God is too small'.
A wiser man would have learned his lesson. But Bruno was not such a man. He couldn't keep his soaring vision of the cosmos to himself, despite the fact that the penalty for doing so in his world was the most vicious form of cruel and unusual punishment. Giordano Bruno lived at a time when there was no such thing as the separation of church and state, or the notion that freedom of speech was a sacred right of every individual. Expressing an idea that didn't conform to traditional belief could land you in deep trouble. Recklessly, Bruno returned to Italy. Maybe he was homesick. But still, he must have known that his homeland was one of the most dangerous places in Europe he could possibly go. The Roman Catholic Church maintained a system of courts known as the Inquisition, and its sole purpose was to investigate and torment anyone who dared voice views that differed from theirs. It wasn't long before Bruno fell into the clutches of the thought police. This wanderer, who worshiped an infinite universe, languished in confinement for eight years. Through relentless interrogations, he stubbornly refused to renounce his views.
Why was the Church willing to go to such lengths to torment Bruno? What were they afraid of? If Bruno was right, then the sacred books and the authority of the Church would be open to question. Finally, the cardinals of the Inquisition rendered their verdict. You are found guilty of questioning the Holy Trinity and the divinity of Jesus Christ. Of believing that God's wrath is not eternal, that everyone will be saved. Of asserting the existence of other worlds.
"All of the books you have written will be gathered up and burned in St. Peter's Square".
"Reverend Father, these eight years of confinement have given me much time to reflect".
"So you will recant?"
"My love and reverence for the Creator inspires in me the vision of an infinite Creation".
"You shall be turned over to the Governor of Rome to administer the appropriate punishment for those who will not repent".
"It may be that you are more afraid to deliver this judgment than I am to hear it".
Ten years after Bruno's martyrdom, Galileo first looked through a telescope, realizing that Bruno had been right all along.
The monument to Giordano Bruno in the place he was executed,
Campo de' Fiori in Rome.
"Innumerable suns exist. Innumerable Earths revolve around these.
Living beings inhabit these worlds"
Giordano Bruno, 1548-1600