Thursday, December 30, 2010

Bruno on the stake again...

Giordano Bruno is again getting burnt for his beliefs in the plurality of worlds. For example, an article in last week's Science about the discovery of extrasolar planets started this way (you may need subscription to access it):
For holding firm to this idea of plural worlds, Giordano Bruno spent 7 years in a dungeon; then, on 17 February 1600, he was led to a public square in Rome and burned at the stake. If Bruno had had the power to summon the future, his best shot at survival might have been to show his inquisitors the Web page of the Extrasolar Planets Encyclopedia, circa 2010. Evidence from the year 2000, when the planets in the encyclopedia numbered a mere 26, might not have done the trick. But the latest tally, 505 and counting, surely would have stayed their torches.
Yes, indeed, one of the reasons for his burning was his belief in the plurality of the worlds, but this isn't the full story. Not that burning anyone is a good thing, but there were a host of other reasons as well that ended up costing Bruno his life (please see an earlier post: Why was Giordano Bruno Burnt at the Stake?). From a review in Salon of a recent Bruno biography:

It was what Rowland calls Bruno's "combative personality" that finally did him in. The Roman Inquisition, in an especially insecure and punitive mood on account of widespread Protestant agitation against the church, had only the Venetian nobleman's testimony against the philosopher. Then one of Bruno's former cellmates, a man he'd slapped during a dispute and who feared that Bruno had informed on him as well, stepped forward to relate the various blasphemies and heretical convictions Bruno had spouted during their time together behind bars.
The last straw was Bruno's refusal to accept the authority of the Inquisition itself. Even so, his rebellion was peculiarly Catholic: He kept insisting he'd recant if the pope personally confirmed to him that his beliefs were heresy. This infuriated Cardinal Bellarmine, known for his conviction that harsh punishments make good teachers. Sixteen years later, Galileo managed to elude the more extreme penalties meted out by Bellarmine and company with a public (and essentially politic) repudiation of his heliocentric views; he lived to fight another day under a relatively comfortable house arrest. Bruno was characteristically less prudent, and died naked and gagged (by some accounts with an iron spike through his tongue), in flames.
As Rowland points out, Bruno, irascible as he was, had committed no crime, not even the disruption of mass, a common practice by militant Protestants of the day (and also punishable by death). He "had done nothing in his life except talk, write and argue." When his fate was pronounced, he told his condemners, "You may be more afraid to bring that sentence against me than I am to accept it." It took a long time for that to prove true, yet thanks to those idealistic 19th-century students, everyone who comes to Rome to behold the splendor of the Vatican is also presented with a reminder of its bloody, repressive past. Every year, on the anniversary of his death, free-thinking Romans cover his statue with flowers. While the church has since expressed "profound regret" for his persecution (which it simultaneously tries to palm off on "civil authority"), this can't be comfortably reconciled with the canonization of Bellarmine a mere seven decades ago. Dead 400 years and largely unread but immortalized nevertheless in bronze, Giordano Bruno is still a thorn in their side.
Read the full review in Salon here. But also see the Science article on extrasolar planets that looks at the progress in this direction over the past decade (astronomers have started to detect earth-sized exoplanets, have taken direct images of at least one, and have started to analyze atmospheres of some also). And the next few years should certainly be exciting - especially with Kepler space telescope now in orbit:
Astronomers expect Kepler to find several Earth-like planets in the next few years. Already, researchers are planning new ground- and space-based instruments to take spectra of the atmospheres of some of those habitable planets. Those atmospheres may bear signatures of life, such as oxygen, which researchers believe can be produced only by biological processes. If and when that happens, it would be the ultimate vindication of Bruno's fatal vision of a cosmos teeming with worlds.
Okay, I agree with the Bruno sentiment here.                


johnsunol said...

I not only expect Kepler which I will keep close watch to, but also the new and up and coming James T. Webb space telescope to operate between 2011 and 2014

john Christopher Sunol

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