Sunday, 18 January 2015

The Extraordinary Star-Gayzing Life of Bruno

When I was doing research for my series “Around the World in 80 Gays” I came across many names I hadn’t heard before, and of aspects in the lives of lgbt people I hadn’t really known about. One of these was Giordano Filippo Bruno di Nola (1548-1600), more usually known as Giordano Bruno. The more I read about him the more I thought how extraordinary his life was. In particular I was surprised to learn that he suggested a model of the solar system that was more accurate than that suggested by the more famous Copernicus.

What I intend to do today is concentrate on Giordano’s life as a Renaissance scientist, cosmologist and astrologer. I’ll return to him later in the year where another aspect of his extraordinary life will be covered.

First of all, some brief details about his life before he ventured into science.

Giordano was born in Nola in the kingdom of Naples. He entered a monastery at the age of 17 and became a Dominican priest. He had an insatiable curiosity for the newly rediscovered Ancient Greek writings which sparked the Renaissance, as well as other ancient texts which the Catholic Church regarded as heretical. After he was officially excommunicated by both the Catholic and Protestant churches Giordano was summoned to attend an Inquisition, and he fled. Travelling around Europe he wrote books on logic, memory and philosophy. He also wrote a comedy play called “Il Candelaio” (translated as “The Candle-holder”), which was an Italian slang term for a gay man which gay men would recognise today. In 1593 Giordano was captured and sent to Rome for trial for blasphemy and heresy. He was found guilty and executed in 1600.

So what of Giordano Bruno’s science? We should clear up a common misunderstanding in popular belief that the Catholic Church was anti-science. Most science was conducted by churchmen. For instance, the recalculation of the calendar according to the Earth’s orbit around the sun was initiated by Pope Gregory, and it’s the calendar we still use today. It was a Catholic Cardinal, Nicholas of Cusa, who first suggested that the stars and planets were not fixed onto invisible spheres in the sky and that space was infinite. The Church accepted this, but Renaissance scientists didn’t, so you can’t say the Church was any more anti-science than the scientists. And those scientists believed in alchemy and astrology as fact, even Giordano Bruno. No matter how far advanced Giordano’s view of the universe was he still believed in astrology and the influence of celestial bodies in the lives of ordinary people. However, he was no believer in the creation of horoscopes or divination in the prediction of future trends. Where Church and science clashed it was over God’s authority over nature and the universe, not because the Church thought the science was wrong.

Giordano was not put on trial and executed because of his science but because of his views on the uniqueness of Christ. And his views on science were so extraordinarily ahead of the times that not even other scientists believed him (just like science rejected the ideas of continental drift and black holes in the early 20th century).

Now we need to look at how the universe was perceived in Giordano’s time. Nicholas Copernicus’s view was out of date even when Copernicus made it. He believed that the stars were fixed onto an invisible sphere which the Church had abandoned over 100 years earlier. What Copernicus said that was different (but not new) was that the Earth orbited the Sun, not the other way round. Again, it was Renaissance scientists and not just the Church who didn’t believe him.

Giordano Bruno went further than both Nicholas of Cusa and Copernicus. Not only did Giordano believe in an infinite universe but he suggested that each star was like the Sun and may even have planets orbiting them. The Church had no problem with that, but other scientists did. What the Church objected to was his belief in an infinite number of Christs, while the Church preached that the universe only had one Christ. Giordano put it like this (and being a devout Christian he only saw the universe in Christian terms) :-

In an infinite universe with an infinite number of planets orbiting and infinite number of suns there must also be an infinite number of Gardens of Eden. Even if on only half of these planets Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit which led to their fall into sin, as on Earth, half of an infinite number is still infinity. So these infinite fallen, sinful societies would have God sending his son Jesus Christ to save them from their sin. Giordano reasoned that there must be an infinite number of Christs, as he couldn’t believe in one Christ visiting an infinite number of planets. The Church preached that both God and Christ, as one deity, existed in all places at all times. They objected to Giordano’s idea of more than one Christ, but not in an infinite number of planets and extraterrestrial life-forms.

With Giordano’s view of other life on other worlds we can understand why he became a figurehead for various fringe scientific theories, such as UFOs and alien visitations. The more scientific search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) has also adopted Giordano as a patron. The SETI League even named an award in his honour which is presented annually to people who have made a significant contribution in SETI.

Very often Giordano Bruno has been seen as a martyr to science and someone who sacrificed his life in the name of science over religion. The fact is that he was no martyr to science. He was executed for his heretical belief in an infinite numbers of Christs, not for his science which the Church accepted. Perhaps he should now be recognised as a pioneer of Christian science.

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