2016-07-27
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Four hundred years ago this month a strange, courageous and unrepentant philosopher of theology and magic named Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake in Rome by the truth-possessors of his age. Bruno--in addition to being the inspiration for Shakespeare's character Berowne, who delivers the famous speech on love in Love's Labour's Lost--was one of history's greatest pioneers of the human imagination. Science has taken four centuries to begin to see faint glimpses of what Bruno insisted was present--an infinite cosmos in which the likely tiny fraction we can see with current instruments contains roughly 100 billion galaxies with perhaps 100 billion stars in each.

The future and meaning of the continuing adventure of science may turn in part on whether Bruno was right in another of his beliefs--that a kind of infinite incomprehensible magic of love lies at the heart of the vast firmament that astronomers continue to explore.

Bruno is commonly lionized by historians as a scientific martyr, but in fact he was no more a scientist than Bill Clinton is a ballet dancer. He was an esoteric theological thinker--a "magus"--obsessed with claims of cabalistic and Gnostic magic.

Bruno also eagerly read astrology. He supported the Copernican view that the sun is at the center of the solar system -believing this not so much because the science of celestial mechanics engaged him, but because Copernicus's "heliocentrism" comported with sun worship. Yet in arguing for an infinite concept of the cosmos, Bruno appears to have been the first person to realize that the stars were just like our Sun, only farther away. Inspired by an odd mixture of the teachings of Copernicus, Renaissance magic traditions, and especially by a vision of infinite divine creativity drawn from the theologian Nicholas of Cusa, Bruno taught that the cosmos contained an infinity of worlds similar to Earth. He also conjectured that these many worlds would contain life.

Bruno was executed for advancing religious ideas the Church considered heretical. Though celebrated as a martyr for science, he is more properly seen as a martyr for freedom of the human imagination. Much as the Church of his time disliked Bruno, many of the scientific truth-possessors of our contemporary age feel threatened as well by the kind of theological thinking that inspired Bruno's magnificent ideas. Many of today's most prominent scientists dream of a coldly mathematical "theory of everything" that would explain existence without recourse to notions such as higher purpose or cosmic love. Yet the lesson of Bruno's insight may be different: that the greatest gift science provides is to open up the human view to a vista of unlimited mystery.

Bruno's notions of an infinite cosmos of many worlds has in the past decade become part of mainstream scientific inquiry. One of the most exciting recent boom areas in science has been the detection of more than thirty planetary systems around other stars. These discoveries, which have occurred only over the past five years, are based on Doppler methods that detect minuscule "wobbles" in the orbit of stars being pulled on by the gravitational attraction of planets. Recently, as well, a distant planet was detected by the dimming of starlight it caused as it passed in front of its star.

These discoveries of "extrasolar" planets have all been made by inferences: there are as yet no telescopes in existence that are powerful enough to take pictures of planets around other stars. NASA Administrator Dan Goldin speaks of a wonderfully ambitious program to change that. It calls for the construction of giant arrays of technologically advanced space telescopes called "interferometers." They will be colossally expensive to build, but fabulously worthwhile for opening up our view into the vast cosmos we inhabit. The new observatories will have the ability to view these other planetary worlds somewhat like the way the NASA astronauts took pictures of the earth from the moon. We might, for example, begin to see worlds similar to our own with oceans and continents and color changes indicating seasonably variable vegetation. What an amazing discovery that would be! Bruno would approve.

Sadly, such inspirational images may be a long time in coming. NASA's short-term future spending looks like it will be dominated by the ill-advised International Space Station (ISS), which might more aptly be named the Space Tub of Pork (STOP).

Why is NASA spending so much more on the dubious space station than on the new super-telescopes that might show us distant worlds? One reason, of course, is the manned space lobby, including those aerospace contractors that benefit from current NASA priorities. Another reason is that the new planetary searching for life (called astrobiology) unavoidably engages the "e-word" (evolution), which interacts badly with the "r-word" (religion) in the public square. This puts limits on the possible enthusiasm that politicians can generate for building a more cosmos-oriented space program.

A solution to this quandary may be to work hard to heal the unnecessary breach between science and religion in the United States. In the science and religion debate, two closed-minded fundamentalisms have been squared off for quite some time. One side says that all the truth that matters was locked up in a book 2,000 years ago and any ordinary person can understand it. The other says that religion is nonsense and that all the truth that really matters will soon be locked up in a computer and that only a new priesthood of physicists will be able to interpret it.

Bruno's life offers an important alternative to such dueling fundamentalism, for his experience suggests that scientific thinking inspired by a magical view of the world may not be so silly after all. After all, isn't the cosmos a kind of magical rationality?

On the very smallest of scales, matter dissolves into a sublimity of mathematical wizardry -- the spooky, hypercomplex quantum reality that keeps the brightest physicists in the world busy trying to figure it out. At the scale of moderate size, within the human brain, something physical generates the miracle of thinking minds. On the largest scales of cosmology, the science of the so-called "Anthropic Principle" reveals a universe that seems like a finely tuned design for generating life.

Noting this triple confluence of the significance of mind-linked properties in nature, the physicist Freeman Dyson, of the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton, has argued that there is a "mental component" to the universe, from the smallest to the largest scales. "If we believe in this mental component," Dyson wrote, "and call it God, then we can say we are small pieces of God's mental apparatus." Adding a vote for the virtue of humility, Einstein wrote that, "My religion consists of a humble admiration of the illimitable superior spirit who reveals himself in the slight details we are able to perceive with our frail and feeble minds. That deeply emotional conviction of the presence of a superior reasoning power, which is revealed in the incomprehensible universe, forms my idea of God." Bruno surely would have liked such reflections.

The persistence of such unorthodox theological ideas in science may irritate the truth-possessors of the age on both sides of the science-religion divide. But wouldn't it be magic to get beyond that?

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