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Remember, Man, You Are Stardust Print E-mail
By Michael Baruzzini   
Sunday, 16 March 2014

“A man can be a Christian to the end of the world, for the simple reason that a man could have been an Atheist from the beginning of it. … But why our human lot is made any more hopeless because we know the names of the worms who eat [man], or the names of all the parts of him that they eat, is to a thoughtful mind somewhat difficult to discover.” – G. K. Chesterton

Cosmos is back on television again, in a reincarnated form hosted by Neil DeGrasse Tyson in place of the late Carl Sagan (host of the original 1980 series). The original Cosmos is remembered as a minor television classic, ushering in a new era of science programming and bringing the wonders of cosmology to the public in an accessible and enchanting way. The hopes for the new Cosmos seem equally high: the series has been heavily advertised and will be airing multiple nights each week, on multiple networks. The first episode even opened with a recorded message from President Obama.

Yet for all its promise, the first episode of Cosmos, which aired last Sunday, quickly disappointed, featuring an extended segment detailing the struggles of Giordano Bruno against the Renaissance authorities of Church and state that suppressed his “modern” ideas of an infinite universe filled with innumerable worlds – suppression that ultimately ended with Bruno’s being burned at the stake as a heretic.

Bruno has long been a favorite of anti-religious historians and is often dragged as a prop in current controversies. But the historical record shows that while Bruno may have held some ideas that later turned out to be scientifically prescient, he held them for bizarre and occult reasons; Bruno’s demise was ultimately the result of his obstinate and bizarre cultish teachings, not his advance of scientific inquiry.

Appropriately, the Bruno segments were animated, unconsciously reflecting the cartoonish version of history presented in the show more generally. Tyson adds a caveat that Bruno’s ideas were not scientific or evidence-based, a tremendous understatement. Even Galileo, whose story would have presented a far more respectable protagonist for the Cosmos agenda, found Bruno to be a crackpot. At best, Bruno could arguably be advanced as a martyr for free, if crazy, speech; he is most certainly not, however, a martyr for science.

The Bruno myth, however, does set up the basic message of Cosmos: the universe is a fascinating and beautiful place, and science is the best human endeavor to reveal it. It is science, not other “dogmatic” institutions, that reveal to man who he really is. In particular, Sagan is famous for his reminder to audiences that, “You are made of starstuff,” or in other renditions, “stardust.” He refers to the remarkable discovery that the heavier elements, including the carbon that makes up much of our bodies, was made in the fusion processes that power stars and energetic supernovae. It is, in fact, a fascinating link between our material selves and the processes that formed the cosmos in the aeons before.

 

Yet, perhaps to the chagrin of both some creationists and the anti-religious, man’s continuity with the material world has been emphasized since the writing of the first lines of Genesis. Recently, Catholics emphasized this material connection with a well known sacramental, blessed ashes on the forehead, and words that are reminiscent of Sagan’s, but preceded him by millennia: “Remember, man, you are dust…”

But which of these reminders is right: Cosmos’ presentation of the grandeur of man’s material origin in the stars, or Ash Wednesday’s call to humility in its reminder of man’s natural origin and destiny as dust and ashes? Both, in their way. As Walker Percy noted in his comments on the original Cosmos:

One is not offended by Sagan. There is too little malice and too much ignorance. It is enough to take pleasure in the pleasant style, the knack for popularizing science, and the beautiful pictures of Saturn and the Ring Nebula. Indeed, more often than not, I found myself on Sagan’s side, especially in his admiration for science and the scientific method, which is what he says it is – a noble, elegant, and self-correcting method of attaining a kind of truth.

As Cosmos portrays, the stars, like all of Creation, are radiant with goodness and beauty, as honest scientists recognize. Yet science alone is incapable of moving beyond recognizing the radiance of nature to its source. Creation transmits beauty, but it is not the source of it. Creation points towards a Creator, and man is made to know not only the goodness of what has been made, but more importantly the goodness of the Maker. This latter can only be known through a repentant humility.

Sagan and Tyson are right: the beauty of the natural cosmos is compelling, and science is the special way of uncovering one majestic dimension of that order and beauty. One hopes that the future episodes of Cosmos will recover this message. But if science can aid in uncovering a wonderful universe, it is incapable of accounting for why such beauty and wonder are, in fact, ultimately meaningful.

To paraphrase Chesterton, knowing all the parts of man that return to dust, or the names of all the stars that formed the dust that made him, means little if man is nothing more than just one more clump of matter. Whether being made of the dust of stars has any significance at all, as Cosmos suggests that it does, depends on whether we can recognize in those stars the echoes of their Maker, and ours.

Michael Baruzzini is a freelance science writer and editor who writes for Catholic and science publications, including Crisis, First Things, Touchstone, Sky & Telescope, The American Spectator, and elsewhere. He is also the creator of CatholicScience.com, which offers online science curriculum resources for Catholic students.
 
 
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

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written by Nick Palmer, March 16, 2014
Great reflection for starting my Sunday. Thanks Michael. This piece may also allow me to watch Cosmos in "peace."

Reminds me of the exchange between Ramandu and Eustace in CSL's :Voyage of the Dawn Treader":

“I am a star at rest, my daughter,” answered Ramandu. “When I set for the last time, decrepit and old beyond all that you can reckon, I was carried to this island. I am not so old now as I was then. Every morning a bird brings me a fire-berry from the valleys in the Sun, and each fire-berry takes away a little of my age. And when I have become as young as the child that was born yesterday, then I shall take my rising again (for we are at earth’s eastern rim) and once more tread the great dance.”

“In our world,” said Eustace, “a star is a huge ball of flaming gas.”

“Even in your world, my son, that is not what a star is but only what it is made of. And in this world you have already met a star: for I think you have been with Coriakin [the master on the island of the Dufflepuds].” (page 117, HarperCollins eBook)
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written by grump, March 16, 2014
Enjoyed this column.

The stars indeed hold a fascination for us. Oscar Wilde said we're all in the gutter but some of us are looking at the stars.

Then I recall this exchange from Tess of the D'Urbervilles between Tess and her little brother Abraham:

"Did you say the stars were worlds, Tess?"

"Yes."

"All like ours?"

"I don't know; but I think so. They sometimes seem to be like the apples on our stubbard-tree. Most of them splendid and sound—a few blighted."

"Which do we live on—a splendid one or a blighted one?"

"A blighted one."

"'Tis very unlucky that we didn't pitch on a sound one, when there were so many more of 'em!"

"Yes."

"Is it like that really, Tess?" said Abraham, turning to her much impressed, on reconsideration of this rare information. "How would it have been if we had pitched on a sound one?"

"Well, father wouldn't have coughed and creeped about as he does, and wouldn't have got too tipsy to go on this journey; and mother wouldn't have been always washing, and never getting finished."

"And you would have been a rich lady ready-made, and not have had to be made rich by marrying a gentleman?"

"O Aby, don't—don't talk of that any more!"
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written by Mack Hall, HSG, March 16, 2014
An introduction by our anti-Catholic president and then some cartoons -- sure, that's science, all right, the sort of science that believes that milk comes from the store and electricity from fairies and rainbows.
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written by Nick Palmer, March 16, 2014
If Chesterton and Lewis were alive today, they'd likely be burned at the stake (figuratively?).
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written by Stanley Anderson, March 16, 2014
Michael Baruzzini wrote, “To paraphrase Chesterton, knowing all the parts of man that return to dust, or the names of all the stars that formed the dust that made him, means little if man is nothing more than just one more clump of matter.”

Just imagine if the scientists who know all those names (or even for anyone who is simply aware that names for anything exist) could fathom the incredible idea that the mere recognition of names as names is unfathomable to clumps of matter in the first place. Then science might be able to grab onto the foothold it was meant to hold onto. But I suppose “grabbing” generally requires “intention,” another incredible idea unfathomable to clumps of matter (not to mention the meaning of “fathoming” itself, or even of the idea of “meaning,” I suppose. Is “infinite regress” a name for something that actually exists? Ooofda! Give me a list of star names and body parts to memorize instead. Oh well…)
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written by Myshkin, March 16, 2014
These are great comments. Hardy is a great author precisely because he sees through the pretensions of humankind to the bare facts of human suffering and depravity and their inter-relationship. Of course, like Nietzsche, he has no wisdom beyond that insight, alas.

Picking up on what Anderson wrote, it is entirely unscientific to hold the scientific method to be "noble, elegant, ... attaining a kind of truth". These are external evaluations of it, and they must stem from an external philosophical source. You won't see that discussed in Cosmos.

I found the cartoon snippet to be 90% mis-information. From the mistake of Bruno's Dominican habit, lack of tonsure, the insipidity of the presentation of Lucretius, and overall the clear presentation of the Catholic faith as evil, it was wrong in almost every detail. This does not give me faith that the series will get any other details of history or physics correct. I won't be watching it.
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written by schm0e, March 16, 2014
I don't watch television. What, exactly, is Barack Obama's connection to science?

Must be a setup for the coming "revelations" about "climate change."

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