Today, we meet a man who helped turn a good idea
into a revolution. The University of Houston's
College of Engineering presents this series about
the machines that make our civilization run, and
the people whose ingenuity created them.
Giordano Bruno was born in
Italy in 1548 -- five years after Copernicus died.
He became a Dominican friar, but he was soon in
trouble with the Church. His free-thinking looked
like heresy. When he fled north and became a
Calvinist, it took even less time for him to get
into trouble. After that, he stirred controversy in
Paris and then in Oxford. He finally reached London
in 1583, and there he wrote about the Copernican
sun-centered solar system. But Bruno wasn't content
to quote another man's hypothesis. He added
Copernicus had been a superb scientist. He'd shown
how to simplify the complex mathematics of an
earth-centered solar system by pretending that the
sun was in the center. It's pretty clear that
Copernicus believed the sun really did lie in the
center, but he didn't go out of his way to rub the
Church's nose in that idea.
Bruno was cut from a different rug. He asked, "If
the earth isn't stationary, then why should we
assume the sun is?" And without any central point
of reference, what makes us think the universe is
even finite! Bruno was quite happy to kick the last
struts out from under the old system of astronomy.
The Renaissance Church couldn't accept the idea
that a God-made universe might be infinite, and
that's what eventually did Bruno in. He was lured
back to Italy by a lecture invitation and then
turned over to the Italian Inquisition. After seven
years of trials, he was burned at the stake in
But Bruno's ideas weren't original, and he was no
scientist. His relativistic view of the solar
system actually dated back to the softer-spoken
Nicolas of Cusa. Today, Einstein's relativity
suggests that the universe is finite after all. But
Bruno's rightness or wrongness is beside the point.
Every revolution -- scientific or political -- is
begun by conservatives and then radicalized. Bruno
radicalized the Copernican revolution.
Few of us know about Bruno today, yet historian
Charles Singer shows how his ideas kept resurfacing
in the 17th century. Bruno forced philosophers and
scientists to open their minds to the far-reaching
implications of Copernicus's calculations, and that
helped open the door to modern science.
Bruno is a hard person to like -- we want to think
that rational fact can speak for itself. But it
can't always do so. We have to be dynamited away
from accepted notions. Bruno's explosiveness was a
necessary ingredient of scientific change.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds