Just like with the age of the Earth, it's hard to know for sure, we only know there is a range of choices and can narrow it down as we get more data.
It's a short bit and so less grievous to our intellectual senses than the 25 percent of episode 1 they devoted to creating an alternate history of Giordano Bruno, but in this case what is interesting is not what they add in, but what they leave out.
In 1650, Archbishop James Ussher of Ireland calculated a date for the creation of the universe using the Bible as a reference. Why? I don't know, people just did that kind of thing and still do. The Bible is as accurate a history as most ancient histories and mapping science data to history still happens today. If you watched the History Channel this Easter weekend, you know it was chock full of science-y explanations for everything in the Bible.(2)
Archbishop James Ussher.
So host Neil Tyson tells us about Ussher and then we fast forward to modern geology and how much smarter we are now. Okay, fine, but was Ussher all that wrong for the time? Was anyone doing better? No. What they leave out is that a legendary scientist was just as wrong.
Like any good scientist, Ussher interpolated from what he had, in this case the Bible and a historical date for the death of the Bablyonian King Nebuchadnezzar II in 562 B.C. Deriving from that, he back-azimuthed generations to arrive at the exact day that the Earth must have been created in 4004 B.C. "It was a Saturday," Tyson says, with perfect comedic timing. And completely wrong, as we now know.
But it wasn't bad deduction - on the contrary, his work in Annales Veteris Testamenti was impeccable. Most of what I learned about black holes 30 years ago is wrong today - does that mean a future science show should ridicule us for accepting it back then? Ussher was no shill, in the vein of modern numerology pretenders like Harold Camping or John Hagee, who knowingly foist off nonsense on gullible people today. And contrary to what anti-religious zealots insist, religious people who accepted his work in 1650 were not sticking their heads in the intellectual sand against science, they were actually embracing the latest reasoning - just like they had accepted the equally incorrect numbers of a scientist a few years earlier, one who did not 'count the begats', as Tyson said while ridiculing Ussher.(3)
Johannes Kepler is rightly considered a pillar of modern science for his work explaining the motion of planets, they are called Kepler's Laws of Planetary Motion because they are that fundamental. By 1601, at the age of 30, he had the job of Imperial Mathematician for the Holy Roman Empire (4). Kepler was into a lot of stuff, he was prolific, and he was loyal. And so at one point he wrote a polemic for a friend that also served to debunk some bad calculations by those projecting the impending apocalypse.
While on October 22nd, militant atheists love to ridicule Ussher, very few will ridicule Kepler this weekend, even though in KANONES PUERILES, 30 years before Ussher, Kepler calculated April 27th as the universal creation date. That would be April 27th of 4,997 BC. (5)
Who is that again? The name is an anagram of Johannes Kepler. These guys loved to do that stuff. Credit: Johannes Kepler Gesammelte Werke, Chronologische Schriften, ed. Franz Hammer, C. H. Beck’sche Verlagsbuchhandlung, Munich, 1953 . Scan provided by Thony Christie.
Yes, Kepler, one of the founders of modern science, was a Young Earth Creationist. Let's ridicule him on a science TV show!
Johannes Kepler - Young Earth Creationist
Just as host Neil Tyson says of Ussher, the calculation by Kepler was also "taken as gospel in the Western world" so it seems odd that once again Cosmos, a show about science, instead trots out a priest as a straw man to place in opposition to more recent scientific discovery. Sure, Ussher was wrong, as was Kepler, and as was every number calculated by scientists hundreds of years later. They became slightly less inaccurate, but they were still wildly wrong. An archbishop got a different number than Kepler by a few hundred years - but Kepler was wrong by 13.7 billion. Even Martin Luther, he of the Protestant reformation, was more accurate than Kepler, and he did no math at all.
If the brains behind Cosmos are going to make fun of creationism in the 1600s maybe Kepler would be a better place to start.(6) After all, he wrote 5 texts dealing with the birth of Jesus.
They were certainly not alone in being wrong about the age of the Earth and the universe - and that is the whole point. As recently as 1892, physicist William Thomson said the Earth was 100 million years old, having narrowed it down from a much wider range based on the latest science. You may not recognize his name so you might dismiss him as some religious crackpot too. He is better known as one of the greatest minds of the 19th century - Lord Kelvin.
William Thomson, Lord Kelvin.
Wrong by 4.3 billion years.
The implication Cosmos makes, once again about ancient religion and its acceptance of science, is all wrong. Instead of being an indictment of religion, ongoing acceptance of changing findings that were derived using a reasonable framework for the period is actually evidence for religious acceptance of science and reason. What's more annoying today than hearing global warming deniers say something like "science said something different 10 years ago, so we won't believe them now"? Religious people of that day were not doing that, they were instead intellectually evolving. By accepting Ussher after accepting Kepler and later accepting Kelvin, they had shown they could change their minds in the light of new evidence, which is exactly what we all insist literate people should do. Why make fun of that? Creating a bubble of beliefs around one person and making a generalization is as silly as if a show 500 years from now talks about James Hansen and declares that everyone in the 21st century was rushing to curb CO2 emissions. We know that is wrong, it would have to be intentional to frame it that way.
Those with an anti-religious agenda who talk about the age of the earth intentionally lump all religious people together with the term 'creationist', when they really mean Young Earth Creationist - those on the fringe who believe that geology and evolution and paleontology have somehow been faked in some weird theological prank. Using such intentional obfuscation means every scientist in the ancient world and 40% of all AAAS members today are "creationists" and therefore must believe the world is only 6,000 years old - though they would have good company in Kepler, use that as an invalidation of someone's science at the next conference you attend and see how well it goes over.
Such simplistic generalization is showing the exact lack of nuance and understanding they criticize about Young Earth Creationists.
Geochemist C.C. Patterson and his work on zircon using uranium-lead dating to arrive at a more accurate age of Earth gets favorable treatment in the show, though once again primarily by making cardboard cut-outs of the people who disagreed with the hero Cosmos chose to highlight.(7) Patterson dramatically altered our understanding of the earliest date the earth was created, and his methodology remains fascinating, but the glossy adulation also smacks of 'look how much smarter we are now' elitism.
Yet even he was incorrect, just a lot less so. Patterson did not have access to zircon crystals from Western Australia's Jack Hills region, but that does not make him wrong any more than it made Kepler or Ussher wrong for using what they had.
We're still narrowing the age of the planet down. Every time we find older rock to compare with chondritic meteorites, that range gets a little smaller. There's nothing wrong with that, that's what science is. That is what makes it even more obvious that the adolescent cultural jabs are unneeded. What insight into science would we have lost if Cosmos had not bothered to mention Ussher at all? None. Once again, they seem to be forcing their cultural world view on the public and that may be part of the reason why half the audience has abandoned it since week one.
If Cosmos really needs to make fun of old-timey bad calculations and anti-science beliefs, and look less anti-religious doing it, they could have used Galileo instead. Galileo ridiculed Kepler's work on the tides and insisted it was wrong despite the mathematical evidence and thousands of years of observation. Sure, some religious people deny evolution but Galileo denied a whole moon.
Yet somehow I doubt we will get patronizing jabs at Galileo in Cosmos any time soon. Or Kepler. They were not priests, after all.
And Happy 6,991st birthday of the universe this Sunday, Kepler believers!
(1) It isn't just hardcore atheists who do this goofy stuff. Anti-evolution people also try to make everything about Darwin, as if biology stopped 155 years ago. Well, Henry Ford also did not build the perfect car but car bloggers do not run around the Internet criticizing him. Both anti-religion and anti-evolution people need to modernize their thinking a little.
(2) Though anti-religious zealots insist religious people hate science, you'd never know it watching dozens of shows on the Shroud of Turin or on ancient archeology or almost anything else. They all have scientists, I saw Science 2.0 fave Phil Plait in one about the Book of Revelation. Those shows are all being watched by religious people who are engaging in confirmation bias, no different than organic food shoppers and political party supporters do.
(3) The aforementioned Phil Plait did the same thing and even used the same term in 2007. The science history known by atheists seems to be really, really limited. Do a search for Kepler's date for creation of the universe on Discover.com and you won't find a single hit.
(4) Prior to MacArthur becoming Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers in World War II, Charlemagne and his successors as heads of the Holy Roman Empire had the coolest title in geopolitics.
(5) I was having difficulty sourcing Kepler for this so I asked Thony Christie, fast becoming one of my favorite history pundits. He explained that Kepler did his calculation to debunk contemporary Prophets of Doom - by showing their calculations of when the universe began were wrong.
In physics analysis, it is always possible to converge on an entirely accurate yet completely wrong answer. Kepler's method was sound, as was Ussher's, they just proceeded from false assumptions.
(6) Kepler was obviously right a lot more than he was wrong - that is the problem of taking historical events out of context, as Cosmos does with Ussher. Kepler also derived the birth year of Jesus that is now universally accepted and his Stereometria Doliorum Vinariorum (“The Stereometry of Wine Barrels”) still holds up today, yet it would take Cosmos-level fact-mining to make it seem like that's all he did.
(7) Talk about unintentionally debunking the naturalistic fallacy. They nicely create a "Reefer Madness" for environmentalists version of the lead issue, complete with raving workers jumping out of windows - and include the rationalization for the harmlessness of lead was that it's found organically. Remember that the next time someone tells you how their organic toxic pesticides are somehow less dangerous than synthetic ones.
Dr. Robert Kehoe is predictably demonized in the lead segment, though alleging that he was a paid shill borders on unethical revisionism. However, science overall is absolved in a way environmentalists will not like. Despite the claims by environmentalists today that any scientists they disagree with are for sale and unethical, back then virtually the entire scientific community stood behind Patterson when he believed that lead was toxic.
However, Kehoe was not as one-dimensional as he was portrayed. He correctly noted that among the public, lead levels had not risen and that there was no evidence of harm. He was paid because he did science they liked, they did not find someone and pay them to write science that was unethical. This is a big distinction that people who have never worked in science, much less in the corporate world, miss. Instead, like Cosmos, they make all opposing views simple caricatures of real people. Patterson believed harm must be occurring and Kehoe said 'show me the data'. The same people who decry Kehoe for that feed the anti-GMO and anti-vaccine precautionary principle fanaticism. But this was the time of Rachel Carson making "Silent Spring" into national policy despite it being an advocacy book short on data, so politicians were looking for ways to posture about how much they cared about public health.