I wish a certain (tv) star would think before he tweets

On a couple of occasions I have blogged about the publically displayed history of science ignorance of mega-star science entertainer Neil deGrasse Tyson (NdGT). On Sunday I stumbled over one his tweets, which stridently proclaimed:

 

If you wished upon that first Star you saw tonight in twilight,

then it will not likely come true. You wished on planet Venus

Venus is always brighter than all other planets or stars as seen from Earth. The second brightest object on the image is Jupiter Source: Wikimedia Commons

Venus is always brighter than all other planets or stars as seen from Earth. The second brightest object on the image is Jupiter
Source: Wikimedia Commons

My first reaction was that this tweet was very mean spirited and to ask myself what NdGT’s intention was in tweeting it. Then as a historian of astronomy I replied to this tweet by pointing out that from antiquity up to the beginning of the eighteenth century all illuminated celestial bodies – stars, comets, planets – were referred to as stars and so one would still be wishing upon a star. Now NdGT has a trillion sycophants followers, so the last thing I expected was a response from the great man himself to my tweet. Imagine my surprise when I got just that:

 

The 7 “planetes” (Greek for “wanderer”) were distinct from stars:

Sun Moon Mercury Venus Mars Jupiter Saturn.

 

Slam -Bam! A killer etymological put down or at least I assume that was what NdGT thought he had achieved. Unfortunately he had just ridden himself deeper into the mire. If we actually consult an etymological dictionary on the origins of the term planet we discover the following:

Planet (n): late Old English planete, from Old French planete (Modern French planète), from Late Latin planeta, from Greek planetes, from (asteres) planetai “wandering (stars),” from planasthai “to wander…

Oh dear, planet doesn’t mean wanderer in the original Greek; it means wandering star! The Greeks did indeed differentiate between fixed stars, our stars, wandering stars, the seven planets and hairy stars (I’ve always liked that one) the comets, but, and this is the decisive point, they are all stars, as I stated in the first place. Whether NdGT’s etymological error was out of ignorance or a result of deliberate quote mining I can’t say.

NdGT might have saved himself some embarrassment if he had paused for a moment to consider the etymology of astronomy, the mother discipline of his own profession, astrophysics. Astronomy is also derived from ancient Greek, as was astrology and as I pointed out in another post the two terms were, from their origin up till the late seventeenth century, synonyms. Let’s just check out those etymologies shall we.

Astronomy (n): c. 1200, from Old French astrenomie, from Latin astronomia, from Greek astronomia, literally “star arrangement,” from astron “star”

Astrology (n): late 14c., from Latin astrologia “astronomy, the science of the heavenly bodies,” from Greek astrologia “telling of the stars,” from astron “star”

So astrologia, which is the older of the two terms, means the science of the heavenly bodies, which of course includes the planets. Astronmia naturally includes the planets too, as stars.

What evidence can I bring forth that this was still the case in the Early Modern Period? I have no lesser witness than that well-known Elizabethan playwright and poet Will Shakespeare. In his tragedy Romeo and Juliet he refers to the fact that their doom has been predetermined by their astrological fate. Now an astrological horoscope determines the position of the planets along the elliptic, the apparent path of the sun around the earth, so astrology is very much planetary. So how does the good bard describe the astrological doom of his two young lovers?

From forth the fatal loins of these two foes,

A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life

Note Romeo and Juliet are star-crossed, although it is the planets that determine their fate. In fact the expression ones fate is written in the stars is still very much used today in the English language.

I do have a last sad note for NdGT concerning his original tweet. Most people probably associate the expression ‘to wish upon a star’ with the pop song When You Wish Upon a Star originally from the Walt Disney film Pinocchio from 1940, which has been covered by many, many artists. However the tradition is much older and in fact goes back at least to the ancient Romans. The tradition says that if you make a wish when you see the first star of the evening then that wish will come true. Now the first star of the evening is ‘the evening star’ also known as the planet Venus and in fact the tradition derives from the Roman worship of Venus their goddess of love, so if you did make a wish upon seeing Venus, as NdGT claimed in his original tweet, then you would be doing exactly the right thing to have your wish come true. You are just offering up a prayer to the divine Venus.

The Birth of Venus, by Sandro Botticelli c. 1485–1486 Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Birth of Venus, by Sandro Botticelli c. 1485–1486
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The saddest aspect of this brief collision on Twitter is just how many of NdGT’s sycophants followers retweeted and/or liked his etymology of the term planet tweet thinking he had brilliantly seen of the bothersome history of astronomy troll. I wouldn’t mind him spouting history of science crap if he was some brain damaged loony with 15 followers on Twitter but unfortunately he is the most well-known and influential English language science communicator in the world and his false utterances mislead and misinform a lot of trusting people.

 

 

 

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28 Comments

Filed under History of Astronomy, Myths of Science

28 responses to “I wish a certain (tv) star would think before he tweets

  1. Pingback: I wish a certain (tv) star would think before he tweets — The Renaissance Mathematicus | O LADO ESCURO DA LUA

  2. Another bad use of astronomical language is to refer to an up-and-coming media personality as a “shooting star” in German (yes, the English term). Like many English terms used in German, even those that exist in English often don’t mean what they are supposed to mean in German.

    A shooting star, of course, is usually about the size of a pea or less, it shines only briefly, appearing much more important than it is, then vanishes forever. 😐

    It’s not that the term, a meteoric rise to fame, is inappropriate, but it is not as positive as people think that it is.

  3. plutosdad

    I fail to see what was wrong with his original tweet. If what you say is true, and we referred to planets as stars, along with everything else, then his first tweet was right. “wishing upon a star” was probably wishing upon what we would now call a planet. The phrase has never changed. I actually thought it was referring to wishing upon a meteorite falling, or maybe a comet. But most people probably don’t even know, they think it literally means a star as we know them today.

    The rest of it you are probably right about, I am only referring to his first tweet and your response.

  4. Jeb

    Its the standard rule of H.O.S anthropology. All ‘myth’ is a mis-observation of natural phenomena.

    Identify a mis-observation you have a identified a myth you can now bust. Ring the bell the dog will start drooling.

    My advice would be not to take a line from a song in a disney film so literaly.

    • From: The Renaissance Mathematicus <comment-reply@wordpress.com> Reply-To: The Renaissance Mathematicus <comment+lgqeip9uw2rtg96_kxh-7xpguw4-3tk1mdlz7cvqdq42v_6tw0z38hfq@comment.wordpress.com> Date: Wednesday, December 7, 2016 at 9:48 AM To: Gabriel Finkelstein <gabriel.finkelstein@ucdenver.edu> Subject: [New comment] I wish a certain (tv) star would think before he tweets

      Jeb commented: “Its the standard rule of H.O.S anthropology. All ‘myth’ is a mis-observation of natural phenomena. Identify a mis-observation you have a identified a myth you can now bust. Ring the bell the dog will start drooling. My advice would be not to take a lin”

  5. Jeb

    “If youre heart is in your dream/ no request is too extreme/ when you wish upon a star/ as dreamers do

    Neil (Pinocchio) deGrasse Tyson is just giving a new twist to a theme long used to memorialize concepts of American identity throughout the 20th century.

    “A star rose, a great burning star that called to him”

    Pinocchio in America, 1928

  6. alexis zabe

    I searched the etymological origin of the word planet, all results I found in a quick web search revealed the word planet comes from the greek planan (wander), planētēs (wanderer) no mention of star. the ancient greek word for star is aster (can’t seem to find that word in the roots for planet).
    anyway, my real question is why are you so angry at Neil deGrasse Tyson?

    • You are obviously not very good at searching, go back and search again!

      • Maybe you should have tried Wikipedia, for example:

        The word “planet” derives from the Ancient Greek ἀστήρ πλανήτης astēr planētēs, or πλάνης ἀστήρ plánēs astēr, which means “wandering star,” and originally referred to those objects in the night sky that moved relative to one another, as opposed to the “fixed stars”, which maintained a constant relative position in the sky.

  7. Frank

    I don’t know why the bitter tone of the author trying to microscopically analyse a tweet. it was intended for humour which apparently your dystopian head can not get around to.

    The fact is planets and stars mean different things in modern literature even though their linguistic origins cross. and the tweet was made in 2016 I’m assuming, so maybe catch up?

  8. Jeb

    p.s. the most amusing use of post definition is within the alt. right new found sense of political correctness, in which the ‘common usage’ of post truth is defined as a form of hate speech used to target a persecuted ethnic minority (the alt right).

    • Yes well I’m glad you can at least see humor in somethings.

      But i do say that for a man who “studied” philology among other disciplines for that long, you’d think would at least have the minimal amout respect twards concepts of the evolution of language, and not hide behind insults, but then again i shouldn’t assume how much you comprehend.

      It’s sad because honesty I mistook you for a man of science and reasoning that i might have learned a thing or two from. Instead i found a sad arrogant man who tries to prove his worth somehow by falsely and viciously discrediting people.

      Enjoy this very small corner of the internet gentlemen.

      P.s. Feel free to analyse my use of the word “corner” or any other trivial imperfections if they are the only things that bring you joy.

      • And one last thing in hopes of infighting you a little, is that if your concept of a definition is a static truth, then you simply are in denial of the progression of knowledge. And should maybe take a few steps back and learn about the scientific method.

      • Your comment comes across like the whinging of a petulant child, upset because somebody has dared to criticise his hero.

      • monkB

        outstanding remark Thony! a very cogent case indeed.

        if you cant even stand by your empty calims then you are no better than the person you just critisized in your post, worse still not half man enough to admit it.

  9. Frank

    Funny! There it goes again, pretending not to see the truth and avoiding valid points by hiding behind insults.

  10. Jeb

    The point was rejected on the basis of an historical claim.

    “The 7 “planetes” (Greek for “wanderer”) were distinct from stars:

    Sun Moon Mercury Venus Mars Jupiter Saturn.”

    Argument here that the distinction between star and plant is a historical constant and not a modern distinction.

    Thony makes the claim that statement is untrue based on his understanding of the evolution of the terrms and concepts.

    The argument is that Neil has taken a modern understanding of the terms and projected them into a past where it does not exist.

    In order to reject the claim you have to demostrate that Thony’s historical account is false and the usage remains the constant over- time. i.e that the term has not evolved significantly over time and remains constant.

    Neil made a historical claim based on consistency of meaning over- time not one based on modern distinctions of the term in Science lit and evolution over- time.

  11. Jeb

    p.s.

    “definition is a static truth, then you simply are in denial of the progression of knowledge. And should maybe take a few steps back and learn about the scientific method.”

    I can hold my hands up here to being an ignorant peasant who knows nothing about the scientific method.

    I went out in my backgarden last week at night and marveled at the stars, rather than the stars and the planets. So I can see the underlying point you are trying to reach and it is a fair one, culture and language here is not helpfull from a science perspective.

    The issue with basing that on a false historical claim is that it ultimatly suggests that elites have always been correct and peasants like me have always been ignorant.

    Neil is not making that claim but its here the danger lies, that H.O.S simply becomes a self -serving exercise that entrenches emotive appeals to culturaly held bias.

    • monkB

      Ah yes i do see your point. that Neil projected the new term in an era it did not belong but further more contradict himself.
      I was not speaking from a historian’s view, rather an observer from current times into the past, but in my opinion i didn’t see it as Neil trying to make a historical claim.

      I extend my apology to the offended parties, if any. It is quite easy to get emotionally involved in proving a point.

      Also thank you Thony for the great amount of knowledge available here.

      As for your last remark Jeb, it deeply saddens me this bias hierarchy that has existed for as far back as the ancient Egyptians. I am a student of medicine who is unfortunately surrounded by it right now, but i also am a very firm believer that knowledge and academia are an ideal model to prove correlation does not imply causation.
      I try my hardest to not see nobles or peasants but what one has to offer.

      • Jeb

        I am a believer as well. Learning is messy, saying exactly what you think and feel an important part of that processes, not offensive to disagree its a vital part of learning.

  12. Pingback: Whewell’s Gazette: Year 3, Vol. #17 | Whewell's Ghost

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