Why doesn’t he just shut up?

Neil deGrasse Tyson (NdGT), probably the most influential science communicator in the world, spends a lot of time spouting out the message that learning science allows you to better detect bullshit, charlatans, fake news etc. etc. However it apparently doesn’t enable you to detect bullshit in the history of science, at least judging by NdGT’s own record on the subject. Not for the first time, I was tempted recently to throw my computer through the window upon witnessing NdGT pontificating on the history of science.

On a recent video recorded for Big Think, and also available on Youtube and already viewed by 2.6 million sycophants, he answers the question “Who’s the greatest physicist in history?” His answer appears under the title My Man, Sir Isaac Newton. Thoughtfully, Big Think have provided a transcription of NdGT’s blathering that I reproduce below for your delectation before I perform a Hist_Sci Hulk autopsy upon it.

Question: Who’s the greatest physicist in history?DeGrasse Tyson:    Isaac Newton.  I mean, just look… You read his writings.  Hair stands up… I don’t have hair there but if I did, it would stand up on the back of my neck.  You read his writings, the man was connected to the universe in ways that I never seen another human being connected.  It’s kind of spooky actually.  He discovers the laws of optics, figured out that white light is composed of colors.  That’s kind of freaky right there.  You take your colors of the rainbow, put them back together, you have white light again.  That freaked out the artist of the day.  How does that work?  Red, orange, yellow, green, blue, violet gives you white.  The laws of optics.  He discovers the laws of motion and the universal law of gravitation.  Then, a friend of his says, “Well, why do these orbits of the planets… Why are they in a shape of an ellipse, sort of flattened circle?  Why aren’t… some other shape?”  He said, you know, “I can’t… I don’t know.  I’ll get back to you.”  So he goes… goes home, comes back couple of months later, “Here’s why.  They’re actually conic sections, sections of a cone that you cut.”  And… And he said, “Well, how did find this out?  How did you determine this?”  “Well, I had to invent integral and differential calculus to determine this.”  Then, he turned 26.  Then, he turned 26.  We got people slogging through calculus in college just to learn what it is that Isaac Newtown invented on a dare, practically.  So that’s my man, Isaac Newton. 

“WHO’S THIS BLATHERING TYSON FOOL?”

Let us examine the actual history of science content of this stream of consciousness bullshit. We get told, “He discovers the laws of optic…!” Now Isaac Newton is indeed a very important figure in the history of physical optics but he by no means discovered the laws of optics. By the time he started doing his work in optics he stood at the end of a two thousand year long chain of researchers, starting with Euclid in the fourth century BCE, all of whom had been uncovering the laws of optics. This chain includes Ptolemaeus, Hero of Alexandria, al-Kindi, Ibn al-Haytham, Ibn Sahl, Robert Grosseteste, Roger Bacon, John Pecham, Witelo, Kamal al-Din al-Farisi, Theodoric of Freiberg, Francesco Maurolico, Giovanni Battista Della Porta, Friedrich Risner, Johannes Kepler, Thomas Harriot, Marco Antonio de Dominis, Willebrord Snellius, René Descartes, Christiaan Huygens, Francesco Maria Grimaldi, Robert Hooke, James Gregory and quite a few lesser known figures, much of whose work Newton was well acquainted with. Here we have an example of a generalisation that is so wrong it borders on the moronic.

What comes next is on safer ground, “…figured out that white light is composed of colors…” Newton did in fact, in a series of groundbreaking experiment, do exactly that. However NdGT, like almost everybody else is apparently not aware that Newton was by no means the first to make this discovery. The Bohemian Jesuit scholar Jan Marek (or Marcus) Marci (1595–1667) actually made this discovery earlier than Newton but firstly his explanation of the phenomenon was confused and largely wrong and secondly almost nobody knew of his work so the laurels go, probably correctly, to Newton.

NdGT’s next statement is for a physicist quite simply mindboggling he says, “That freaked out the artist of the day.  How does that work?  Red, orange, yellow, green, blue, violet gives you white.” Apparently NdGT is not aware of the fact that the rules for mixing coloured light and those for mixing pigments are different. I got taught this in primary school; NdGT appears never to have learnt it.

Up next are Newton’s contributions to mechanics, “He discovers the laws of motion and the universal law of gravitation.  Then, a friend of his says, “Well, why do these orbits of the planets… Why are they in a shape of an ellipse, sort of flattened circle?  Why aren’t… some other shape?”  He said, you know, “I can’t… I don’t know.  I’ll get back to you.”  So he goes… goes home, comes back couple of months later, “Here’s why.  They’re actually conic sections, sections of a cone that you cut.””

Where to begin? First off Newton did not discover either the laws of motion or the law of gravity. He borrowed all of them from others; his crowing achievement lay not in discovering them but in the way that he combined them. The questioning friend was of course Edmond Halley in what is one of the most famous and well document episodes in the history of physics, so why can’t NdGT get it right? What Halley actually asked was, assuming an inverse squared law of attraction what would be the shape of aa planetary orbit? This goes back to a question posed earlier by Christopher Wren in a discussion with Halley and Robert Hooke, “would an inverse squared law of attraction lead to Kepler’s laws of planetary motion?” Halley could not solve the problem so took the opportunity to ask Newton, at that time an acquaintance rather than a friend, who supposedly answered Halley’s question spontaneously with, “an ellipse.” Halley then asked how he knew it and Newton supposedly answered, “I have calculated it.” Newton being unable to find his claimed calculation sent Halley away and after some time supplied him with the nine-page manuscript De motu corporum in gyrum, which in massively expanded form would become Newton’s Principia.

NdGT blithely ignoring the, as I’ve said, well documented historical facts now continues his #histsigh fairy story, “And he said, “Well, how did find this out?  How did you determine this?”  “Well, I had to invent integral and differential calculus to determine this.”” This is complete an utter bullshit! This is in no way what Newton did and as such he also never claimed to have done it. In fact one of the most perplexing facts in Newton’s biography is that although he was a co-discoverer/co-inventor of the calculus (we’ll ignore for the moment the fact that even this is not strictly true, read the story here) there is no evidence that he used calculus to write Principia.

NdGT now drops his biggest historical clangour! He says, “Then, he turned 26.  Then, he turned 26.  We got people slogging through calculus in college just to learn what it is that Isaac Newtown invented on a dare, practically.  So that’s my man, Isaac Newton.” Newton was twenty-six going on twenty seven when he carried out the optics research that led to his theory of colours in 1666-67 but the episode with Halley concerning the shape of planetary orbits took place in 1682 when he was forty years old and he first delivered up De motu corporum in gyrum two years later in 1684. NdGT might, as an astro-physicist, be an expert on a telescope but he shouldn’t telescope time when talking about historical events.

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23 Comments

Filed under History of Optics, History of science, Myths of Science, Newton

23 responses to “Why doesn’t he just shut up?

  1. As off-the-cuff history of science popularisation, I think NdGT’s remarks are passable. You interpret his statements in the most uncharitable way possible, and often more uncharitably still.

    “Newton invented the laws of optics” is a sloppy formulation, but reasonable in that Newton did indeed do groundbreaking work in optics. What you actually refute is “Not one single person before Newton had done anything in optics,” which is not what NdGT said.

    “Artists were surprised that white light is composed of colours” is a reasonable statement. What you actually refute is “If you mix all the paints you get white,” which is not what NdGT said.

    “Newton discovered the laws of motion and the universal law of gravitation” is a reasonable statement in that Newton provided the definitive framework for these things, which went way beyond what anyone else had done. Of course there are always precursors for everything in the history of science, but the gist of NdGT’s statement is obviously correct.

    “Newton used integral and differential calculus to determine the shapes of planetary orbits” is a reasonable claim. Newton did use the calculus for these kinds of questions, and these were among the most important applications of the calculus. In his published proof of the law of ellipses, and quite generally in the Principia, he didn’t use the calculus per se, in the narrow sense of the standard manipulations of formulas for differentiation and integration. Nevertheless he used what might be called a geometrical version of the calculus. In terms of the modern mathematics curriculum, Newton’s techniques have much more in common with calculus than any other area of mathematics. And of course Newton did in fact claim to have used the calculus for this, contrary to what you now say (“he also never claimed to have done it”), but as is obvious by following the link to your earlier post, whose very title refers to this fact.

    NdGT’s statement “Newton invented calculus, then he turned 26” is correct. NdGT’s timeline is confused since this wasn’t “on a dare” because the dare came later, but it’s still true that Newton invented calculus at a very young age, and that he (later) did momentously important things related to it “on a dare, practically.”

    I too wish that the history of science was better known. But telling people to “just shut up” and attacking them with malicious nitpicking incongruous with the context of their remarks is hardly the way to achieve this or to spread a positive image of history of science scholarship.

    • Swampfox

      You do not get white by mixing artists pigment colors together. You get a blueish grey. Where did you ever get white?

    • Your defence of NdGT is to say the least disingenuous. For example, to claim that Newton discovered the laws of optics is not sloppy it is just plain wrong. NdGT has a doctorate in astrophysics and he should damn well know the difference between discovering the laws of an entire disciple in physics and discovering one, albeit important, fact within that discipline.

      “Newton discovered the laws of motion and the universal law of gravitation” is not in anyway a reasonable statement and to try and suggest that it is is a true perversion of the history of science. The history of science is an academic discipline like any other and the constant attempt by people like NdGT to reduce it to a handful of inaccurate and even false anecdotes is an insult to every serious historian of science. Were I to treat astrophysics in the same way, NdGT would be amongst the first to criticise me loudly for doing so and disqualify me from talking about his discipline.

      If he expects people to treat science with respect and to get their facts right, and he does, then I can expect that he does the same for the history of science.

  2. Mike from Ottawa

    ““Newton invented the laws of optics” is a sloppy formulation, but reasonable in that Newton did indeed do groundbreaking work in optics.” – You are Humpty Dumpty and I claim my five pounds.

    Dude, “sloppy” only extends so far. Tyson’s spewing the equivalent of ‘Henry Ford invented the automobile.’ Your hero isn’t good at history of science. Get over it.

  3. Hans Tjelle

    I agree with Victor. This was a bit too harsh. I’m not particularily a fan of Tyson, but presenting accurately the history of a person on the fly is pretty hard, and anyone could botch it.

    • Mike from Ottawa

      Your premise is false. I had a look at the video. That was not ‘on the fly’. It’s not like someone stuck a camera phone in his face as he’s walking down a hallway or it came as a surprise question at a panel.

      Tyson botched it because he assumes as a scientist he knows the history of science – and I suspect he doesn’t get corrected on this stuff enough to have a proper sense of the level of his own knowledge.

    • This is not presented ‘on the fly’ but is a list of things that NdGT has repeated on various occasions over the years. He is particularly fond of his ‘Newton invented calculus on a dare”, which he repeat at every appropriate opportunity and quite a few inappropriate ones too. The statement is pure and utter bullshit and is one the level of young earth creationists claiming that the earth is only 6000 years old.

  4. I laughed so hard that my drink came out my nose.

  5. Dan Piponi

    > First off Newton did not discover either the laws of motion or the law of gravity. He borrowed all of them from others

    Where did he borrow the “law of gravity” from?

    • A complex question. One very thorough paper on the subject is
      “The Archaeology of the Inverse Square Law: (1) Metaphysical Images and Mathematical Practices” and its sequel “The Archaeology of the Inverse Square Law: (2) The Use and Non-Use of Mathematics”, by Ofer Gal and Raz Chen-Morris. For example, they document a clear statement of the inverse square law (ISL) for gravity in Hooke’s Micrographia, written between 1663–1664 and published in 1665, at least a year prior to Newton’s earliest claim. Kepler had stated the ISL for light spreading uniformly from a point source, and you will find even earlier anticipations in Robert Grosseteste and Nicolaus Cusanus (in a more abstract sense, e.g.. tied up with things like the “realm of Divine forms” — Gal & Chen-Morris’s paraphrase).

      Elsewhere in this blog you will find Thony’s argument giving Ismael Boulliau the credit, unjustified IMO. But the larger point is that the discovery of the ISL for gravity is not a discrete event, but a long historical process.

      Newton’s role was critical: he showed that the ISL implies conic sections for orbits, and vice versa. The idea of an ISL was “in the air” (almost literally in Hooke’s case—see the details in the Gal&Morris-Chen article) at the time, but making the connection to Kepler’s first law was a powerful argument for its correctness.

  6. B'Rat

    Err, great analysis, as always, but the “recent” video is from six years ago 😐

    • Bob

      Time is relative. I’m in my 60’s, and to me six years ago is recent. And your comment leads me to believe that your birth is also a relatively recent thing.

  7. NdGT said:

    You take your colors of the rainbow, put them back together, you have white light again. That freaked out the artist of the day.

    I wonder if this isn’t a confused reference to Goethe’s famous/notorious theory of colors (“Farbenlehre”). His book was published in 1810, so “of the day” is way off, and of course Goethe wasn’t a painter, but his theory was influential with actual visual artists.

    I say famous/notorious because at one time Goethe’s Farbenlehre was regarded mainly as a piece of crackpot pseudo-science. People have since come to appreciate that Goethe’s real interest was the perception of color; read in that light, his work fares better.

  8. Tbox

    Stiff as a stick of wood up ya clacka. Why so serious :/

  9. Aziz

    Thank you for your fabulous critique. The exact same mistake NDGT fell in is when he was speaking about the accomplished islamic scholar Abo Hamid Alfhazali. Thank you again.

  10. lux

    This is why Neil deGrasse Tyson is such an excellent scientific communicator, because he can make science exciting, and engaging while not being a pedantic asshole.

    • Science communicators often forget that history of science is a subject that is quite distinct from science itself. In history of science, how ideas developed and even the wrong paths that were followed are essential topics, while in science normally only the final (or current) theory needs to be taught.

      Taking the calculus as an example, there are no less than three explanations of it by Newton and a fourth by Leibniz. These tell us how their thought processes changed over time and how they built on the ideas of their predecessors like Barrow, Fermat, Cavalieri, and Roberval, and answered the paradoxes posed by (amongst others) Galileo and Torricelli. For NdGT to pretend that calculus sprang fully-formed from the 25 year-old Newton’s brain like Athena from the head of Zeus is just plain wrong. Abusing the author of the blog post for pointing this out is to make clear that you regard science as a branch of the entertainment industry.

      • A historian of science insisting that if NdGT is going to spout on about the history of science, then he at least gets his facts right is not being pedantic. If I were to publicly spout on about astrophysics as sloppily and inaccurately as he does about the history of science, he would be the first person to loudly criticise me and say that I am not qualified to talk about the subject.

  11. Mike from Ottawa

    Apparently, it’s not just history Tyson pooches: http://existentialcomics.com/comic/190 .

  12. monkB

    I wish people would engage with your many other important topics as much as they did with celebrity critique topics, It would make for some excellent learning.
    But i can’t deny its a good lure to get people finding the blog, here is a curious fish that never left.

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