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.
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.