On being provocative

December 26, 2014 • 6:21 pm

by Grania

Neil deGrasse Tyson has at times been a little testy about the attention his atheism gets when he spends so much more time as a science educator; so when I saw this on Twitter yesterday:


At first I was all like:


But he was clearly on a roll, and now the story has gone viral being reported all  over the place.



My verdict: he’s funny and he’s right. So, bro fist!


92 thoughts on “On being provocative

    1. Newton was born a bit before the switch to our current Gregorian calendar, which involved a 10-day shift. Via our current calendar he would have been born January 4th.

      I don’t think there’s any controversy about Jesus’ birthday. Virtually everyone recognizes this as a liturgically chosen date. I can’t even think of any fundamentalists who are sure of Jesus’ birthday.

  1. I can certainly understand his not wanting to spend much time or energy on the matter, one percent or whatever he wants. However, for the busy career scientist and others who spend more of their time on the religious problems, I’m good with that too.

    Without people like Dawkins and Hutchins and Harris and certainly Jerry Coyne and many others, we are just a bunch of people out here making noise to each other.

  2. Neil, if you happen to stop by…a somewhat but not entirely off-topic question for you.

    I know you’re a big fan of Newton. (How could you not be?) So, if you had to choose a single discovery of his to pick as your favorite (for whatever reason), what would it be?

    I ask because I have no clue, myself, how I’d pick a favorite of my own….


    1. I don’t know about Neil, but I suspect the thing most admired about Newton is his discovery of the laws of motion and gravity. This is what changed our view of nature most profoundly. Simple equations that told you how things move. I think it must have been seen as pointing the way to further advances.
      On the other hand he achieved so much in such a short span of time. That’s pretty admirable too.

      1. It’s not just mechanics…he revolutionized optics, and that led physicists on a separate path from mechanics to Quantum Mechanics, at the other end of the scale….


      2. I would pick mechanics, as it builds modern science (theories) more than gravity did.

        But Newton also changed our concept of space profoundly, if we go by large ramifications. He was the first to abstract away space akin to time AFAIK, before him space was the very graspable volume between a table and a chair, that the table and chair sat _at_. After him space was the rather effete volume that the table and chair sat _in_.

        [He probably knew about (galilean) relativity, but it was too large a step. As I understand it his “absolute room” was more ‘absolute’ in the sense of existing than being fixed. But it is difficult to read texts that far back, the culture was too different.]

    2. Not being NdGT, but I’ll throw my 0.02€ into the hat :
      Because his other discoveries are facts, but calculus is a methodology whose utility extends to any measurement that changes with either time or location. There is little in science since Newton that hasn’t used calculus at some point in it’s discovery or analysis.

          1. Quite a long time before calculus. The Conics by Apollonius of Perga has pages and pages of proofs about the properties of the parabola, including a theorem that parallel rays reflecting off the inside of a parabola all cross through a focal point.

            Also, the legend that Archimedes made weaponized solar reflector is based on the fact the Greeks experimented with parabolic reflectors and sometimes used them as solar ovens.

            1. Uh huh. Not surprised. I was sure the locus (focus + directrix) construction for a parabola pre-dated Newton by a long time ; wasn’t sure about the angles method.

        1. “Most significant” is somewhat less subjective than “favourite”. I’ll answer the questions that I want to.

        1. They did it in different ways.

          Newton was motivated by physics and engineering and used differences (fluxions), which are easier to use practically (if one is careful) and leads to interesting modern number systems.

          Leibniz was motivated by math and used differentials, which are easier to use theoretically (if one is careful) and eventually it led to a stable theory.

        2. Independent, simultaneous discoveries by decidedly different routes, I agree. However I’m not aware of evidence that Newton actually copied Leibniz’s work.

      1. I wonder if Tyson gives Leibniz equal credit for “the” calculus.

        (And why do we say “the” calculus? Jest cuz someone else did? Why don’t we say “the algebra,” “the geometry,” etc.?)

            1. “Perhaps they think it’s plural … ”

              Yup, were it a fourth declension Latin noun -us,-us) and not a first (-us,-i). (Amazing what linguistic detritus (4th decl.?) I retain from high school.)

        1. What I find most impressive about Newton’s discovery of calculus is that he wasn’t working on math directly, that wasn’t his goal. He was trying to solve another problem but the tools didn’t exist, so he devised a new tool, calculus, to solve the problem he was working on.

    1. I remember seeing that bit and also noticed Sam Harris was sitting next to Tyson at the time. Thought maybe he might reach over and give him a smack. I also think Tyson needs to understand when you are out there taking them on as Richard Dawkins does all the time, being the perfectly nice educator is not always the way to go.

      1. That understanding will come — if it hasn’t already — when he realizes that, for those who are sincerely offended by Richard and his “ilk,” any utterance short of the Sinner’s Prayer is horridly strident when mouthed by one of those angry, militant atheists.

        Indeed, these very tweets are all but indistinguishable from burning a cross in front of a bombed-out church to the likes of Pat Robertson and Bill O’Reilly. I won’t at all be surprised if they wind up being Exhibit A in the next report from the front on the Great War on Christmas.

        And I’m not being hyperbolic, even though I really wish I were…especially after Neil already went all strident on Bill.

        Yes, there’re lots of religious people who think Pat and Bill and the like are over-the-top with their histrionics. But they’re also not the type who think Richard is strident — or, at least, not the type who’re particularly bothered or offended by him if they think he is.


      2. Tyson is not the “perfectly nice educator” himself when he rakes public school teachers over the coals (as he did several years ago in the U.S. “The Humanist” magazine) for not “inspiring” and “engaging” students in science and math by, e.g., becoming sufficiently knowledgeable/conversant about rap/hip-hop “music.” Apparently the inherent excitement and wonder of science is not sufficient for certain students. Did Tyson himself make this sort of fatuous requirement of his own teachers/professors? Surely not. It was rather the love of science and math in general and astrophysics specifically.

        I’ve recently read that 76% of K-12 public school teachers are female. So, this seems predominantly a slam against female teachers, whether Tyson so intends or not. (No doubt, the remaining 24% men are heavily weighted in the middle and high school grades.) Where are the menfolk? Pursuing Romneyesque venture capitalist/hedge fund ambitions? Are they not being properly, capitalistically “incentivized”? In contrast, what “incentivizes” people to go into teaching, nursing/allied health care, law enforcement, social services and the military (to go in harm’s way to be killed or maimed for life)? Just who do we expect to go into such fields?

    1. There was alcohol involved at my family gathering. I kept pointing out how one of the guys there had “decapitated Jesus” around his neck and how this is a bit morbid. (It was a solid gold Jesus head). Somehow this all went over well. Praise God and the spirits of Christmas (brandy, rum, scotch…)!

        1. No no no, not actual size! Haha. That would have required a photo. It was maybe 3 or 4 cm in diameter. But, you nailed it, interesting family indeed, strong drinks required to make it through a gathering.

      1. one of the guys there had “decapitated Jesus” around his neck and how this is a bit morbid.

        Where do I send the head of … I was going to say “Cthulhu”, but Brits of a certain age will understand why I say

        “Send Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia!”

      2. A solid gold sphere with that diameter would contain over $1200 worth of gold (0.17 kg minimum); that would be before any manufacturing costs for the head itself. I am guessing that either he lied or you made a bad assumption. More likely a cheap gold plate or something else. Google “gold jesus head on a chain” for many examples.

  3. Tyson makes me cringe as an atheist. He is more smug than careful –his trail of casual misstatements is a long one — and he’s spineless. He’s willing to taunt Christians but can anyone supply a link to him mocking Muhammed?

    And 4 January is not Dec 25. Dec 25 Julian was not really “this day long ago.” The joke relies on ignorance.

    1. According to Wikipedia, IN was borne on Julian 25 Dec 1642, which was the calendar used in England at that time. So I reckon that qualifies NDG’s post as “true”.

      The link in Post 3 partly meets your charge about not knocking Muhammed.

      1. You did notice I mentioned the Julian date?

        And no, the quote in 3 mocks current muslim extremists NOT Muhammed, as I specified, nor the Koran.

      2. ” . . . not knocking Muhammed.”

        I read on either a WEIT thread or somewhere else of a guy whose first name was Mohammed and last name Mohammed. I look forward to hearing of some guy whose middle name is also Mohammed.

        (We know it’s not “kosher” to name a pet “Mohammed.” Is “Ali” okay? An “Ali” [alley] cat? 😉 )

          1. “Major Major Major” was the name his father surreptitiously wrote on the poor guy’s birth certificate, though Major didn’t discover the fact until he had mostly finished growing up. And then some joker in the army promoted him to the rank of major….

            Ou est les Niegdens d’atan?


            1. A fellow named J.G. Gee earned his commission as an ensign (O-1) in the U.S. Navy. Then he was promoted to O-2, he became Lieutenant, Junior Grade, Lieut. JG J.G. Gee.

        1. We know it’s not “kosher” to name a pet “Mohammed.”

          Oh, it’s perfectly kosher to name a pet — or even a teddy bear! — “Mohammed.”

          It’s just not halal….


    2. … but can anyone supply a link to him mocking Muhammed?

      Oh Jibbers Crabst, get over your fatwah envy.

  4. All I can say when I read those was go deGrasse Tyson! It’s the kind of provocative comments that spark debate. Heck, they weren’t even offensive, unless one counts irreverence itself as being offensive.

  5. I love NdT, but his dancing around the issue of religion has always rubbed me the wrong way. For someone so committed to science, and so emphatic about the value of science in acquiring knowledge, he has often been remarkably wishy-washy about the religion/science divide.

    From everything the man has ever said or written, it’s beyond clear that he’s atheist, but I think he knows that a certain segment of the US population will immediately tune him out if he becomes “just another Dawkins”.

    1. Hmm… 

      The day you stop looking because you’re content God did it, I don’t need you in the lab. You’re useless on the frontier of understanding the nature of the world.

      — Neil deGrasse Tyson

      That’s not wishy-washy.


  6. Newton was religious about the causes of evolution. He was religious in his way of understanding physics. He believed the lord made the planets path and many other things. If you knew more about Newton, you would not like him. Newton was a iteration of every person this time period.

    How did you get this non-religious view of Newton?

    1. Oh, we’re full aware that Newton was quite the fruitcake — you even left out his fondness for alchemy. How could you overlook that?

      But we forgive him.

      Even if he didn’t realize it, himself, he closed the door on all things supernatural.

      And then Darwin went and bolted the door shut and turned the key into a loverly little sculpture of a finch.

      Then, by about a century ago, several hundred feet of steel-reinforced concrete had been poured over the site, and just a couple years ago the team at CERN finished the ten-foot-thick titanium dome over the concrete. Now they and NASA are working on an iridium-and-gold latticework overlay, itself several inches thick, just because they think it’ll look pretty.

      …but, again, it all started in earnest when Newton closed the door in the first place. Even if he kept peeking through the keyhole and tried to slip some secret notes under the threshold.



      1. Ben, your poetry is inspiring.

        Newton is respected because so many of his ideas have withstood the trials of science, not because he was some kind of prophet. Ideas, not authority.

          1. Ah yes, The Schrödinger Cat Flap.

            I hear it has a Maxwell Demon so that it can let the gods in, but it is put in state of life/dead superposition. At least as long as the religious don’t want to look.

        1. Moreover, even his religious ideas are worth thinking about – some of them, at any rate. Perhaps not for us unbelievers, but for others it might be interesting to note he, for example, correctly pointed out that “trinity” is not biblical, etc. Some of the other religious stuff is loopy (Daniel’s prophecies, temple measurements, etc.) but he was a mild biblical critic (like Spinoza a generation earlier) and that’s all to the good. Heresy (of the right kind, and with the right attitude) promotes freethought IMO; that’s why I say Luther attempted to shore up faith but provided a way to undermine it as well, by encouraging everyone to actually read the texts.

    2. When he was actually doing the work, he must have had his science hat on in order to have accomplished what he did. It was later in the evening, sitting in front of the fireplace with his cat in his lap, he pondered the BIG questions and got it wrong. Now, if Templeton funding had been available back then…

    3. “How did you get this non-religious view of Newton?”

      To whom does your “you” refer? I don’t detect any non-religious view of him here.

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