Astrophysicist and media personality Neil deGrasse Tyson was recently at the center of a Twitter spat, and I asked a question that sparked a response concerning it. Boy, did it ever.
But first, some background:
On Christmas Day, Tyson — who was also the host of Fox’s 2014 version of Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos,” called “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey” — cracked a scientific joke on Twitter:
“On this day long ago, a child was born who, by age 30, would transform the world. Happy Birthday Isaac Newton b. Dec. 25, 1642.”
Clever, and to my mind, harmless. But Tyson didn’t stop there. He then tweeted:
“Merry Christmas to all. A Pagan holiday (BC) becomes a Religious Holiday (AD). Which then becomes a Shopping holiday (USA).”
A lot of people say that Christmas is just a warmed-over pagan celebration. But just because a claim is frequently repeated doesn’t mean it’s true.
And then Tyson tweeted…
“QUESTION: This year, what do all the world’s Muslims and Jews call December 25th? ANSWER: Thursday”
Well, duh. You could toss Buddhists, neopagans, Hindus, anyone still alive who worships Baal, atheists and a bunch of other people in there, too. No doubt Tyson thought he was being witty, but some folks didn’t appreciate his humor. Bryan Jacoutot, who describes himself as an attorney and “Infrequent Author” at the blog Legal Insurrection, tweeted (and was quoted in many places for doing so, including CNN.com):
“.@neiltyson is trolling Christmas today to show you how smart he is. #ScroogeWithaTelescope #Insecurity”
This isn’t the first time Tyson has gotten into troubled waters with a depiction of Christianity. In the opening episode of “Cosmos,” an animated segment about 16th-century Italian philosopher and theologian Giordano Bruno, who argued in favor of Corpernicus’ sun-centered cosmology, caused concerns about its accuracy.
The segment left the impression that it was this cosmological view that got Bruno in trouble with the Church, leading to him being burned at the stake in 1600.
That’s not the way it actually happened, as outlined in a piece at the blog for the science magazine Discover, titled “Did ‘Cosmos’ Pick the Wrong Hero?”
In it, Corey S. Powell wrote, “That depiction in the new Cosmos matches the standard textbook story of Bruno, but it is misleading and in some ways downright wrong. … In Cosmos, Tyson does carefully say that Bruno was not a scientist, and instead describes that picture of infinite worlds as a ‘guess.’ But Bruno was not guessing. He was advancing his own, heretical theology, which goes a long way to understanding the real reason that he was burned at the stake.”
It’s worth reading the whole thing, which also links out to a rebuttal from “Cosmos” co-writer Steven Soter and Powell’s discussion of that rebuttal.
Writing at the Website Patheos, Tony Rossi of “Christopher Closeup” assembled the case against the “Cosmos” portrait of Bruno, including that it defaulted to the idea that faith and science are incompatible.
Rossi wrote: “Ironically, if the writers of ‘Cosmos’ had handled the Bruno segment a little differently, by also profiling others like Copernicus, Galileo and the above-mentioned Digges with the honesty and complexity their stories demand, they would have found allies instead of antagonism in the Catholic community who simply want their history told fairly, the good along with the bad.
“That shouldn’t be too much to ask from those who say they’re committed to verifiable truth.”
Now, we move to the present. On Wednesday, Jan. 7, Tyson appeared in front of a roomful of TV journalists — including me — at the winter edition of the biannual Television Critics Association Press Tour, held at a hotel in Pasadena, Calif. (which, by the way, is home to CalTech and next door to Jet Propulsion Laboratory), where he announced his new late-night TV series for National Geographic Channel, called “Star Talk.”
It’s based on his popular podcast of the same name, which blends science and pop culture. In the course of the press conference, he said,
I’m not attracted to conflict for conflict’s sake, and then people are just enjoying the conflict rather than learning.
That being said, one of the first episodes will be an interview I had with Richard Dawkins. Richard Dawkins is a sort of avid atheist, out there, written books on this. And we just thought we should bring in somebody who would have something else to say. So we brought in a rather liberal priest, Catholic priest, who was going to offer commentary on these clips of Richard Dawkins. So we’re not completely outside of having point/counterpoint, but the goal is for you to learn, not for you to watch a fight.
A bit later, I took the microphone, told him I was a space and science geek, and a Catholic, and referenced his Twitter dust-up — in which I said I thought the Newton quip was funny. I asked if he was going to have any Vatican astronomers on to discuss astronomy, in the interests of showing that science and faith are not always at odds.
This is what Tyson said to that question, from the transcript National Geographic Channel provided to journalists later in the day:
So, remember it’s pop culture intersecting science and comedy. So we are not likely to have just a Catholic priest on unless that Catholic priest did something that has immense pop culture value. So the closest we came to that ?? three seasons ago we featured a Vatican astronomer who is a colleague of mine, and we had him around holiday season, and we just talked about the history of astronomy at the Vatican, which many people didn’t know about, and some people found it quite illuminating. I was quick to notice, to comment, in one of my letters responding to this dustup, that the Gregorian calendar is the most awesome calendar ever created. It was created by Pope Gregory.
(Note: I wasn’t sure whether the pope himself created the calendar that bears his name, so I looked it up. According to the online version of the Encyclopedia Britannica: “Aided chiefly by the Neapolitan astronomer and physician Luigi Lilio Ghiraldi (d. 1576) and the German Jesuit and mathematician Christopher Clavius, Gregory corrected the errors of the Julian calendar created by Julius Caesar.” And then Gregory promulgated it via a papal bull, necessary because we had to lose 10 days to bring everything into alignment. It took a while, but the world eventually signed on to Gregory’s new dating system.)
People, when they want to pick a fight, will miss those kinds of references that I’ve made to the contributions to astronomy made by Jesuit Vatican astronomers at the Vatican Observatory since the 16th century.
So, we’re there to expose ?? to tease out science whenever it can be found. A whole golden area of Islam was a thousand years ago. Major advances in science unfolded in that period. We featured some of that in “Cosmos,” so if you cherry-pick and find something that you might view critical, though it be factual, that’s a little bit unfair in the context of what else is going on.
Two days before my Christmas tweets, I had ten tweets, ten tweets, praising the Christmas windows of Macy’s in Herald Square, New York, but somehow nobody noticed that because they ?? because the headline said “Tyson” ?? what’s the word? ?? “trolls Christmas” and telling everyone that Isaac Newton was born on Christmas Day and he did his greatest work before he was 30? We know Isaac Newton was born on Christmas Day. Who knows when Jesus was born? We celebrate it Christmas Day.
As an astrophysicist and as an educator, I see it’s one of my duties to bring a cosmic perspective to people. What is a cosmic perspective? It is an outlook that is bigger than the one you have, and that can manifest on many levels. There are other planets that might have life. There are other civilizations through time that made discoveries that you didn’t. There are other religions that are not yours. There are other ways of looking and thinking. I occasionally tweet about an alien that I would have a conversation with. The alien says, “Where are you getting your energy from?” “Oh, we’re still drawing lines in the sand and fighting wars and digging fossil fuels.” I imagine the alien would just laugh because the universe is full of energy. This is an imagined conversation, but it’s a cosmic perspective in its own right.
So I try to bring that to “Star Talk” as we brought it to “Cosmos,” and one of them is on Christmas Day it’s Isaac Newton’s birthday ?? I told everyone it was Isaac Newton’s birthday, and that was viewed as trolling Christmas. And that tweet had 80,000 retweets, when my average retweet number is like 2,000 or 3,000. So that one somehow hit a nerve. I remain kind of surprised, especially since I tweeted something like that in previous years. It was only when a newspaper decided to headline it in the way they did that they then view it as somehow being anti?Christian. And since I’m actually not anti?Christian, the fact that it was portrayed that way meant people were not looking at anything else I’ve ever said regarding it. I tweeted a picture during Easter. I’m holding a huge bunny. I said Merry Christmas to all the Christians in the world. That’s in the Twitter stream. Look for it. It’s not hard to find.
(Evidently, Tyson misspoke, mixing up Christmas and Easter.)
That was ?? my sister has a rabbit that’s this big, and I visited her. We had Easter dinner, and said, “I’m going to hold this and I’m going to post this.” I’ve never seen a rabbit this big. It weighed like 30 pounds or something. So I sent that out. Nobody cited that when they wanted to say that I was a troll. I’m intrigued by this. It’s free speech, so I’m observer of it almost anthropologically. Yes. We’re yet to have a rabbi on. But I love ?? we have where pop culture can intersect science, we’re there. That’s what “Star Talk” is.
Well, there you go.