More horrifically wrong pop history of science

This time, from Neil deGrasse Tyson, as described by Thony.

And, once again, there is nothing ideological I can see in any of NdGT's colossal historical blunders.

I think that many scientists and mathematicians just don't consider history a serious subject, so when they go to talk about history... they just make up whatever story suits their purposes.


  1. I think there IS a set of ideological blinkers at work. The notion that modern science did not grow out of existing (church-tainted) knowledge, but sprang suddenly, fully formed and de novo, after Galileo dared reject church doctrine. This is the kind of mindset that finds these kinds of fables too good to check.

  2. I hope you know Gene that I detest NdGT as much as anyone; he's trying to be a cool public intellectual? That's MY job!!

    But I have to say that I thought this particular takedown was pretty weak. The most glaring element is the gravity thing: NdGT said "universal law of gravitation." That covers what Thony means by saying (paraphrasing) "No Newton didn't discover gravity, he discovered how gravity affecting planets and apples is the same thing." Right, that's what NdGT meant by "universal law of gravity," and I'm kind of shocked that all of you are cheering this.

    Not as bad but still pretty bad: NdGT said Newton discovered "the laws of optics." Then Thony says no, other people were working on optics before. Well OK, other people were studying motion before too. So did Newton not discover the laws of motion?

    On artists, I took NdGT to mean, "Artists of the day didn't realize if you blended rainbow light, the result would be white." Maybe that's not what he meant, but it's actually *physics* books that make Thony's point, precisely because it clarifies how vision works to say that mixing paint colors is not the same as mixing colored lights. So maybe NdGT is indeed being a moron here, but his statement is consistent with not being a moron.

    The one demonstrable error (I'm assuming the basic fact is correct, I don't know) is Newton not being 26 when he had the calculus discussion.

    All in all, I'm giving NdGT a pass on this. If he is "blinded" I think in this case it's just due to making your hero better than he was.

    1. No, the worst thing is the claim that he "invented calculus in order to answer Halley," when the Principia did not use calculus at all.

      'On artists, I took NdGT to mean, "Artists of the day didn't realize if you blended rainbow light, the result would be white."'

      Bob, there were no artist's working by blending light at that time! Why would artists even be thinking about blending light?

    2. Other people had already discovered laws of optics though. Snell's law, reflection angles.

  3. Gene:

    I want to ask you to stop and calm down. You don't have to say, "NdGT is a God's gift to science education," you just have to consider that Thony made an unfair argument on this and now you are tripling down on it.

    I claim that NdGT of COURSE knows that mixing paints and mixing light yields different results. Thony is acting like that's something he learned watching Sesame Street so maybe Tyson doesn't know it. No, that's something you learn in standard physics classes (at least in the US), so of course Tyson knows it.

    Not only does he know it, I'm pretty sure that was *his point*. That someone who was used to working with paints, and *not* working with lights, would be surprised to learn that mixing all of the colors of the rainbow together would yield white light. They might have guessed it would be black.

    And then, to rebut me, you point out, "But no Bob, artists weren't working with colored lights back then."

    Right, that was (I think) Tyson's whole point. Surely he wasn't saying, "Artists all the time mixed light together with prisms, and they had observed that it turned white, so they would've been shocked to learn that mixing colored lights yields white light." Does that make any sense?

    1. "I want to ask you to stop and calm down."

      If I were any calmer I'd be asleep.

    2. OK, I *did* fall asleep, but now I'm up again.

      1) I *agree* that not every part of Thony's post is strong. Yes, the mechanics part is sketchy. The optics: hmm, it is still weird for NdGT to say this, since painters were not thinking about that problem at all, as far as I know. But maybe...

      2) Still, NdGT's history is terrible: you can't say "X did this at 26" when he did it at 40 and expect to be taken seriously on history. But *much worse* is the contention that Newton invented calculus *in order to answer Halley*. The Principia was his answer to Halley, and it *did not use calculus at all*. In fact, there must have been many history of science PhD theses written on "Why didn't Newton use calculus in the Principia?" (I'm speculating here; but I would bet the number is dozens, if not hundreds.)

      So the fact Thony is a bit hard on him in some places doesn't mean the NdGT material is not quite bad.

  4. Right Ken B (my lawyers inform me that I only have a close blockade on Free Advice), just like Kepler came up with laws of planetary motion before Newton. So if someone said, "Newton discovered the laws of motion, which governed everything from apples to planets," he would be a complete moron who probably hates the Pope.

    1. Come on Bob! "Partial moron who strongly dislikes the Pope" would be enough, wouldn't it?

    2. An elegant allusion on the blockade Bob. Bravo (really).

      I still think you are wrong.
      Newton really did discover general laws of motion and Kepler discovered facts about the solar system, often called laws. Aside from that, even if we call Kepler's facts laws, Newton's laws subsumed them. His work on optics did not subsume the Snell or reflection laws (Fermat did, later). This seems a relevant difference.


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