Neil Degrasse Tyson, modern celebrity scientist and director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York, published an essay in the Nov. 2005 “Darwin Issue” of the Natural History Magazine titled The Perimeter of Ignorance. The issue itself collected articles displaying the importance of evolution in all forms of science, and coincided with a traveling Darwin Exhibit which began at the Natural History Museum. In his essay, Tyson argues that what held Newton back from coming to a solution regarding the three body perturbation problem was his belief in God. This narrative – that religion instills ignorance in science – is the target of this post.
Standing in front of a crowd of scientists at the Science Network’s first Beyond Belief Symposia, Tyson expanded upon his 2005 essay. “What concerns me now is, even if you’re as brilliant as Newton, you reach a point where you start basking in the majesty of God and then your discovery stops. It just stops. You’re kind of no good anymore for advancing that frontier. Waiting for somebody else to come behind you, who doesn’t have God(1) on the brain, and who says ‘that’s a really cool problem, I want to solve it’.” What Tyson continues to discuss here is Newton’s inability to solve the three body problem. Tyson goes on to praise Newton’s intellectual capabilities to the audience, claiming that he practically invented calculus in a span of two months because of a dare(2). Turning to a historical perspective of Newton’s work on the subject at the time, we see a very different picture: using the method that Newton was using to approach the problem, it is actually impossible to reach a solution(3).
In the third episode of his Cosmos documentary series (2014), Tyson takes his frustration to a new level. Standing inside of Newton’s childhood home, he narrates his crowning achievement: “Along came Newton, a God loving man who was also a genius. He could write the laws of Nature in perfect mathematical formulas that could be applied to apples, moons, planets, and so much more. With one foot still in the Middle Ages, Isaac Newton imagined the whole solar system. Newton’s laws of gravity and motion revealed how the sun held distant worlds captive. His laws swept away the need for a master clockmaker to explain the precision and beauty of the solar system.” But what actually happened was in fact quite the opposite. Newton’s laws did not rush in a wave of secularized thinking that Tyson implies. Tyson simply ignores that fact that Newton only provided a mechanical how and not a why, a key question that was embedded not only in his own work but also in that of Leibniz, Darwin, and others. Tyson not only misses the point, but also grossly mischaracterizes what is actually happening. In almost all of the primary sources available to us regarding Newton’s religious and scientific views, what we end up seeing, again and again, is his raw fascination with the world around him.
It is in Newton’s own second edition to the Principia that we come across some of his most famous words, Hypotheses non fingo. I frame no hypotheses. It is at this moment that Newton is ripe and able to invoke a creator. But he does not. In Newton’s own appendix to the Principia, he goes further: “This most beautiful System of the Sun, Planets, and Comets, could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful being.” Newton implicates God only in the realm of his fascination of creation, and not its operation. Nowhere does god intervene into the natural world, so why does Tyson continue to ignore these facts?
What I find so interesting about this contradiction is the level to which Tyson holds Newton. He wants so badly to believe in the pure scientific genius of Newton that he himself invokes Newton himself as a Godlike figure. It is God that stops Newton here. It is this battle between the king of science and the king of religion. Newton is so powerful that if it weren’t for his belief in God, he would have solved the three body problem. If you turn to the texts themselves, however, you discover that it is likely Newton’s obsessions with religion and the natural world that drove him to discover and push forward the ‘boundaries’ of science. Without religion, would he have had any drive to discover?
(1) At this point in the lecture you can really feel how passionate Tyson is. His presence becomes irritated and his flailing hands animate his speech.
(2) Newton’s theory of calculus was started in 1666 and published in full in 1704.
(3) “Newton also faced a more general obstacle: within his geometric approach it was not possible to enumerate all of the perturbations at a given level of approximation, as one could later enumerate all of the terms at a given order in an analytic expansion. It was only with a more sophisticated mathematics that astronomers could fully realize the advantages of approaching the complexities of the moon’s motion via a series of approximations.” http://publish.uwo.ca/~csmeenk2/files/HoPHandbookWeb.pdf