Leave it to famed astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson to gleefully troll Christians, via Twitter, on Christmas. But for once, one of the smartest men alive actually got his facts wrong.
On Christmas morning, Neil deGrasse Tyson, who is the director of New York’s Hayden Planetarium and the host of Cosmos, tweeted something intended to rile up believers who were celebrating the holiday.
“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.”
Predictably, Tyson’s tweet set off an internet firestorm, as some of his more controversial tweets are apt to do. It was retweeted close to 15,000 times in less than an hour, and has been retweeted a total of nearly 60,000 times. His original tweet, however, elicited plenty of negative reaction.
“Hi @neiltyson, trolling Christians on Dec 25 is so EDGY. Please let me know when you troll Muslims on Ramadan. Merry Christmas!” wrote one Twitter user.
Another wrote, “Looking fwd to witty jabs during the spiritual days of Islam, Buddhism, Judaism etc. Or is it reserved for the easiest target?”
Neil deGrasse Tyson’s tweet was intended to play on the fact that famed physicist Newton is believed to have been born on December 25, while Jesus Christ, whose birth is celebrated worldwide by Christians on December 25, was almost certainly not born on that particular date. In fact, most early theologians believe that Jesus was actually born in the spring, but that the December 25 date may have been adopted by early Christians to coincide with the existing pagan festivals such as the Winter Solstice in order to convert people.
And although Tyson probably cares very little that he upset many Christians — as that was probably his actual intent — the truth is, his own tweet was factually incorrect.
It turns out that Newton was born during a period in which England used a different calendar from the rest of Europe. For around 150 years, England used the Julian calendar, a less accurate calendar version that lagged behind the much more accurate (and still used today) Gregorian calendar. The Julian calendar lags ten days behind the Gregorian calendar, because unlike its more accurate counterpart, the Julian calendar used a faulty method for accounting for leap years.
What this means is that, while in England, Newton was said to be born on December 25, 1642, in the rest of the world, using the accurate dating method, he was actually born on January 4, 1643.
Of course, it’s likely that Tyson already knew all of this, but for a man who is known as a “know-it-all” by many, it’s rarely a good idea to present something as fact when it isn’t actually factual.
Ironically, although Neil deGrasse Tyson has long been open about his attitude towards organized religion, Isaac Newton devoted a great deal of his later life to theology and the interpretation of biblical prophecies. So it seems as though Tyson cannot possibly think that all Christians are clueless. When asked once which scientist Tyson would like to meet, his answer was swift and fervent.
“Isaac Newton. No question about it. The smartest person ever to walk the face of this earth. The man was connected to the universe in spooky ways. He discovered the laws of motion, the laws of gravity, the laws of optics. Then he turned 26.”
Of course, even with the date wrong, Neil deGrasse Tyson, as always, made his point clearly enough.