Transcript of “The Perimeter of Ignorance” by Neil deGrasse Tyson

Here’s a transcript of a talks by Neil deGrasse Tyson. Taking notes, gleaning my favorite quotes, etc.

Video Source:


Editor’s note. The transcript is pretty much word for word, but I did clean up some of NDT’s vocal clutter like the words “and so, but, really, just, ok”. Those words makes sense in an oratory setting, but disrupt the flow of reading.

Beyond Belief—Science, Religion, Reason and Survival. November 5 – 7 2006 Salt Institute (La Jolla, California)


We’re still in the science vs. religion section. But I wanted to cap that off with Neil deGrasse Tyson. Neil is director of the Hayden Planetarium at Rose Center in New York. And you’ll also recognize him as the new host of PBS’s program Nova ScienceNow. Neil has something that will very nicely fit into what came up early this morning.


What I want to do is put some issues on the table I have not seen commonly discussed, and that I think they ought to be front-and-center for these next several days. I missed professor Weinberg’s talk. I tried to get here and I missed your talk completely. But I learned from informants that in fact we have some significant overlap in our discussion of Islam from a thousand years ago, so forgive me if I repeat some of what you might have already heard, but I will bring it out anyway because there’s a broader context that I want to share with you.

Oh, in case you are wondering: that’s the Eagle Nebula. One of the few photos that you’ll see that are this beautiful that are not by the Hubble Telescope. This is a one meter telescope at Kitt Peak Observatory in Arizona. The shape of the Eagle is barely discernible in this frame, because the Eagle is about two or three times the size of this. And the head of the Eagle would be up here. And the wings off to the left and off to the right. Perhaps most famous image of Hubble is a close-up of this zone right here, which has been variously called the “Pillars of Creation”, “God’s Fingers” and all sorts of other sort of religious references. People feel that way when they look at images of the cosmos, of course. I was always curious though that in the same universe you have things like the underbelly of a tarantula, and when magnified no one thinks religious thoughts when they make those observations. But it’s part of the same universe.

I’ll get back to that in a few moments, so here.

What I wanna do is: I wanna highlight a few issues. And these are issues that came together for an essay I wrote that appeared Natural History magazine “The Darwin Issue”. It was the opening of our Darwin exhibit that is now traveling. It’s no longer there at the museum. But “The Darwin Issue” collected together articles on the relevance of evolution, not only as an important concept in biology, but an important concept in all of science.

I thought long and hard about “How could I possibly contribute to this? I don’t know enough biology to be meaningful in that issue” and then I realized that there are elements of the… Intelligent Design movement, that clearly – there’s a lot of teeth that people attending this workshop have put into that subject. And I asked myself: “Do I have anything to contribute to that?” And I realized that I did. I want to fill a niche that I think is left unfilled. So let’s go through it.


Let me first start off with Ptolemy. Ptolemy, was one of the greatest, most influential scientists and his most important work is of course Almagest, which is Arabic for “the greatest”. And in it he codifies the geocentric universe. And this Earth-centered universe prevailed for centuries, until Copernicus and Galileo turned that around.

I want to call your attention to are notes that he penned in the margin of the manuscript of his work. Let me remind you that back then, you would look up at the night sky and the planets would move against the background stars; they would “wander”, because that’s what the word means in Greek: it’s “wanderer”. There were seven of these objects—the Sun and Moon included—and they would just move, they go to the left, and then they’d slow down and pause, and then they’d back up, and then they’d reverse again… and this is was a mystery! Complete mystery! And of course the heavens were not Earth. The fact that you didn’t understand what was going on up there was OK and expected because that was the work of the gods. We, being mortal down here on Earth… If you can’t understand it, don’t loose sleep over that fact. You perhaps never will.

Ptolemy had the best going explanation anyone had put forth, with the epicycles and the like, but nonetheless this is the boundary between what is known and unknown, about how the machinery of the universe works, and he pens these words, which is one of the most beautiful and poetic references to the state of one’s knowledge ever written:

“I know that I’m mortal by nature, and ephemeral, but when I trace at my pleasure the windings to and fro of the heavenly bodies, I no longer touch Earth with my feet; I stand in the presence of Zeus himself and take my fill of Ambrosia.”

Therein is this emotional, religious feeling at the limits of his knowledge. This is a trend that will continue for thousands of years; for at least two thousand years to follow. You have this whole notion of “intelligent design”… This is intelligent design! This quote that I just read to you, is Ptolemy invoking intelligent design. No, he’s not trying to get that into the classroom. There’s the politics of Intelligent Design in modern times. What I think has been swept under the rug that we have to contend with as a community of people who are “truth-seekers”, is the fact that some of the greatest minds that have preceded us have done just this.

OK. That’s Ptolemy. But we can go on. Who else do we have?


Galileo. Interesting case. Galileo was an exception to this. We all know he was a deeply religious man. A lot of the trouble he got into was because he was just kind of obnoxious, alright? He could have made nice with the pope and he did not. And of course I’m paraphrasing. Let me share with you some lines that he wrote to Christina, who was the Grand Duchess of Tuscany. I think they’re worth taking to heart.

“The Bible tells you how to go to heaven and not how the heavens go.” That’s one of the famous quotes attributed to Galileo. Another one was: “I don’t feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed with senses, reason and intellect, has intended us to forgo their use.”

He was one of the first to say ‘Alright, if religion has any point or purpose to it, it is not to serve as a science textbook.’ He was one of the first to suggest this division. Not to get rid of religion of course; like I said: he was a religious fellow *himself*.


It gets philosophically interesting when we get to this gentleman, Sir Isaac Newton. Now I don’t know what you know about Isaac Newton, but everything I’ve read of his tells me that there’s no greater genius to ever walk the surface of this Earth. Just read what this man wrote. Line by line by line. This guy was plugged in to the machinery of the universe. I think he’s unimpeachably brilliant. Unimpeachably brilliant.

Let me read again what we heard from Michael Shermer earlier. In Isaac Newton’s writings—his Principia—he discovers the laws of motion (F = MA), discovers the laws of gravity… It’s all there. He did this all before he turned twenty-six. In this, when he talks about motion there’s no reference to God.

When he talks about his two-body force that he deduced, this universal law of gravitation, there’s no mention of God. It’s just not anywhere there. Because he understood it. He was on top of it. He was there. Even though the understanding of the motions of the planets before he came along, *was* given unto God because nobody understood it. Or nobody else did well enough to believe that they had a full predictive handle on it, in the way the universal law of gravitation supplied. What you have is Isaac Newton, abandoning reference to God, until he realizes that if all you do was calculate the two body problem…

Here we have like… the Moon and Earth. Yes! He’s got that calculated.

Now you have the Sun and the Earth. He got that.

Wait a minute! Now the Earth and the Moon go around the Sun, and sometimes we’re close to Mars and sometimes we’re not. When it comes near Mars, there’s a tug. That’s stronger there than in any other part in the orbit. Then it comes over here and then Jupiter tugs. All these many tugs! He’s got to do this two body problem, for Earth and the Moon; Earth and the Sun; Earth, Moon and Mars; Earth, Moon, Mars and Jupiter and it becomes a rapidly complex problem.

He realizes that applying this simple approach to calculating the stability of the Solar System, he finds he can’t stabilize the Solar System. He can’t account for how we have stayed this way for as long as what was possibly necessary, from the beginning of the universe.

What does he say? He’s… he’s at his limits! You read Principia and God is nowhere until you get to the General Scholium. Then he says: “The six primary planets…”

Back then there were six planets. Now there’s eight, in case you haven’t been keeping track. [Laughter] Even if you thought there were nine, there are now eight.

“…The six primary planets are revolved around the Sun in circles concentric with the Sun, and with motions directed toward the same parts and almost the same plains,…” He’s got the whole picture now, and he’s trying to account for that. He can’t just simply do two-body calculations, certainly not without a computer, or without a new mathematics. He says: ” …but is it not to be conceived that mere mechanical causes could give birth to so many regular motions? This most beautiful system of the Sun, planets and comets could only proceed from the council and dominion of an intelligent and powerful being.”

This is Isaac Newton, at the limits of his knowledge, invoking intelligent design. I want to put on the table the fact that you have school systems wanted to put intelligent design into the classroom, but you also have the most brilliant people who ever walked this Earth *doing the same thing*!

Scientists Invoking Intelligent Design

It’s a *deeper* challenge, than simply educating the public.

We’ve all seen the data: There’s 90 whatever % of the West or American public believes in a personal god that responds to their prayers.

Then you ask: what is that percentage for scientists? Averages over disciplines it’s about 40%.

Then you say: how about the elite scientists? Members of the National Academy of Sciences? An article on those data recently in Nature, it said: “85% of the National Academy reject a personal god.” Then they compare it to 90% of the public.

That’s not the story there! They missed the story! What that article should have said is: “How come this number isn’t zero!?” THAT’s the story!

My esteemed colleague, Professor Krauss says: “All we have to do is make a scientifically literate public.” When you do, how can they do better than the scientists themselves, in their percentages of who’s religious and who isn’t? That’s unrealistic, I think.

There’s something else going on that nobody seems to be talking about. That as you become more scientific, yes, the religiosity drops off, but it asymptotes. It asymptotes, not at zero. It asymptotes at some other level. *They* should be the subject of everybody’s investigation, not the public! I’m telling you! It’s not 85% reject, it’s that 15% of the most brilliant minds the nation has accepted it. That’s something that we can’t just sweep under the rug. Otherwise were being disingenuous to the efforts here.

Newton is one of the most brilliant to walk the Earth. I’m not alone in feeling this. This is a statue in Trinity Church in Cambridge through the open doorway there. Get close to the statue. … You look at the base of the statue loosely translated: Of the geniuses… Of all who have ever been human, there is no greater intellect than this man.

Christiaan Huygens

We’re not gonna to stop at Newton, let’s go to Christiaan Huygens. Brilliant scientist. He was great at chemistry, biology, physics, math. A Dutch scientist. He died the year that this work was published. One of my favorite works of science writing. It’s Cosmotheoros which is an exploration on the likelihood of there being life on the known planets, using the available knowledge of the day.

By the way, Huygens was the first to identify Saturn’s ring as a ring. He would be the first to observe it. One of the probes on the Cassini spacecraft was called Huygens, a European probe that descended to the surface of Titan. He’s an important figure in the history of science.

What does *he* say in his writings? Look at the year 1696: gravity was well-known, the laws of motion were well-known. Newton was quite influential well before the turn of the century. When he talks about the orbits of the planets. It’s done! Talks about the moons of Jupiter. Done! Talks about the new rings around Saturn, done! It’s all fine.

When he talks about biology and life—something that’s not well understood then or today—Boom! There goes his references to God. References to God were nowhere else in those writings. He says:

“I suppose nobody would deny but that there’s somewhat more of contrivance, somewhat more of miracle in the production and growth of plants and animals, than in lifeless heaps of inanimate bodies. For the finger of God and the wisdom of divine providence is in them, much more clearly manifested than in the other.”

He doesn’t say that about the orbits! We’re done with the orbits, as Michael Shermer had noted. He’s in a place where nobody has the answer. He invokes—this is intelligent design once again. Pure and simple.

Pierre-Simon de Laplace

Pierre-Simon de Laplace, at the end of the 18th century wrote a five-volume tome on celestial mechanics. A brilliant piece of work. It’s there. It weighs a lot on the shelf, and it what it does is it takes Newton’s laws of gravity, and brings them into a full expression with the hammer of calculus. He brings all the armament of mathematics to bear on the laws of physics, that were put forth by Isaac Newton. Isaac Newton only touched on them; they were not fully developed.

In this work he further develops something that’d percolating in a mathematical community. He developed—one might even say perfects—a branch of math we would call perturbation theory. Instead of pulling your hair out and saying: ‘how do you calculate this pair of forces, and this pair, and this pair?’ In pertubation theory, you can systematically and reliably calculate the effect of a series of small tugs in the presence of singular big tugs. That’s what’s going on in most of the Solar System. When you do that properly, you can demonstrate—notwithstanding the effects of chaos, which have other time skills related to them—you can demonstrate that in fact the Solar System is stable beyond the predictions of Isaac Newton.

He figures this out, does NOT invoke God because he figured it out!

In a story that may be apocryphal, but I see more in support of it than against it… This time coincides of course with the era of Napoleon. Napoleon—if you visited his library, it’s not just books of world history and battles, it’s engineering books; it’s physics books. This man wanted to know where his cannonballs would land. He was much more than just a lucky general. He was into the physics, the engineering and the material science of war.

He immediately summoned up the five volume production of Laplace, read it through cover to cover, called in Laplace, and said: “Sir -” I have the exact quote here… Napoleon asked him what role God played in the construction and regulation the heavens.

This is like, that’s what Newton would ask, right? Laplace replied: “Sire, I had no need for that hypothesis.”

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 no good anymore for advancing that frontier, waiting for somebody else to come behind you who doesn’t have God on the brain, and who says: “That’s a cool problem, I want to solve it!” They come in and solve it.

Look at the time delay! This was a hundred year time delay! The math that’s in perturbation theory is like crumbs for Newton. He could come up with that! The guy invented calculus just on a dare, practically. When someone asked him: “What—you know, Ike, how come planets orbit in ellipses and not some other shape?” He couldn’t answer that, he goes home for two months, comes back, out comes integral differential calculus, because he needed that answer that question.

This is the kind of mind we’re dealing with with Newton: He could have gone there, but he didn’t. He didn’t. His religiosity stopped him. We’re left with the realization that intelligent design, while real in the history of science, while real in the presence of philosophical drivers, is nonetheless a philosophy of ignorance. Regardless of what our political agenda is, all you have to say is: “Science is a philosophy of discovery; intelligent design is a philosophy of ignorance.” That’s all!

I don’t need to see… have you discovered anything lately? If not, get out of the science classroom! I’m not gonna say: “Don’t teach this!” Because it’s *real*, it happened! I don’t want people to sweep it under the rug, because if you do, you’re neglecting something fundamental that’s going on in people’s minds, when they confront things they don’t understand. It happens to the greatest of minds as it happens to everyone else. Many, if not most other people in the public. Let me blow through some last set of slides here. I wanna call something to your attention that we all know… we all know… intuitively. Whether or not you thought about it explicitly. You go around the world and you find times and places where nations have excelled in one subject or another. There’s a birth of that period where the excel and then there’s a peak, and sometimes it drops off, but sometimes they hang on. You can ask the culture of that. What was going on in that nation to support those discoveries, ans then what happened, when they ended? I call that ‘naming rights’. If you were there first, and you do it best, you name things. Particle physics, in this country, in the United States was like going gangbusters after the Second World War. The discovery of atomic elements? Look at the periodic table! There is berkelium, californium… we’ve got half the United States up there, in the upper heavier elements of the periodic table! Am I right there, sir Weinberg? That’s not because the world liked California or Berkeley, it’s because the work was done here! It’s because there was a—there was a um… an effort, to excel in just those subjects. It shows up in other ways, that I’ll give you could just briefly. Part of the naming rights is that you don’t have to name it. For example while we didn’t invent the internet, we certainly exploited it here in America. We did that first in best. Your e-mail address does not end in .us Everybody else in the world has gotta say what country they came from. *We* don’t! OK? It’s a simple but it’s the consequence of being there first and doing it better than anyone had done it before. Do you know that the British postage stamp is the only postage stamp in the world that does not identify the country of origin? Because they invented postage stamps! Why should they have to say what country it is?! It’s THEIR invention! Check them out. It’s just the facts of this. The constellations of the night sky were Greek and Roman and it has lasted to this time, because they did a good job thinking that stuff up. All the mythologies of the heavens that stuck with us. I’m gonna make a larger point… Not to get gratuitous on you here but… September 11, 2001. As you all know this was going on in New York City. This is view outside of my window. I live four blocks from Ground Zero. Excuse me, this is the corner of the building in which I live; I went outside to get this view. I was at the time judging whether I should go collect my daughter, who’s in it elementary school two blocks north of the North Tower. North is to the right in this picture. I wanted to get a closer view with a highly magnified zoom lens, to see what… While that was happening, the plane flew into the South Tower. No one was thinking terrorism until the second one was hit. The first one was a bad tragedy. These are just three frames from a camcorder. This is at t = 0, this is 1 second, or like actually a fraction of a second. The plane was moving probably 500 m/h. Just to understand, the black building, that black monolithic building, that is fifty stories tall. This is New York City, people, tall buildings are all over the place. That’s just a hotel. A fifty story hotel. The towers are foreshortened because of the angle at which this is shown. I put these up, because a few days after this, president Bush, I don’t remember where he said this; on the steps of the White House; in the rose garden at the Capitol… In an attempt to distinguish “we” from “they”,—the terrorists who flew these planes into the buildings and into the… that went down in Pennsylvania and in Washington—To distinguish “we” from “they”, he loosely quotes a phrase out of the Bible by saying: 619 “Our God is the god who named the stars.” Now, this is before I was on his Rolodex, ok? Because I could’ve helped him out there. The fact is of all the stars that have names two-thirds of them have Arabic names. This was not, I don’t think, his intent with that message. Ok? Hahaha. While the constellations are Greek and Roman, the names are Arabic, alright? The list just goes on! And on! And on! And on! Where does this come from? How does this…? How do…? How do you get a…? How does this happen!? How you get stars named with Arabic names? How does this happen? It happens because, of course, …because…—hang on, just catching up with myself here—It happens because there was this particularly fertile period, that professor Weinberg duly discussed. Around that period, that 300 year period the intellectual center of the world was Baghdad. Baghdad was completely open to all visitors, all travelers, Jews, Christians, doubters—which today we might call “atheists”—they were all there. Exchanging ideas. All of them. It was that period, we had the advances in like engineering, in biology and medicine, and and… mathematics! Our… numerals are called what? *Arabic* numerals! Did you ever stop and think about that!? Who’s… In America, do we take pause at this? Why are they called Arabic numerals? Ok? They fully exploit the discovery of the zero; create a whole field called “algebra”, itself an Arabic word; “algorithm” is an Arabic word. All this is going on and it’s all traceable, not to some long 1000 year tradition in Islam, it’s traceable to this 300 year period. This 300 year period. Then… they had naming rights! The most expensive beautifully… carved astrolabes come out of this period. There’s a great collection of these at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago, if you ever wanna check them out. Navigation, celestial navigation… all of this is traceable to this period. Something happened. What happened as was previously described—I just told him and forgive me for repeating for what you might have heard—12th century kicks in, and then you get the influence of this scholar: Al-Ghazali. Out of his work, you get the philosophy that mathematics is the work of the devil. Nothing good can come of that philosophy. That combined with other codifications, philosophical codifications of what Islam was and would become, the entire intellectual foundation of that enterprise collapsed and it has not recovered since. Over that period, all these books were translated into Arabic on a scale not seen since then. Why am I even going here? Because I’m trying to explain to you, that the.. You fast forward. The dangers here is that—you fast forward to 21st century America, and ask: what influences are we feeling now? Because that naming period in Islam stopped and it never recovered. because the, the… the way of thinking about the natural world… Revelation replaced investigation. Fast-forward to 21th century and what you find? You get things like this, ok? This is in America! What I find interesting is the level of passion, that it requires to actually do this. You gotta like pay for this, ok? It means a lot of people are pissed off at the Big Bang. They’re pissed off at the Big Bang. At our museum in New York, the American Museum of Natural History, they come to the Big Bang exhibit, and sometimes I don’t feel like having that conversation. I say like: “Why don’t you go to a hall of human biology first? Then come to us?” That’s where we have monkeys holding hands with people in skeleton forms and then they never make it back to the Big Bang! They’re gone forever. Ok? However egregious the Big Bang is, monkeys and people is a worse transgression apparently. There’s that but there’s also… here’s a little bit of intelligent design here. Here’s one that wants to accept the science but then is like “What was before the Big Bang? We don’t quite know yet, so God was there.” Of course, intelligent design is basically a god of the gaps. My favorite way to end this then is to just reflect on… I wanna do just a fast tirade on stupid design. Look at all the things that just wanna kill us, okay? Most planet orbits are unstable, star formation is completely inefficient. Most places in the universe will kill life instantly! Instantly! The people that say: “All the forces of nature are just right for life.” Excuse me! Just look at the volume of the universe where you can’t live! You will die instantly. That’s not what I call the garden of Eden. Alright? Galaxy orbits, we orbit once every couple hundred million years. You’re bound to come close to a supernova that will wipe out your ozone layer and kill everybody on the surface. Who doesn’t otherwise have dark skin, because your high-energy rays will give you skin cancer. We’re on a collision course with the Andromeda Galaxy. Gone is this beautiful spiral that we have. and of course we’re in a one-way expanding universe as we wind down to oblivion as the temperature of the universe asymptotically approaches absolute zero. That’s the universe. Then Earth. Volcanos, tsunamis, killed, I think that number is higher up 200 000 people, floods, tornadoes. None of this is any sign that there is a benevolent anything out there. This 90 %, it should be 99 %—as was earlier noted—of all life that has ever lived is now extinct. Inner solar system is a shooting gallery: Comets, asteroids—duck! Look how long it took to make multi-cellular life. From the beginning of the Earth. Life happened quickly, but not multi-cellular life. You needed your cyanobacteria to crank on the oxygen, get the oxygen budget going. Then you could have … that’s rocket fuel for multi-cellular creatures. That took 3.5 billion years. That’s hardly an efficient plan with us in mind. And in human beings! This is like the most tragic of them. -0:07,0 I don’t even include here the expression of free will where people wanna kill each other. I’m talking about nature killing us without the help of human beings. Aggressive Childhood Leukemia, hemophilia, all of this, all of this. We have so much praise about the human eye. Anyone who has seen the full breadth of the electromagnetic spectrum will recognize how blind we are. Ok? Part of that blindness means we can’t see, we can’t detect magnetic fields, ionizing radiation, radon. We are like sitting ducks for ionizing radiation. We have to eat constantly, because we’re warm-blooded. Crocodile eat a chicken a month, it’s fine. Ok? We’re *always* looking for food! These gases at the bottom: you can’t smell them, taste them. You breath them in, you’re dead. Ok?

With the birth defects: Most are unknown! Look at this! Others, it’s like abuse and infection and stuff that human beings have something to do with. Here, we have no idea! No idea! No idea! Birth defects are tragic, they’re tragic. Particularly if they happen to the family afflicted by it. Look at images of these aborted fetuses, because of the… most of these are stillborn, others are born with a heart outside the body. This is all simply stupid design. The problem is, if you look for what is intelligent, then yeah, you can find some things that are just beautiful. And really “Hey, that’s clever!” Like the ball socket of the shoulder. A lot of things you can point to. Then you stop looking at all the things that confound that revelation. If I came upon a frozen waterfall and it just struck me for all its beauty, I would then turn over a rock and try to find a millipede, ok? Or some deadly newt. Then put that in context. Realize of course the universe is not here for us, for any singular purpose. My favorite of all is, of course, you eat, breathe, drink through the same hole in your body, guaranteeing that some percentage of us will choke to death every year. Ok? Imagine if you had a separate hole for breathing and eating and talking. That would be cool! Right? You could drink, breathe and just talk and you would never choke. Alright. It’s not a hard request. Dolphins breath and eat through different holes in their body. That’s a mammal. I’m not asking, this is like, Santa Claus could bring this one! This one of course, my favorite of all. What’s this going on between our legs, right? As you’ve heard … we have an entertainment complex in the middle of a sewage system. No engineer would design that at all, ever! It’s like the wrong juxtaposition of elements. What I wanna put on the table is the fact, that I don’t want the religious person in the lab telling me that God is responsible for what it is they cannot discover. Look at the hubris of that. You’re in the lab and you say: “I don’t know how this works and not only that. No one alive on Earth knows how this works. And not only that: no one who will ever be born will know how this works.” That’s audacious when you think about it. Then you put it down and go on to the next problem. This problem is a cure for Alzheimer or Cancer or whatever else. I don’t want them in the science classroom. The issue is simply about progress and discovery. In my recent forays into Washington, I’ve been closer to a community of Republicans than I’ve ever been in my life, because I grew up in New York City. In New York City, it’s… “I think that person is Republican back there, you see? No, not that one. The one *behind* that person! Yeah, *that’s* a Republican! There’s another one!” That’s in New York. You grow up this way, and I get baptized into a Republican administration. I had two consecutive appointments in the Bush administration: one on the aerospace industry, and one on space exploration. That’s NASA’s future, basically. I realized some things, spending that much time in the community powerful Republicans: that Republicans, above all else, do not want to die poor. There’s a limit to how far this will go. I bet most people in this room, even those assembled at this table, were highly concerned about the Dover Trial, wondering how that would turn. I looked at that and said: “I’m not worried. Because it’s a Republican judge.” In the end if you put people who are not making discoveries in the science classroom, that is the end of the foundation of your future economy. I had a little more confidence than others did because of this… sensitivity… to the money aspect of it. We all know tomorrow’s economies will be founded on innovations in science and technology. Of course that gets cut short if we lose our civilization, as what happened in Islam in 1100. The last thought I’ll leave you with: It concerns me greatly, if you do the math… ok? Just look at look at all the Nobel Prize winners there ever were. Some even in this room. Ask: How many were Muslim? It’s like one, maybe two? Ok? I think a second one was in economics, and the one we refer to was described earlier: the co-winner of the Nobel Prize with professor Weinberg, Abdus Salam. He’s not a Middle Eastern Muslim, he’s a Pakistani Muslim. Ok? How many Nobel Prizes were won by Jews? That’s liked a fourth of the Nobel Prizes! Ok? Some high fraction of the total. Ans then you look: How many Muslims are there? It’s like a billion Muslims! How many Jews? 15 million tops! Ok? You do ratio these numbers… Had Islam not collapsed in its intellectual standing in the year 1100, and you just do the ratios, they’d have any single Nobel Prize today! The fact that it’s not only just a few: it’s near zero… is deeply worrying. I’m concerned about what’s lost… What what… what brilliance may have expressed itself and did not. In that community over the past thousand years.

What I want to put on the table… not why 85% of the National Academy rejects God; I wanna know why 15% don’t. That’s what we got to address here. The public is secondary to this. Thank you for your attention here.

3 thoughts on “Transcript of “The Perimeter of Ignorance” by Neil deGrasse Tyson

  1. “In Isaac Newton’s writings—his Principia—he discovers the laws of motion (F = MA), discovers the laws of gravity… It’s all there. He did this all before he turned twenty-six.”

    Ummm…. No. Halley asked Newton the famous question about elliptical orbits when Newton was 41. Principia was published when Newton was 45. Just about everything Tyson says about Newton is bull shit.

    Tyson likes to say Newton could have easily done Laplace’s n-body work had he not been satiified with the explanation that God kept the solar system system stable. Newton did make substantial efforts to model the 3 body system of the earth, moon and sun. So Tyson’s claims is demonstrably false from the get go. After Newton tried, Euler took a crack at it. Then Lagrange. More than 100 years later Laplace built on the efforts of Newton, Euler and Lagrange.

    Emily, it’s quite possible you’ve never heard of Euler. He was one of the greatest mathematicians that ever lived. Lagrange was no slouch either. The notion that n-body mechanics would have been crumbs for Newton is horribly clueless.

    Tyson’s account of Bush’s 9-11 speech is false. Bush’s actual speech was a call for tolerance and inclusion, not an “attempt to distinguish we from they”. Jonathan Adler wrote a column in the Washington Post how Tyson’s account of Bush’s 9-11 was false in every way.

    Ghazali never wrote that mathematics is the work of the devil. Nor did Islamic innovation end in the 12th century with Ghazali. For example the father of symbolic algebra was born three centuries after Ghazali’s death.

    Emily, you should include caveats and disclaimers if you’re going to repeat these falsehoods. By failing to do so you have also become a source of misinformation.


    1. The intent of my post was to listen to a lecture given by NGT, provide a cleaner transcript, and to retain more information from it. I present it neutrally with no commentary on the trueness or falseness of the content.

      You have helpfully pointed out all the mistakes that NGT made in this talk, so consider this lecture “caveated and disclaimed”.

      I hope you are giving as much scrutiny to other public intellectuals and not just on NGT. God knows we could all use more fact-checking in today’s post-truth climate.


      1. I’ve spent some time and effort calling out Trump’s falsehoods. I regard Tyson and Trump as flip sides of the same coin: a culture that values celebrity and entertainment more than truth and accuracy.

        I haven’t called out all the mistakes in this lecture but thank you for acknowledging my criticisms and not removing them. There are many venues where this information has been actively censored. Jonathan Adler writes about Tyson’s Wikipedia article. The process of suppressing information is well documented on the Wikipedia article’s talk pages. I expect similar behind the scenes debates went on at other information outlets but these aren’t open to scrutiny.

        All human beings are vulnerable to error and confirmation bias. It bothers me that Tyson and many of his fans imagine themselves immune to these failings. Tyson and his fans going on about truth and accuracy is a lot like adulterous Republicans preaching family values.


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