Neil deGrasse Tyson is a very smart guy. Astrophysicist and cosmologist with degrees from Harvard and Columbia. Director of the Hayden Planetarium. Research associate at the American Museum of Natural History. Writer of best-sellers. Radio and TV host.
Oh, and the “Sexiest Astrophysicist Alive,” at least according to People Magazine.
He also has a pungent sense of humor and irony quite evident over the Christmas holiday, starting with a string of irreverent tweets:
“QUESTION: This year, what do all the world's Muslims and Jews call December 25th? ANSWER: Thursday … 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 … A Pagan holiday (BC) becomes a Religious holiday (AD). Which then becomes a Shopping holiday (USA).”
Tyson’s rhetorical pokes were quickly retweeted thousands of times, bringing a sharp backlash: “Only a small & uncharitable man would take time on Xmas morning 2 take shots but Merry Christmas to you anyway Neil…. This is disrespectful to Christians. Jesus created the science you cherish so much. Everyone finds God eventually, you will too…. Looking fwd to witty jabs during the spiritual days of Islam, Buddhism, Judaism etc. Or is it reserved for the easiest target? … trolling Christians on Dec 25 is so EDGY. Please let me know when you troll Muslims on Ramadan. Merry Christmas!... God is being removed from almost every aspect of society. Ppl r fed up w/ this!U owe Christians an apology 4 insensitivity.”
Given Tyson’s popularity on Twitter – nearly 3 million followers – the response may not have been surprising, especially given its slight “war on Christmas” edge. His work has been criticized by creationists for its presentation of evolution, the Big Bang theory, and climate change.
But the vast majority of those who weighed in on his Christmas Day posts were positive. The Isaac Newton bit was retweeted more than 72,000 times.
By the day after Christmas, Tyson seemed to be in a more contemplative mood. “Imagine a world in which we are all enlightened by objective truths rather than offended by them,” he tweeted.
A day later, he went on Facebook, expressing his astonishment at the retweeted response to his Isaac Newton birthday wishes. “My average re-tweet rate falls between 2,500 and 3,500. My fun tweets can go somewhat higher – up to 10,000. My boring tweets barely break 1,000.”
Several people had noted that Newton in fact was not born on Christmas Day as we know it. With a professional reputation to protect, Tyson explained:
“All of England was celebrating Christmas the day Newton was born,” he wrote in his Facebook post. “But the Gregorian Calendar (an awesomely accurate reckoning of Earth's annual time), introduced in 1584 by Pope Gregory, was not yet adopted in Great Britain. To do so required removing ten days from the calendar – excess time that had accumulated over the previous 16 centuries from the mildly flawed Julian Calendar, introduced by Julius Caesar in 46 BC. These remnants of the turbulent schism between the Anglican and Catholic churches meant that Catholic Christendom was celebrating Christmas ten days earlier than anybody was in England. If you wanted to reckon Newton's birthday on today's Gregorian Calendar, we would place his birth on January 4, 1643.
“Happy Holidays to you all,” he concluded. “And a humble thanks for your continued interest in what I have to say about life, the universe, and everything. But most importantly, enjoy a Happy New Year. A few days after, I'll be tweeting about Earth's perihelion.* Just a head's up in case people want to avert their eyes over that one. I am, and always will be, a servant of your cosmic curiosity.”
*The point in the orbit of a planet or other astronomical body at which it comes closest to the Sun.