Screen Cap - The Perimeter of Ignorance - Neil deGrasse Tyson Screen Cap – The Perimeter of Ignorance – Neil deGrasse Tyson

Video: “The Perimeter of Ignorance” (Neil deGrasse Tyson)47 min read

Politics Religion Science Video
Print Friendly, PDF & Email


I am not sure how I have not shared this here yet, but a quite a few years ago I found this wonderful video of a presentation given by the notorious NdT (Neil deGrasse Tyson) at Beyond Belief: Science, Religion, Reason, and Survival from 2006. The title of his presentation is “The Perimeter of Ignorance“. This presentation was powerful and enlightening for me, and I use this video in my post Religion, an Overview.

Below you will find the embedded video and then a full transcript.

I. The Video

A. Watch the Video

B. Notes about Transcript Below

The transcript is below, although he uses many slides, I was able to recreated most of all of the slides present well enough, so reading while listening to the video may be useful in certain parts where he is specifically referring to the slide. I do try to find all of the images he uses in his presentation.

I have taken some liberties here in creating this transcript for this amazing video from Neil deGrasse Tyson.

I have:

  • Created paragraphs
  • Omitted some duplicate words
  • Added punctuation
  • Added a few lists
  • Added headers
  • Added images and links
  • Added or adjusted other stuff

…all to make it easier to read and follow.

II. Transcript for ‘The Perimeter of Ignorance’

A. Introduction of Neil DeGrasse Tyson

[presenter] We’re overlapping a little bit as things go on. We’re still in the science vs. religion section. But I wanted to cap that off with… bring up 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 Science Now. Neil has something that will very nicely fit into what came up early this morning. Lunch by the way is gonna segue-away a little bit downtown, so I think it’s going to be more like close to two. We started late. Are you OK? – [Neil] Yeah, I’ll survive. OK. – Thank you.

B. Main Presentation

1. Introduction

I flew in from New York City this morning, so it’s dinner time, actually. So, I’m ready! You got dinner for me here. Thank you, first, for this invitation to come present and I’m familiar with many of your names and faces and even close friends with some of you out there. What I want to do is put some issues on the table that I have not seen commonly discussed, and that I think they ought to be front-and-center for these next several days. Unfortunately, I missed professor Weinberg’s talk. I tried to get here – I woke up at four o’clock this morning in New York City to get here and the best I could do was halfway through. I missed your talk completely, but I got uh… [Weinberg] – You’re forgiven. [Tyson] OK hahaha! 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 context – there’s a broader context that I want to share with you. And I’m told I have full control here.

The Eagle Nebula, M16
This wide-field image of the Eagle Nebula was taken at the National Science Foundation’s 0.9-meter telescope on Kitt Peak with the NOAO Mosaic CCD camera. Located in the constellation of Serpens, the Serpent, the Eagle Nebula is a very luminous open cluster of stars surrounded by dust and gas. The three pillars at the center of the image, made famous in an image by the Hubble Space Telescope, are being sculpted by the intense radiation from the hot stars in the cluster. This image was created by combining emission-line images in Hydrogen-alpha (green), Oxygen [O III] (blue) and Sulfur [S II] (red).

Let’s see if this works. 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. And the shape of the Eagle is not discer- it’s almost – it’s 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, so… 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. But 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 in 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 stories, articles on the relevance of evolution, not only as an important concept in biology, but an important concept in all of science.

And, 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, in fact, the Intelligent Design movement, that clearly – there’s a lot of teeth that members, 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. And so, I wanna sort of fill a niche that I think is left unfilled.

2. Famous Scientists and the Perimeter of Ignorance

a. Ptolemy (150 CE)
Claudius Ptolemy
Claudius Ptolemy

So let’s go through. Let me first start off with Ptolemy. I don’t know if we know that he really looked like this. But Ptolemy, you know, was one of the greatest scientists ever, and most influential scientists, and his most important work is, of course, Almagest, which is Arabic for “the greatest”. And, in it he sort of codifies the geocentric universe. And, this Earth-centered universe prevailed for centuries, until Copernicus and Galileo turned that around. But, what 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”, cause that’s what the word means in Greek: it’s “wanderer”. And were seven of these objects – the Sun and Moon included – and they would just kind of 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 was a mystery! Complete mystery!

And, of course, the heavens were not Earth, and so the fact that you didn’t really understand what was going up there was kind of OK and expected because that was the work of the gods. And we, being mortal down here on Earth, well if you can understand it don’t lose sleep over that fact, and you perhaps never will.

Now, Ptolemy had sort of 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 for me 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.

Ptolemy, penned in the margins of his work Almagest, CE 150

And so therein is this emotional – He’s got this sort of religious feeling at the limits of his knowledge and this is a trend that will continue for thousands of years to follow this. At least two thousand years to follow this, and you don’t 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 it- get that into the classroom. You know, there’s the politics of Intelligent Design in modern times, but, what I think has been swept under the rug that we have to contend with as a community of people who are sort of “truth-seekers”, is the fact that some of the greatest minds that have preceded us have done just this.

OK. That’s Ptolemy. 

b. Galileo (1615)
Galileo Galilei
Galileo Galilei

But we can go on. Who else do we have? Galileo. Interesting case. Galileo was kind of an exception to this. But 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, I mean I’m… that’s the Reader’s Digest version of what happened over that period.

But let me share with you some lines that he wrote to Christina, who was the grand duchess of Tuscany. Some of these quotes you have heard before. But, 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.”.

And, so he was kind of… I see that as 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.’ OK, so 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.

c. Sir Isaac Newton (1687)
Sir Isaac Newton sitting at a desk with a book open
Sir Isaac Newton sitting at a desk with a book open

But it gets interesting, when we… gets sort of philosophically interesting, when we get to this gentleman, back up here: 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. I don’t know if you’ve ever felt that about anybody; I didn’t feel that about anybody, but just read what this man wrote. OK? Line by line by line. This guy was plugged in to the machinery of the universe. I think he’s unimpeachably brilliant. Unimpeachably brilliant.

And, let me read again what we heard from Michael Shermer earlier. In Isaac Newton’s writings – by the way, in his Principia – here’s the page one… page zero of Principia – in it, he discovers the laws of motion (F = MA), discovers the laws of gravity. It’s, you know, it’s all there. And he did this all before he turned twenty six. And, 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. Cause 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 really believe that they had a full predictive handle on it, in the way the universal law of gravitation supplied.

And, so 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. Ya got that. But 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. And 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! And so 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. And, he realizes, that in fact, applying this simple sort of 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.

And, so what does he say? He’s… he’s at his limits! He’s at his limits! And so you read Principia, God is nowhere until you get to the General Scholium. And then he says: “The six primary planets…” Back then there were six planets, OK? 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 planes,…”. He’s got the whole picture now, and he’s trying to sort of account for that. But he can’t just simply do two-body calculations, certainly not without a computer, or without a new kind of mathematics.

He says: “…but is not to be conceived… 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 invoking Intelligent Design. At the limits of his knowledge. 

And 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! And so it’s a deeper challenge, than simply educating the public. It’s deeper than, as you know by the books written by our scientific colleagues, that do take these deeply resonate and charitable positions towards their religious beliefs. 

d. 85% Reject a Personal God? 

Maybe the real question here… Uh… let me backup for a moment. You know, we’ve all seen the data: 40%, there’s 90 whatever % of the West or American public believes in a personal god that responds to their prayers. And then you ask: what is that percentage for scientists? Averages over disciplines it’s about 40%. And 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.” And then they compare it to 90% of the public. You know, that’s not the story there! They missed the story! They mis- the sto-…! What that article should have said is: “How come this number isn’t zero!?” THAT’s the story! Ok? 

The Sir Isaac Newton Statue at Trinity College Chapel
The Sir Isaac Newton Statue at Trinity College Chapel

So, my esteemed colleague here, Krauss… [Laughter] Professor Krauss… Professor Krauss here says: “All we have to do is make a scientifically literate public.” Well, 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 kind of unrealistic, I think. So, 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.

So, they should be the subject of everybody’s investigation, not the public! I’m telling you! So, it’s not 85% reject, it’s that 15% of the most brilliant minds the nation has accepts it. And that’s something that we can’t just sweep under the rug. Otherwise were being disingenuous to our… to the efforts here. 

I know I’m standing between you and lunch here, so let me try to go quickly.

If you don’t think… I mean I think Newton is one of the most brilliant like the most brilliant ever to sort of walk the Earth. And, I’m not alone in feeling this. This is a statue in Trinity Church in Cambridge through the open doorway there.

And, so you get close to the statue. He’s without his curls here. I was deeply upset by that; I thought he was like really trendy with his long hair, but apparently that was probably just a wig at all times. 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.” And, so I’m not alone in this sentiment. And, this man wrote those words. 

e. Christiaan Huygens
Christiaan Huygens
Christiaan Huygens

Let’s move on because there’s more to talk about here. We’re not gonna to stop at Newton, let’s go to Christiaan Huygens! Brilliant scientist, I mean: he was great at chemistry, biology, physics, math. A Dutch scientist. And, he died the year that this work was published. One of my favorite works of science writing. And, it’s Cosmotheoros, which is a… an exploration on the likelihood of there being life on the known planets, using the available knowledge of the day.

So, for example, they knew that – by the way, Huygens was the first to identify Saturn’s ring as a ring. If I got that right Carolyn, is that correct? Oh no, I thought he was the first to calculate that it would be a ring. Then Huygens would be the first to observe it. Ok. We have Madam Saturn here in the room, in case you don’t know. Ok? My colleague Carolyn Porco who we’ll be hearing from later I’ve just been told. 

Cassini-Huygens approaches Saturn
Cassini-Huygens approaches Saturn

But, anyhow. So, Huygens: brilliant fellow. And, one of the probes on the Cassini spacecraft was called Huygens, a European probe that descended to the surface of Titan. And, so he’s an important figure in the history of science. So, what is – what does he say in his writings? Well, 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 there. So, 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. But when he talks about biology and life – something that’s not well understood then or today – Boom! There goes his references to God. But, references to God were nowhere else in those writings. Nowhere else. 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.

Christiaan Huygens, Cosmotheros

He doesn’t say that about the orbits! We’re done with the orbits, as Michael Shermer had noted. We’re done! He’s in a place where nobody really has the answer. So, he invokes – this is Intelligent Design once again. Pure out flat and simple.

f. Pierre-Simon de Laplace (1800)
Pierre Simon Marquis de Laplace
Pierre Simon Marquis de Laplace

So, you know this story. I have to tell it, cause it’s just great. Alright, so 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.

And in this work, he demonstrates, he further develops something that’d percolating in a mathematical community. But he developed – and one might even say perfects – a branch of math we would call perturbation theory. Where instead of pulling your hair out and say: ‘well, how do you calculate this pair of forces, and this pair and this pair?’. And, all the equations go to hell. In perturbation theory, it allows you to systematically and reliably calculate the effect of a small tug in the presence… a series of small tugs in the presence of singular big tugs. 

That’s kinda what’s going on in most of the Solar System. And, when you do that and you do it 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. So, he figures this out, does NOT invoke God because he figured it out!

And, 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 being French and Laplace being French – no translation necessary.  Napoleon – if you visited his library, it’s not just sort of 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 sort of a lucky general. He was into the physics, the engineering, and the material science of war.

And, so 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… Uh… hang on… Napoleon asked him what role God played in the construction and regulation the heavens. This is kind of like, that’s what Newton would ask, right? Laplace replied: “Sir, I had no need for that hypothesis.” 

g. God on the Brain

And, so 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 on the brain, and who says: “That’s a really cool problem, I want to solve it!”. They come in and solve it. 

But, look at the time delay! This was a hundred year time delay! And, the math that’s in perturbation theory is like crumbs for Newton. He could have come up with that! The guy invented calculus just on a dare, practically. When someone asked him: “What – you know, Iike, 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 to answer that question. 

So, 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. And, so we’re left with the realization, of course, that Intelligent Design, while real in the history of science, while real in the presence of sort of philosophical drivers, is nonetheless a philosophy of ignorance.

And, so 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! But I’m not gonna say: “Don’t teach this!” because it’s real, it happened! 

So, 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. And, it happens to the greatest of minds as it happens to everyone else, many, if not most other people in the public.

3. Naming Rights


So, 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 they excel and then there’s a peak, and sometimes it drops off, and sometimes they hang on. And, so you can ask the culture of that. What was going on in that nation to support those discoveries, and then what happened when they ended? And, so I call that sort of ‘naming rights’. If you were there first, and you do it best, you name things. 

a. General Examples

Particle physics, in this country, in the United States was like going gangbusters after the Second World War. And, the discovery of atomic elements? Look at the periodic table! There is berkelium, californium… you know, 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 an effort, to excel in just those subjects. 

And, it shows up in other ways that I’ll give you could just briefly. You know um… Part of the naming rights is that you don’t have to name it. So, for example while we didn’t invent the internet, we certainly exploited it here in America. We did that sort of first and best. And so, 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 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! So, 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 really good job thinking that stuff up. All the mythologies of the heavens that really stuck with us. 

b. President George Bush and 11 Sep 2001

Alright, so, I’m gonna make a larger point um… 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 the 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 elementary school two blocks north of the North Tower. North is to the right in this picture. 

So, 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 – and, so no one was thinking terrorism until the second one was hit. The first one was sort of a bad tragedy. And, so 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. And, just to understand, the black building, that black sort of monolithic building, that is fifty stories tall. This is New York City, people, so tall buildings are kind of, they’re just all over the place. And that’s just the hotel, a fifty story hotel. And it’s… 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: “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. So, 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? And the list just goes on! And on! And on! And on! 

4. Revelation Replaces Investigation

a. Baghdad (800 -> 1100 CE)

And. so where does this come from? How does this…? How do…? How do you get a…? How does this happen!? How do you get stars named with Arabic names? How does this happen?  And 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. And, 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, uh… doubters – which today we might call “atheists” – they were all there. Exchanging ideas. All of them.

And, it was that period, we had the advances in like engineering, in biology, and medicine, and mathematics! Our… numerals are called what? Arabic numerals! Did you ever stop and think about that!? You know, 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. And then… so 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. So, navigation, celestial navi-… all of this is traceable to this period. 

Imam Hamid al-Ghazali
Imam Hamid al-Ghazali

And so… something happened. And, 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. And, so out of his work, you get the philosophy that mathematics is the work of the devil. And nothing good can come of that philosophy. That combined with other sort of 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.

So, 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 21rst 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. 

b. God of the Gaps
Billboard - Big bang theory? You have got to be kidding. - God
Billboard – Big bang theory? You have got to be kidding. – God

So, fast forward to 21th century and what you find? You get things like this, ok? This is in America! So now… What I find interesting is the level of passion, that it requires to actually do this. You gotta like pay for this, ok? And 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? And then come to us?”. That’s where we have sort of monkeys holding hands with people in skeleton forms and then they never make it back to the Big Bang! They’re gone forever. Ok? So, however egregious the Big Bang is, monkeys and people is a worse transgression apparently. 

The Big Bang Theory: God spoke and Bang! it happened.
The Big Bang Theory: God spoke and Bang! it happened.

So, there’s that but there’s also… Uh… 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

5. STUPID Design


But, my favorite way to end this then is to just reflect on… I wanna do just a fast tirade on stupid design and this will be fast. Look at all the things that just wanna kill us, okay?

a. Stupid Design of the Universe


Most planet orbits are unstable
Less than 3% of a gas cloud actually makes a star.
Most places kill life instantly – heat – radiation – cold
Galaxy orbits brings you near a supernova
Collide with Andromeda
One-way universe will wind wont to oblivion

Stupid Design, Slide 1, Neil deGrass Tyson, 2006

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. 

b. Stupid Design of Earth


Earthquakes & Volcanoes level cities and villages
Tsunamis – kill 150,000
Floods / Tornadoes / Hurricanes | Lightning Strikes
Can’t live on 2/3 of its surface
freeze or starve on half of what remains
Mas extinctions – disease / climate shift / killer asteroids
90% of all life that ever lived is now extinct
Inner solar system is a shooting gallery
3.5 billions years to make multi-cellular life

Stupid Design, Slide 2, Neil deGrass Tyson, 2006

Then Earth. Volcanos, tsunamis, just killed, you know, 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. And, 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! And 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 sort of crank on the oxygen, get the oxygen budget going. Then you could have sort of … that’s sort of rocket fuel for multi-cellular creatures, but that took 3.5 billion years. That’s hardly an efficient plan with us in mind. 

c. Stupid Design of Human Body


Aggressive Childhood Leukemia, hemophilia, sickle cell anemia
multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, Parkinson’s, ALS
Narrow view of electromagnetic spectrum
Vision loss with age – teeth fall out – Alzheimer’s – prostate cancer
Exhale most of oxygen we inhale
Warm-blooded – must eat constantly compared with Crocodiles
Practically comatose for 1/3 of lives
Can’t detect magnetic fields, ionizing fields, Radon
CO, CH4, CO2

Stupid Design, Slide 3, Neil deGrass Tyson, 2006

And, in human beings! This is like the most tragic of them. 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. 

And, we so much praise about the human eye. But, anyone who has seen the full breadth of the electromagnetic spectrum will recognize how blind we are. Ok? And, 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? So 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? 

So, I’m almost done. I’m sorry I’m taking up your time here.

And 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! 

Oops, I pushed the button by accident, sorry.

No idea! No idea! And you know, birth defects are tragic, they’re tragic. Particularly if they happen to the family afflicted by it. And, you just look at images of these aborted fetuses, because of the… and most of these are stillborn, others are born with a heart outside the body. And so, this is all simply stupid design.

And the problem is, if you look for what is intelligent, then yeah, you can find some things that are just really beautiful. And really “Hey, that’s clever!”. You know, the ball socket of the shoulder. A lot of things you can point to. But then you stop looking at all the things that confound that revelation. And, so, if I came upon a frozen waterfall and it just struck me for all its beauty, I would then turnover the rock and try to find a millipede, ok? Or some kind of deadly newt.

And then put that in context. And, 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 just really cool! Right? You could drink, breathe and just talk and you would never choke. Alright. And it’s not a hard request. Dolphins breath and eat through different holes in their body. And that’s a mammal. So I’m not asking, you know, this is like, Santa Claus could bring this one! 

And. 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.

6. Future Economies

a. The Hubris of Revelation Replacing Investigation

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. Cause 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 kind of audacious when you think about it. And, then you put it down and go on to the next problem. This problem is a cure for Alzheimer or the cure for Cancer or whatever else. I don’t want them in the science classroom. And, so the issue is simply about progress and discovery. 

b. A Perspective on Congressional Republicans

And, in my recent forays into Washington, I’ve been closer to a community of Republicans than I’ve ever been in my life, cause I grew up in New York City. And, 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. So, you grow up this way. 

And, I get sort of 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. And, I realized some things, spending that much time in the community of powerful Republicans: that Republicans, above all else, do not want to die poor. So! There’s a limit to how far this will go. 

And, 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. And, I looked at that and I said: “I’m not worried. Because it’s a Republican judge.”.

And, 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. And, so I had a little more confidence than others did because of this sensitivity to the money aspect of it.

But, we all know tomorrow’s economies will be founded on… uh… on, on… innovations in science and technology. And of course that gets cut short if we lose our civilization, as what happened in Islam in 1100. 

c. Humanity’s Lost Advancements

And, the last thought I’ll leave you with: It concerns me greatly, if you do the math… ok? Just look at all the Nobel Prize winners there ever were. Some even in this room and ask “How many were Muslim?”. And, 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? Now, how many Nobel Prizes were won by Jews? That’s like a fourth of the Nobel Prizes! Ok? Some high fraction of the total. And then you look: How many Muslims are there in the world? It’s like a billion Muslims! How many Jews? 15 million tops! Ok? So 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! So, 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.  

7. Closing

And so, what I want to put on the table is what… So, that’s the end of my talk…

But I want to say… I want to put on the table not why 85% of the National Academy rejects God; I wanna know why 15% don’t. And that’s really what we gotta address here. The public is secondary to this. 

Thank you for your attention here.

Liked it? Take a second to support James O'Neill on Patreon!
Become a patron at Patreon!
James O'Neill

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.