I had recognized historical misrepresentations by Tyson in the Cosmos series such as that Giordano Bruno was a martyr for science and that Galileo went to jail for his scientific beliefs but I wasn’t aware of the broader story behind this famous interaction between Laplace and Napolean. You really need to read Barnes’s blogs for the details but, in a nutshell, the story is that Napolean upon reading physicist Pierre-Simon Laplace’s writings about the physics of the solar system asked why they never mentioned a Creator. Laplace replied that “Sir, I had no need of that hypothesis.” Also, as Barnes summarizes: “Tyson claims that Newton (1642-1727) should have discovered what Laplace (1749-1827) did – that the combined pull of the planets on each other do not destabilize their orbits – but was hamstrung by his theism.” Tyson wonders why Newton didn’t discover the stability of the solar system but inserted God as a means of intervening to keep things stable:
“What concerns me 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. You’re waiting for someone 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.” And they come in and solve it.”
Barnes points out several problems with Tyson’s claims:
- This story may have never actually happened – the case for its historicity is somewhat weak as Laplace himself denied it and the earliest reports about the meeting are relatively late.
- It is simply false that Newton ceased from scientific exploration into this problem – he did develop a theory of perturbations. He failed to develop the proper theory primarily because he had the wrong tools – as one historian summarizes “success came for Newton’s successors only with a new approach, different from any he had envisaged: algorithmic and global.”
- Laplace had lots of help – as Barnes explains: “note the mathematicians who worked on the problem of perturbations to planetary orbits before Laplace: Clairaut, Euler, d’Alembert, and Lagrange. These are the greatest mathematicians of their age; Leonard Euler is arguably the greatest mathematician of all time: “Read Euler, read Euler, he is the master of us all.” That quote, incidentally, is from Laplace. Euler was a devout Christian and a Lutheran Saint. Apparently, having “God on the brain” didn’t prevent him – as it didn’t prevent Newton – from working on this scientific problem.” “Newton, of course, was a mathematical genius. But we can hardly blame him for not being smarter than Clairaut, Euler, d’Alembert, Lagrange and Laplace combined.”
- Laplace’s theory is not quite accurate either – “orbits of the Solar System are chaotic over timescales of a few billion years.”
I personally think it’s important to correct this type of misleading historical account because it is often used to argue against interpreting something like fine-tuning as evidence for a Creator – anyone that sees evidence for God is said to be a science-stopper.
Why does Tyson feel the need to inject historical misrepresentations at all into his otherwise excellent public lectures on the beauty majesty of nature and the scientific endeavor? I assume that Tyson didn’t know the broader story but we should expect more thorough research from a scientist and public spokesperson.
Here are some resources you might find helpful that discuss the relationship between science and religion historically:
“The Mythical Conflict Between Science and Religion” James Hannam, Medieval Science and Philosophy (website for the book The Genesis of Science: How the Christian Middle Ages Launched the Scientific Revolution)
 Both of these myths are debunked in Galileo Goes to Jail: and Other Myths About Science and Religion, ed. Ronald L. Numbers (Harvard UP, 2009)
Free CrossExamined.org Resource
Get the first chapter of "Stealing From God: Why Atheists Need God to Make Their Case" in PDF.