On Christmas morning, Tyson, the director of New York’s Hayden Planetarium, took to Twitter to troll those celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ. Tyson wrote “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.” The tweet set off an Internet firestorm and was retweeted nearly 15,000 times in less than an hour.
Tyson’s tweet not only plays on the fact that Newton, the inventor of modern physics was believed to be born on December 25 but that Jesus Christ almost certainly wasn’t. The date does not appear in the New Testament and early theologians seemed to think that Jesus was born in the spring. The winter date for the holiday may have eventually been adopted to coincide with existing pagan festivals as part of an effort to convert non-Christians. The astrophysicist played on this theme in a tweet that followed, writing “Merry Christmas to all. A Pagan holiday (BC) becomes a Religious holiday (AD). Which then becomes a Shopping holiday (USA).” The one problem for Tyson is that while Jesus may not have been born on Christmas, Isaac Newton actually wasn’t born on December 25 either.
Newton was born during a 150-year-period where England used a different calendar from the rest of Europe. While the rest of the continent adopted the Gregorian calendar that we use today, the English persisted in using the less accurate Julian calendar which lagged ten days behind because of a faulty method of accounting for leap years. As a result, while Newton was born on December 25, 1642 in England, his birthday was January 4, 1643 everywhere else.
The result is likely to further spark conservative anger at Tyson, who has long been reviled by some on the right for a what is perceived as a “know-it-all” attitude towards organized religion. Ironically, this was an attitude not shared by Isaac Newton who devoted much of his later life to theology and trying to interpret biblical prophesies.
But regardless of how one feels about Tyson, Newton, Christmas or Christianity, his tweet does spark one bigger concern: don’t people have something better to do on Christmas Day than complain about Twitter?