Neil deGrasse Tyson on “My Man, Isaac Newton”

Young Isaac Newton is the central character of Isaac’s Eye by Lucas Hnath, this year’s EST/Sloan Mainstage Production. In 2009 astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium, recorded a now legendary video for Big Think in response to the question, “Who’s the greatest physicist in history?”

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Isaac Newton.  You read his writings. Hair stands up -- I don’t have hair there but if I did it would stand up -- on the back of my neck. The man was connected to the universe in ways tha I’ve never seen another human being connected. It’s kind of spooky, actually.

He discovers the laws of optics. He figures out that white light is composed of colors. That’s kind of freaky right there. You take your colors of the rainbow and put them back together, you get white light again. That freaked out the artists of the day. How does that work? Red, orange, yellow, green, blue, violet gives you white!

The laws of optics. He discovers the laws of motion and the universal law of gravitation.

Then a friend of his says, “Why are these orbits of the planets in the shape of an ellipse (a sort of flattened circle)? Why aren’t they some other shape?”

And Newton says, “I don’t know. I’ll get back to you.”  

So he goes home and comes back a couple months later. “Here’s why. They’re actually conic sections, sections of a cone that you cut.”

So they say “How did you find this out?”

“Well, I had to invent integral and differential calculus to determine this.”

Then he turned twenty-six.[Tyson raises his hands and mimes being speechless.]

Then he turned twenty-six.

We got people slogging through calculus in college just to learn what it is that Isaac Newton invented on a dare, practically. So that’s my man, Isaac Newton.

[Side note: it was in this video, at the moment he says “Then he turned twenty-six” and puts his hands in the air that Dr.Tyson became an Internet meme.]

Also of interest:

Neil deGrasse Tyson participated in a discussion of “What makes a great play about science?” at the EST/Sloan Fall Artist Cultivation event at EST in 2012. You can watch video clips and read excerpts from the event on this blog. 

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