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Neil deGrasse Tyson stirs up controversy with Christmas tweets

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Neil deGrasse Tyson (NASA via Wikipedia)

It’s a figure that even astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson is having a hard time wrapping his brilliant mind around.

His Christmas Day tweet commemorating the birthday of Isaac Newton was retweeted more than 68,000 times as of this writing, making it the most popular of his Twitter career so far — and, arguably, his most controversial.

“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 StarTalk host tweeted.

He followed it up with a nod to the commercialization of Christmas: “Merry Christmas to all. A Pagan holiday (BC) becomes a Religious holiday (AD). Which then becomes a Shopping holiday (USA).”

By then, he was on a roll. Earlier in the day, he tweeted, “QUESTION: This year, what do all the world’s Muslims and Jews call December 25th? ANSWER: Thursday.”

His comments drew criticism and name-calling from various corners of the internet. “Overly reductive, deliberately cynical and unnecessarily provocative,” one person said on Twitter.

Another accused him of “trolling Christmas today to show you how smart he is.”

His response the next day to the flurry of conversation? “Imagine a world in which we are all enlightened by objective truths rather than offended by them.”

Later Friday, Tyson pondered “My Most Retweeted Tweet” in a Facebook post. He did not defend or disavow his comments. Instead, in true scientific form, he attempted to qualify their popularity compared to previous tweets.

“My sense in this case is that the high rate of re-tweeting, is not to share my enthusiasm of this fact, but is driven by accusations that the tweet is somehow anti-Christian,” he wrote. “If a person actually wanted to express anti-Christian sentiment, my guess is that alerting people of Isaac Newton’s birthday would appear nowhere on the list.”

According to his calculations, his average retweet rate falls between 2,500 and 3,500. “Fun” tweets can reach 10,000 while” boring tweets barely break 1,000.” The Newton Christmas day tweet had surpassed 62,000 retweets by the time he posted his Facebook note on Friday. By Saturday evening, it had reached more than 69,000.

“I wonder if you are as astonished by this fact as I am,” he wrote.

For example, he directly referenced Jesus in previous tweets that did not spread nearly as far. By way of example, he offered the following, which earned more than 13,000 re-tweets: “Some claim the USA is a Christian nation, compelling me to wonder which assault rifle Jesus would choose: the AR-15 or AK-47.”

He also addressed criticism that according to the calendar in use during Newton’s time, his birthday would fall on January 4, 1643.

“One last bit of historical fact. All of England was celebrating Christmas the day Newton was born. 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.”

Tyson closed his note with holiday wishes and a warning that he’ll be tweeting about Earth’s perihelion in the New Year.

“Just a head’s up in case people want to avert their eyes over that one.”