John Pazmino 
 NYSkies Astronomy Inc
 2006 July 9
    I went to the special lecture 'Perimeters of ignorance' at the 
Hayden Planetarium on Tuesday 9 May 2006. Dr Neil Tyson presented the 
talk based on his article in Natural History magazine of November 
2005. I summarize Neil's talk here, plus several side discussions it 
span off after the presentation in the hall and street. I also 
perceived an undercurrent of ideas, not specificly stated, that have a 
broader application in our society. 
Religion and science
    The essence of Tyson's talk was that there are two main levels of 
involvement of religion with science. The first is a harmless one, 
employed by many scientists over the ages, even today. This invokes a 
divine or spiritual intervention with nature when science reaches its 
limit of knowledge. However, the way is clear for others, now or in 
the future, to inquire further into nature and advance our 
understanding of it. This pushes the perimeter of our ignorance of 
nature farther away.
    He gave examples from Ptolemaeus, Bruno, Galileo, Huygens, Newton, 
Laplace. In their writings, except for Laplace, they note that beyond 
a certain current state of knowledge, there may be the domain of a 
superior spiritual being. Ptolemaeus appealed to Zeus, the god of 
religion in his time, altho we generally consider him part of 
mythology. The others called on a Christian flavor of god. 
    Some scientists simply had no need for such a concept, because, in 
their estimation, humans are fully capable of sussing out nature. Neil 
used Laplace and his monumental tome 'Mechanique Celeste', which 
Napoleon [supposedly] studied. When Napoleon praised Laplace, he had a 
little question: No where in the book does Laplace mention god. 
Laplace replied that he had no need for that hypothesis. 
Suppression of inquiry 
    The other level of involvement is the dangerous one, perceived by 
Tyson as encroaching into American society today. This is where 
religion not only is called on at the limit of knowledge, but also 
blocks science from repelling that limit. Or, religion tries to 
replace science with mere belief and dogma without attempting to 
advance human culture and civilization. 
    The religion establishment sets up a 'perimeter of ignorance', 
beyond which people are not permitted to cross. For intelligence about 
the world over the perimeter, the declaration of the establishment 
serves as a complete and ultimate answer. Investigation or examination 
across this perimeter is treated as a threat, insult, disrespect 
against the establishment. Such behavior must be punished. 
    The archetypical example, cited by Neil, was Bruno. Bruno 
postulated that the planets are other whole worlds with their own 
people. The ruling state did not take kindly to this idea, taking it 
as a heinous insult. These other people would then be outside of its 
domain, litterally, out of reach! Despite warnings and threats, Bruno 
continued his writings on this and other 'offensive' topics. In the 
end he was incinerated alive in a public square in Italy (I forget the 
Christian fundamentalism 
    The contemporary example to hand is the effort by some Christian 
sects to promote in public education a Biblical explanation of nature. 
In the sectarian schools, this was the curriculum for ages. The new 
push is to have taxpayer funded schools include the Christian 
    The claim is that evolution, gradualist geology, bigbang cosmology 
are only 'theories' and, therefore!, the alternative of Biblical 
answers should be taught. The latter is called, for all varieties, 
'intelligent design' or 'ID'. 
    There is no science in this scheme, only the reversion to some 
immutable scriptures. ID, for short, makes no effort to inquire about 
nature or to experiment, observe, test, challenge hypotheses about 
nature. The explanation of nature is already complete: God did it. 
Moslem fundamentalism 
    Tyson discussed an other threat to science from the radical 
Islamic world, a la World Trade Center. He noted that there are about 
15-20 million Jews in the world, yet they earned some 3/4 of all the 
Nobel Prizes in the sciences. This achievement he attributed to the 
Jewish principle of leaving science outside of the religious domain. A 
person can be a devout Jew and also a perimeter-pushing scientist. 
    Among the billion or so Moslems, Neil stated there is only ONE 
Nobel Prize in science! That was in 1979 and the winner came from 
Pakistan, a bit outside the hardcore Middle East. 
    He recalled that in the 800-1200 AD period, Islam favored science 
and culture, allowing free and open exchange of ideas, theories, 
experiments. This period of history is probably what saved the West, 
which at the time was struggling under the Dark Ages. When the Dark 
Ages ebbed in the 1400s, the West nourished on the Islamic world for 
the preserved sciences, plus native new science. largely thru this 
intellectual commerce, the West raised itself into the present era. 
Two enduring thanks to the Islamic assistance is the prevalence of 
Arabic starnames and lunar craters honoring Arabs. 
    About 1200 AD, there arose the ideology to force-fit nature into 
the words of the Koran, resulting in a stagnation of progress that 
still today envelopes the Middle East. And, now, as Tyson warns, this 
stricture on science is seeping into the United States. 
Religious science in America 
    The Christian and Islamic forces are separate. As best as we can 
tell, there is no collaboration between the two. In fact, the Islamic 
sector have no tolerance at all for Christians! And the Christian camp 
treats Moslems as, erm, infidels. Never the less, both forces seek to 
eviscerate the ability to progress humanity by supplanting science 
with blind ideology. 
    Neither the Christian nor the Islamic factions pretend to practice 
anything like science. that is, to allow and promote the processes of 
question, inquiry, testing, probing, exploring for the goal of 
furthering humankind. They strive to control and suppress human 
Earth is privileged? 
    The name 'intelligent design' is laughable when one examines the 
way the world, just Earth, is built, supposedly by an omnipotent 
omniscient spirit. Moat of Earth plain hates humans by being too cold, 
hot, wet, dry, full of wild animals, insects, poison plants. Most of 
Earth is ocean, in which humans can not live without heavy protection. 
(at least not more than 177 hours!) Tornados, floods, dust and sand 
storms, earthquakes, massive rain, lightning-triggered forest fires, 
volcanos continuously act against human existence. Can anyone with 
sense and brains actually design a world like this for people? Green 
pastures by still waters? Land of milk and honey? In far too few and 
far places. 
What intelligent design?
    Neil explored the human body. It has a common orifice for eating, 
drinking, breathing. Result: myriads of deaths annually from 
accidental choking.  Sex and waste are handled by the same organs.  
It's like having a recreation park and sewer mill together on the same 
    Many humans are built defectively! Assorted birth defects, severe 
deficiency in some critical human function, occur randomly. 
    The body is attacked with disease from natural bacteria and 
    Faculties wane in old age, like hearing and eyesight, while the 
rest of the human is still in good operation. 
    Diseases like diabetes, heart failure, cancer afflict people 
seemingly at random at all ages. 
    Altho we do not understand many of these breakdowns in human 
function, they are part of the natural world around us. But that world 
is supposedly built by a higher intelligent design? 
If not Earth, where?
    He examined the suitability of outer space for human habitation. 
It's too frigid, torrid, arid, full of ionizing radiation, barren of 
air. In fact, there is no place at all in the solar system where 
humans can carry on a livelihood similar to that on Earth. Humans must 
stay within protective capsules, suits, habitats and never expose 
themselfs directly to the space environment. 
    He didn't say so, but there was the strong allusion to a
futility of wholesale human settlement and colonization of other 
worlds. To allow humans, just a couple per flight, to penetrate into 
space involves humongous costs and support. It would be one hell of a 
long time, plus intervention of evolution perhaps, before a human in 
space can duplicate the feats of the Galileo, Huygens, New Horizons, 
and Mars rover missions. 
    Neil did allow that under a dogmatic regime, like Italy of the 
1500s-early 1600s, there is leeway for science. Only up to the 
threshold of the established script. Bruno and others could dabble in 
calculating eclipses and planet positions, keeping time and calendar, 
developing navigation, and similar 'tame' pursuits of science. It was 
when Bruno leaped over the perimeter of ignorance with his promotion 
of inhabited worlds that the rulers stomped on him. 
Separation of church and state 
    America by Tyson's estimation is the epitome of a free and open 
society where religion and science are peaceful cohabitants, leaving 
each other alone. This is specificly provided in the US Constitution 
by forbidding the establishment or restriction of religious practice, 
tHIS 'separation of church and state' derives directly from the 
amalgam of church and state in England, then running America as 
colonies. The founding fathers, mindful of the religious domination of 
many countries in Europe, not only England, where they came from did 
not want a repeat situation in the New World. 
    In consequence, America became a harve de grace for overseas 
peoples suffering from religion-based oppression. Here they could 
enjoy their religious culture without fear or persecution. 
Social applications
    Tyson held to the religious campaign against science. His remarks 
are applicable to political and social regimes. The obvious one, 
recently thrown on the trash heap of history, is the Soviet Union. 
Fresh in my, and other, minds, is the flow of refugees from the Soviet 
state, including top-ranking scientists who were bullied to stay 
within the defined perimeter of ignorance.
    'Science' doesn't mean only the laboratories, observatories, 
libraries and people in white coats. It is a system of acquiring 
knowledge and understanding. It's a scheme of learning that eliminates 
arbitrary human dictate and decree. Science can, and does, shift its 
concepts as new information and observations are obtained; it is not a 
set and fixed body of facts and figures. This latter is the scheme of 
a totalitarian state, that of some religions. 
    Hence, Dr Tyson's talk is valuable for dealing with small scale 
regimes, largely out of public sight and sound. These include 
corporations, government agencies, cooperative housing, and, yes, 
astronomy clubs. In these cases, the contention is with the entity's 
own 'nature', its operation and function. In such cases, the 'superior 
intelligence' is the ruling class of the entity rather than a 
spiritual being in heaven. 
    Two signature examples in the news during the Tyson talk are the 
attempt by NASA to stifle studies in global warming at the Goddard 
Institute for Space Studies and the Stalinist mindset at Amateur 
Astronomers Association. Both institutions are short bus rides from 
the Planetarium. 
    Tyson wrapped up his talk with questions from the audience. Most 
were clarifications of his statements; others related to ways to 
improve science education or political awareness of science.
    Continuing the extrapolation. when a society, in the general 
sense, shuts out internal mechanisms for examining, testing, probing, 
discussing, debating, this faculty will be set up outside of that 
society, to which its people can take refuge. And this faculty will be 
in a form most disagreeable to the society! Such is America in the 
eyes of some societies around the world. They, seeing that there is an 
alternative way of life beyond its perimeter, strive to close up that 
perimeter -- the Berlin Wall -- or remove the refuge -- the World 
Trade Center. 
    Tyson worries deeply about any success in squeezing out science 
from American education, in that it dumps at least a whole generation 
of people into a stagnant dead realm of perimetrized ignorance.