At first 2000, Phil Plait writes his first book, bad astronomy, which debunked conspiracy theories and fallacies, like the idea that NASA faked the moon landings in the 1970s or that planetary alignments can affect life on Earth. Twenty years later, he continues his quest to break down astronomical misconceptions while sharing his love for the cosmos. Plait, an astronomer and science writer, has spent his career sharing space information and explaining complex concepts to the public via his popular blog and newsletter, both called Bad Astronomy.
In his new book, Under an alien sky, out today, Plait brings his usual curiosity and humor to the exploration of 10 fascinating locations in our solar system and beyond. Plait delves into the science — and science fiction — of these space destinations, going beyond what telescopes and space photography can tell us about these strange worlds, and what it would actually be like to visit them in person.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
WIRED: I always wanted to ask you. Why do you call yourself the bad astronomer?
Phil Plait: It’s because when I started writing on the web – and we’re talking about 1993 here – I started writing about misconceptions in astronomy. Over time, I started calling it “bad astronomy”, and someone started calling me the “bad astronomer” on message boards at the time. I thought it was funny, and the name stuck.
You have called yourself a “skeptical scientist”. Can you explain what you mean by that?
Scientific skepticism – what many people call “critical thinking”, which is probably better – is simply saying, “OK, here’s a claim, and here’s the supporting evidence. Does the evidence support the claim or are there other things going on? Is there any evidence that I’m not shown? Is the allegation a logical conclusion from this evidence? Is there a way to falsify this claim? Is there any evidence that doesn’t support it? And is there another idea that could do better?
And that’s what the scientific process is. I think that’s something badly needed these days. There are so many people making statements about climate change, about vaccines, about guns. The fact that people indiscriminately accept claims made by people they trust is not a good thing.
What was your motivation for writing Under an alien sky?
Getting people interested in astronomy isn’t that hard: “Look at this beautiful picture of a galaxy. Isn’t that great? »
And then I started getting this question [about images from space]”What would it be like if you were there?” Sure, there’s that Hubble image, but if you were actually floating in space, in Saturn, or next to that cloud of gas, would it Really Looks like this?”
Most of the time the answer would be “Yes”. If you are hovering above the moon, the view will look like what you see from these satellites. But when it comes to gas clouds and galaxies and stuff, especially now with the James Webb Space Telescope, the answer is, “No, it wouldn’t look like anything like that.”
I started thinking: What would it look like if you were actually in a cloud of gas? It turns out that the answer is complicated. I decided to pitch an article to Astronomy magazine, basically covering three different storylines, and wrote it, and it was a popular article. I thought: You know, that would make a good book! And boom, barely 25 years later, I decided to finally start writing it.