Dr. Phil Plait, astronomer, lecturer, and author, was a popular guest of the Dragon*Con Space and Skeptic tracks in 2008, and he’s back with us for 2009! At the end of last year’s convention, he snuck with us into the Hilton’s VIP lounge for some questions and fawning. Phil talked to us about his new book, Death from the Skies!: These Are the Ways the World Will End…, astronomy both bad and awesome, his blog, and his new role at the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF). Read on.
Daily Dragon (DD): Where is your costume?
Phil Plait (PP): In fact I was going to wear a costume for Dragon*Con. I was going to come as Jack Burton from Big Trouble in Little China, which is just the awesomest of all awesome movies. And, since James Hong is here, I thought that would be very cool.
Sadly, life took a turn for the busy, and this past month has been insanity, starting about two weeks before Comic-Con. Then I got back from Comic-Con, and had like three days before I went to the Southern hemisphere on a tour of the Galapagos islands, and so that was 11 days. And that ended four days, I think, before this. So, yeah, no costume so much. I was pretty upset about that, but in the end considering next year I’m considering I don’t know what, but we’ll see.
Maybe an alien? I should come as one of my nemeses, as the face on Mars. I could make a face on Mars mask. That would actually be pretty funny.
DD: It would only look like a face from a certain angle…
PP: Yeah, that’s it. You squint your eyes and you had terrible glasses, it looks like a face, but otherwise it’s just a just a big hill.
DD: Do you like science fiction?
PP: Yeah, I’m a huge geek.
DD: We won’t tell if you…
PP: No, no, no. I’ve got the cred.
DD: What do you like in science fiction literature?
PP: For a long time, I had stopped reading written science fiction. Just lack of time, and wasn’t sure what was coming out anymore. There were so many new authors, and I didn’t want to keep buying books, and the library didn’t have much, and all that. But back when I was, and I’ll come back to that in a second, back in the beginning when I was in high school, college, mostly hard science fiction: Larry Niven, Pournelle, David Brin… golly… Greg Bear, Asimov, Heinlein, all those. I was raised on Heinlein and Asimov and Bradbury, and all those guys. And I liked the hard science fiction because I’m not doing astronomy and science because it’s a job. I love this stuff, and so reading about it is really exciting. So, I was always into the hard stuff, but I like internally consistent science fiction. The science is well defined, and it’s stepped around whenever the plot needs it. That’s the kind of stuff I like.
Now I’m picking it up again, and I have to blame Wil Wheaton for that. He was writing about John Scalzi on his blog, so I started picking up Scalzi’s books, Old Man’s War and The Last Colony, Zoë’s Tale, and these are fantastic books, so I’m reading science fiction again.
I was reading science books forever, astronomy books, skeptic books, and those are really fun, but after a while, it’s like I need rocketships. I need FTL. I need something. So, I’m starting to get into it again. I’ve already picked up a few. I’ve finally picked up a copy of Watchmen. Everyone is raving about this, and I’m not a comic book guy. I like them. They’re cool. It’s just one of those things. It’s like, yes, I can put this on my list of 800 things I have to do, including watching Middle Man, the second season of Life on Mars, Eureka, Battlestar, you know, I don’t have the time. And, at Comic-Con, I couldn’t find any copies of it, and then I walked into one of the dealer’s rooms, and there’s a whole rack of The Watchmen, the whole complete book, 16 bucks. Bang. Sold. Done. I’m not walking away from this. It’s just waiting for the airplane ride home. I’m very excited.
So, the answer is, yes, I do.
DD: Right on! We were hoping. How do you feel about not-hard science fiction?
PP: Well, I like character-driven stuff. I love Firefly. Firefly may be one of the best television shows ever made, and the science in that is important but secondary to the characters. And it’s used in the plot to get from point A to point B and why the Reavers came up, and all that kind of stuff. The science wasn’t as important as the characters, so I do like science fiction settings, but I really do like strong, character-driven work.
So, I do like Battlestar. I just haven’t been able to get into the third and forth season, yet. Lack of time.
I’m a huge, huge Doctor Who fan. I was raised on Doctor Who when I was in high school and college, and now that it’s come back, I’m like the biggest fan in the U.S. Well, maybe one of the biggest. Two friends of mine flew to England to go see David Tenant in Hamlet. So, yeah, I can’t quite get up to their level. I would have if I could have, but I’ve been writing about it a lot, too. I love that show.
DD: Can you handle sci-fi in which the science really doesn’t work at all?
PP: Yeah. If it’s consistent. Like Star Trek. Totally inconsistent. They’re using the transporter to make people young in one episode and the next, people are dying of old age, and it’s like, People, hello! What does it take, who do I have to pay to make me 22 years old again? That’s really ridiculous, and, yet, I would still watch it. I love Star Trek. And so it’s not sci-fi über alles, because there are some that I never got into. Stargate, I just never liked it. I tried. I never got into Babylon 5. I tried.
DD: And it’s not because of the science?
PP: Just not to my taste. It’s just one of those things. I can see why people dig those shows. It’s great. It’s fine. Some people loathe Doctor Who. Fine. It’s not for them.
It’s like chocolate. I like milk chocolate. Some people like dark chocolate. It’s okay. They’re both chocolate. So, science fiction is chocolate, and some of these shows are different kinds of chocolate, and that’s fine. So it’s just one of these things where I do like the settings, but the show itself has to be something that appeals to me, and I couldn’t tell you what qualifies as something that appeals to me. I mean, Jewel Staite is in Stargate Atlantis, and I still can’t watch it, and I love her. But what’re you going to do?
DD: Your new book, your second one, is called…?
PP: Death from the Skies! With the exclamation point.
DD: And the subtitle…
PP: “These are the ways the world will end,” which is hard to say, but I love that expression. And I’ve got to practice it because I have a feeling I’ll be doing it on podcasts a lot the next couple of months.
DD: So, the question: are we all doomed?
DD: Fair enough. Short term, long term?
PP: That’s the funny thing. In the book, whenever I tell people about the book, they say, “Are you going to talk about asteroid impacts?” That’s chapter one. Get the easy stuff all out of the way. Wait ’til you get to chapter five, and I’ll scare the crap out of you.
The timetable is funny because you can talk about the super long term stuff, like the sun will die in six, seven billion years—something like that. The sun will swell into a red giant; it will swallow the Earth. Even before then, the sun is very slowly heating up. It’s not just suddenly going to turn into a red giant. There’s a slow evolution over the next billion years and longer. Over the next billion years, it’s going to heat the Earth up enough that life here will become impossible… unless we physically move the Earth, which we can do, and I talk about that in the book. There are ways of doing that. I was quite shocked by this because moving something as large as the Earth is, it turns out, hard, but it can be done.
So, in a billion years, yes, the Earth will become uninhabitable unless we move it, but at some point the sun will swell up, the Earth will get fried, and that’s some billions of years from now. After that, the Milky Way is going to collide with another galaxy. Eventually, protons themselves will decay. The universe will become a thin soup of neutrinos and energy and that’s really it. And that’s a long timeframe. 1070, 10 to the… a google, literally, a google years from now.
And so, in the long term, the very long term, yeah, we’re all doomed.
But, in the near term, there are asteroid impacts, there are massive solar flares, there are other things that can happen to damage our ecosphere. These are, mainly, relatively preventable or mitigate-able. So if we see an asteroid headed for the Earth, we have the technology to be able to push it out of the way, for the most part, unless it’s really huge, or we don’t discover it until it’s a week away or something like that. But in general, the kind of rocks that would hit us and do severe damage to civilization, extinction level things, we can push those out of the way. Same with comets.
With massive solar flares and solar events, there are different types of solar events, what these can do is shut down our grid. This happened in Canada in 1989, and it wiped out the Quebec power structure. They lost power for days, and this was in March, in the middle of a blizzard, and people died. This could happen on a massive, massive scale in North America. We could have tens of thousands deaths; that’s really true. We can prevent that by upgrading our power grid. We can’t stop the sun from doing what it’s doing, but we can take defense against that.
And so it’s funny that you can divide these catastrophes into the likely—asteroid impacts, solar flares, that sort of thing—even though they are low-probability, they’re likely, compared to nearby super novas, nearby gamma ray bursts—which are horrifying—and the eventual black holes passing through the solar system and all these things which will happen on the long scale. But the ones which are more likely are the ones that we can do something about. The ones that are unlikely long term, there is nothing really we can do about them. They are going to happen a billion years from now.
So in the end, all I’ve been saying is if you calculate the statistics, what is my likelihood of being killed by these events, it’s one in tens of thousands. But it’s kind of screwed up because the sun will eventually fry the Earth, but not for a long time. So the odds of it killing me are zero. Even though the odds of it actually happening are 100%. And so, statistically, this is all weird and it’s really hard to explain, but…
DD: Not graspable by human beings?
PP: Not by normal people, and even mathematicians and scientists kind of have to go, “Well, you know….” It’s just a little screwy, that’s all.
So, yes, we’re doomed, but maybe not in the way you think. I’m more worried about, you know, slipping in the bath tub, and cracking my head open. You’re more likely to be eaten by a shark than actually killed in an asteroid impact. And people are really bad at statistics. It’s hard to understand that stuff.
DD: Your first book, Bad Astronomy, was a book on…?
PP: Myths and misconceptions.
DD: And this new one is talking about these events that could, well, that are eventually going to occur…
PP: May or may not happen. Fun to talk about.
DD: You went from the debunking to these issues that are more fun to talk about. Is it an intentional move to the more fun or interesting to talk about for you, or is it about educating the public more?
PP: All this stuff is fun for me, and it’s not that I was moving away from the misconceptions, although it was a conscious effort on my part because there are plenty of misconceptions I could have written a second book about. But I didn’t want to do the sophomore book that’s just part two. Tori Amos can do that and get away with it, and Alanis Morrisette, but I can’t. And Boston could not, for that matter (the old group). They put out a second album exactly like the first 20 years later, and they’re gone. Sort of. Although Rock Band has a couple of their songs.
I just have other things I want to talk about, and I thought this was a killer idea, so to speak. I guess that’s a stupid joke, but it never really occurred to me actually, but there you go. I thought, “This is a great idea. I want to write about this.”
I got my Ph.D. studying stars that explode, so I’m familiar with these catastrophic events. And I spent a few years working on NASA projects studying other kinds of starts that explode—high-energy events, neutron star collisions, and galaxies colliding, and massive black holes sucking down matter and spewing out radiation—and these kind of things really excite people. We train teachers to use these materials to teach kids science in the classrooms, using black holes and exploding stars. The kids are really digging it, and I thought, “All right. I need to write about this.”
So in the book, I talk about all the science of this stuff, and I maybe play up the B-movie aspects. There’s a little vignette at the start of each chapter, a fictional short story, only about a page, saying what would happen if somebody looks up and, pft, gone. “Hey, what’s that bright light in the sky?” Bzzrt! And everybody is dead.
But in the end, when I talk about asteroids, it says, “Here is how we can prevent this. Don’t lie awake at nights, in a cold sweat, worrying about this.” And the other things, it’s like how many people do you know who have been killed by a gamma ray burst? Zero. So you don’t have to worry about it.
DD: But possibly the trilobites.
PP: Yeah, it’s possible that the Ordovician extinction, and I can’t remember the date off the top of my head, but it was hundreds of millions of years ago, they might have been wiped out by a gamma ray burst. So it’s circumstantial but still interesting. And I want to talk about these things as real events, but I don’t want to really scare the crap out of you, any more than you’re scared while you’re on a roller coaster ride. Eventually you step off and go, “That was great!” That’s where I was trying to go with the book.
DD: Along with the new book coming, you’ve had a couple of things come up recently.
PP: Life changes?
DD: I believe you’ve become the head of the James Randi Educational—
PP: Foundation. JREF.
DD: Congratulations, by the way.
PP: Thank you. James is a pretty amazing guy. James Randi—James “the Amazing” Randi—has had this educational foundation for over a decade, and it has done some fairly cool things, like granting academics to people who have shown that they have done research that supports the goals of the foundation, which is to educate the public about frauds and hoaxes and pseudoscience and that sort of thing. There are people who have studied why people believe in fantasy, why people think that psychics can talk to the dead when it’s clear these people are just making it up, and why they want to believe in Tarot cards and astrology and all of these things. And we have grad students and postdocs who are studying this, and they submit applications. We’ve been giving away money to that, over ten thousand dollars a year to that. And I’d like to give out 20 scholarships and make that a hundred or two hundred thousand dollars a year. That would be great. We have a million-dollar challenge for anybody who can prove their claims of the paranormal. There’s a woman who says, “I can make you pee by staring at you.” And [that story] is true. And she was tested. And I want to make sure that that’s promoted more. We may do more with this in the next year. There’s been some changes in direction there, where instead of letting people come to us, we may publicly say, “This person says they can do this. If they can prove it, we’ll give them a million bucks.” This is all relatively nebulous at the moment. I just became president August 1st . So Between Comic-Con, the Galapagos cruise—which was part of JREF, and this, I’ve been fairly busy, and I’m working on this, but I really want to emphasize the E in JREF, which is educational. I want to create skeptical—and I wouldn’t even call it skeptical, but critical thinking—curriculum at all grade levels, kindergarten through college level, to teach students how to think because we spend so much time having them memorize things.
The reason people think that science is boring is because they are given a fact sheet and told, “Here’s when Galileo did this” and “Here’s how much Saturn’s moon Titan weighs” and all this ridiculous stuff (and I shouldn’t say weighs, I should say how much mass it has, but you know…) instead of saying: Let’s take a look at Titan. Here’s the only other body that has a solid surface and a thick atmosphere besides the Earth and Venus. There may be life on it. It has lakes of ethane on it. All this amazing stuff, and it’s typically not taught that way.
I want to make sure that the joy of science is taught, and getting critical thinking into it. There is a way to do it where you can show statistics. Like having kids—this is a demo I’ve seen—in a classroom stand up and saying, “Pick heads or tails in your head. I’ll flip the coin, and those of you who guess correctly stay standing, and if you’ve guessed incorrectly sit down.” And you keep flipping the coin until there is one kid left standing. You have a hundred kids in the classroom, that will take six or seven coin flips, and you say, “You,” to the one kid standing, “You must be psychic. You knew six coin flips in a row.” Then you have them all stand up again. You do the whole process again, and odds are it’ll be a different kid left standing. Then you say, “This is the difference between looking at an event afterward and before. You knew six coin flips in a row, but wait a minute, no, you just happened to be the one person who guessed right. It’s statistics.”
That sort of thing gets kids thinking about how to think. Skepticism and critical thinking are integral parts of science, and we can weave these two things together and give kids a joy for science and show them that math is fun. And hopefully, they won’t get taken in by con artists who use these ideas to scam people. Or maybe there are honest people out there who think they’re onto something, but in the end, it’s the same sort of process. That would be so cool to be able to do that. That’s a big, big goal of mine.
DD: Your BadAstronomy.com has become part of Discover Magazine’s site.
PP: Yeah, because I don’t have enough changes in my life.
The blog was bought out by Discover magazine. There are a couple different blog collectives out there—hive mind, whatever you wanna call them—and I’ve had offers over the years. Many of them were very nice, but I didn’t wanna lose my brand or anything. And then Discover came along and said, “Here’s what we have to offer,” and I said, “I can’t turn this down. This is too good.” Plus, managing my own blog was getting to be a major pain in the butt. There’s a lot of overhead, a lot of software upgrades, and I just can’t do it anymore. So they take all that pain away. Well, 95% of that pain away, and I just have to blog. It’s been fantastic. The first thing they did is send me to Comic-Con. They said, “We’re having a panel on science and science fiction. You should be on it. We’ll fly you out there and put you up in a hotel for a couple of nights.” And I thought, “Okay!”
So that worked out very well. No really, I’m thrilled to be a part of Discover magazine. It’s a great magazine. It does a lot of great public promotion of science. I really am happy with them.
And I should say, too, I’m here because of the international Year of Astronomy. 2009 is the international Year of Astronomy. It’s the 400th anniversary of Galileo using his telescope to discover the moons of Jupiter and the phases of Venus and the sunspots, and all the stuff that he did, started in 1609. And we have a massive campaign worldwide, supported by a large number of countries, to get everybody who is able to to be able to look through a telescope at something. We’re promoting people who have telescopes to have star parties, to get out there and show the stars to people. We’re making inexpensive telescopes—they cost ten dollars each—so that millions of kids in poor countries or remote locations in rural areas can be able to have a telescope and classrooms can share these and look at the sky. It’s a tremendous effort. We have a huge online presence, Facebook and Myspace, all kinds of social networks coming up. Pamela Gay, who was here giving talks; she’s been promoting.
DD: Is there anything we can do to combat the problem of light pollution?
PP: Keep your lights off at night. It’s funny because a lot of the lighting that we have in cities, there’s not a whole lot you can do in big cities like Atlanta, but in the suburbs, if you look at a house, the lighting that they have on those houses, it goes up into the sky, which is useless. If you had a cover over your lamp so that it projects the light down, that throws the light where you need it, it’s more efficient. And they use terrible lighting in parks and along city streets, throwing the light up into the sky so that they have to make the light super bright. And this casts sharp shadows, which is funny because those are more dangerous. Your eyes are adjusted for bright lights as you’re walking down the side walk, but then there are deep shadows where people can hide. So it’s bad for everybody. They use more electricity, they cost a lot of money, they’re less safe. And if you go to the International Dark Sky Association website, they have all sorts of ways you can set up your own lighting to make it more sky-friendly. There’s an initial cost, but in the long run, a lot of these things use less electricity, so they pay themselves off in a year or two. It’s kind of like compact florescents. They’re more expensive to buy, but in a year, they pay for themselves.
We can make the skies darker, and we should, because it’s sad that people don’t know the night sky. I go to rural places—out in the mountains of Virginia or I was in Australia recently a few years ago—and you go out to where there are no lights with people who have never been in the situation where they had dark skies, and they gasp. It’s astonishing. I remember going to this dark site once, a retreat in the mountains of Virginia. We pulled up to where we were supposed to park and there was a guy on his phone talking to his wife back home, raving. He said, “The stars were incredible last night! I’ve never seen skies like this!” And I thought awesome, we shoulda hired that guy as a spokesman.
DD: Thank you very much for you time.
PP: My pleasure.
DD: And thank you for everything that you do. It’s nice to see someone out there fighting the good fight.
PP: Yeah, you know, keep me caffeinated and I’ll keep this up for as long as I can.
Follow Phil Plait’s Twitter feed is @BadAstronomer on twitter.com. Be sure to check out Dr. Plait’s panels and discussions (and maybe help to keep him caffeinated) at this year’s Dragon*Con!
Katya Jenson grew up reading her mom's collection of science fiction and still thinks sci-fi cover art peaked in the '70s. She works in the editorial department of an Atlanta publishing house, and freelances as a book editor and translator. This is Katya’s second Dragon*Con, and her second year happily polishing commas and murdering apostrophes for the Daily Dragon.