Plait, Philip C. 1964(?)-
PLAIT, Philip C. 1964(?)-
PERSONAL: Born c.1964; married, May 27, 1995; wife's name, Marcella; children: Zoe. Education: University of Virginia, Ph.D., 1994.
ADDRESSES: Offıce—Sonoma State University, Department of Physics and Astronomy, 1801 East Cotati Ave., Rohnert Park, CA 94928. E-mail—[email protected]
CAREER: Astronomer, programmer, journalist, and columnist. Department of physics and astronomy, Sonoma State University, Rohnert Park, CA, astronomer. Has worked as an astronomer at Goddard Space Flight Center and as a teacher of introductory astronomy classes at the University of Virginia.
Bad Astronomy: Misconceptions and Misuses Revealed, from Astrology to the Moon Landing "Hoax," John Wiley & Sons (New York, NY), 2002.
Contributor to periodicals, including Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and Astronomy. Writer of monthly column for astronomy.com Web site.
SIDELIGHTS: Philip C. Plait calls himself "The Bad Astronomer," not because he performs poorly at his chosen vocation, but because he devotes a significant portion of his professional life to identifying and correcting bad astronomy and incorrect science in movies, books, television, the media, or anywhere else that astronomical misinformation may be found.
Plait maintains the Bad Astronomy Web site, an online resource dedicated to rooting out misinformation about science and astronomy. "Sometimes this information is just plain silly," Plait wrote on the site, "but many times it makes just enough sense that people believe it. Sometimes the news media help spread these ideas (like the one that you can spin or stand an egg on end during the Vernal Equinox), sometimes it's TV and sometimes it's plain old word of mouth, but the misinformation does get around. I feel obliged to right these wrongs when I can."
A professional astronomer and programmer with a Ph.D. in astronomy from the University of Virginia, Plait worked on a number of skygazing projects, including the Cosmic Background Explorer, where he helped calibrate instruments designed to detect infrared light from the beginning of the universe. He has also worked at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center on the space telescope imaging spectrograph, a camera installed on the Hubble space telescope. In the course of his career, Plait has conducted independent research, and has been "involved with many interesting projects," he wrote on the Bad Astronomy Web site, including activities such as taking images of such celestial events and objects as "stars being born, stars dying, galaxies, quasars, black holes, asteroids and a number of other things." His other accomplishments include assisting in the analysis of the first brown dwarf ever discovered—("A brown dwarf is an object that is too small to be a star but too big to be a planet," Plait explained)—and working on analyses of images and spectra taken of a exploding star in 1987. An active science writer, Plait is also a frequent lecturer and presenter of topics in astronomy, including speaking to students about careers in the field. However, Plait admits on his Web site, sometimes in answer to the curious, "when people ask me what astronomers do, I tell them 'They astronom!'"
With his book Bad Astronomy: Misconceptions and Misuses Revealed, from Astrology to the Moon Landing "Hoax," Plait takes his mission from the Web to print. He describes—and corrects—twenty-four common misconceptions and fallacies about astronomy, including such notions that planetary alignments can cause disasters on earth, that stars can be seen in the daytime from the bottom of a well, and that raw eggs can be balanced on end only during the vernal equinox. "The author sharply and convincingly dismisses astrology, creationism, and UFO sightings and explains the principles behind basic general concepts," wrote Jeffrey Beall in Library Journal.
Plait's explanations not only clear up fallacies, they also provide a solid foundation in the basics of astronomy, observed a reviewer in Publishers Weekly. "With avuncular humor, he points out the ways advertising and media reinforce bas science and pleads for more accuracy in Hollywood storylines and special effects," the reviewer wrote.
Among the worst instances of bad astronomy, Plait said in an interview with VirginiaOnlineMag, is "a resurgence in the idea that NASA faked the moon landings." One of the examples used by those who believe this idea is the fact that there are no stars in pictures taken on the moon when they believe the black lunar sky should be full of them. However, Plait explained, "those pictures were taken of a fully sunlit landscape, of astronauts standing in the Sun. The exposure times used in the pictures were far too short to see stars. If you went out at night here on Earth and took a picture using the same settings, you'd see a blank, black sky too, even if it were blazing with stars to your eye."
"As television and movies have become better and better at shaping our views of the world, it is becoming more and more important that we understand what it means to be scientific," Plait observed on the Bad Astronomy site. "Like it or not, those that understand science and technology will always have the advantage over those that don't. If everyone had even a basic grasp of scientific principles, this planet would be a better place."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Library Journal, March 15, 2002, Jeffrey Beall, review of Bad Astronomy: Misconceptions and Misuses Revealed, from Astrology to the Moon Landing "Hoax," p. 105.
Natural History, July, 2001, Robert Anderson, review of Bad Astronomy Web site, p. 78.
Publishers Weekly, February 25, 2002, review of Bad Astronomy, p. 52.
Science News, April 6, 2002, review of Bad Astronomy, p. 223.
Bad Astronomy Web site, http://www.badastronomy.com/ (August 9, 2002).
VirginiaOnlineMag,http://www.virginiaonlinemag.org/ (May 8, 2002), interview with Philip C. Plait.*