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Phil Plait is the best ‘Bad Astronomer’ on Earth

‘Bad Astronomy’ blog is devoted to airing out the myths and misconceptions

By Matthew Wilburn King

Most of us strive to be good at what we do, but Phil Plait, who has a Ph.D. in astronomy, became the best “Bad Astronomer” on Earth.

How’d he do it?

Picture the Earth traveling 67,000 miles per hour around a star that formed from a huge, rotating dust-and-gas cloud 4.6 billion years ago. Over 200 million miles away from that star is the asteroid belt, which separates the four rocky planets closest to the sun—Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars—from the rest of the planets in our solar system.
This region of space and its asteroids have been of interest to Plait for years, which led him to become a recognized expert on the doomsday scenarios that might unfold if an asteroid were to collide with Earth. But, what he really loves to do is help people understand the science behind our known universe.

Plait is familiar with the literal astronomical mistakes being made in the news and popular media, including movies. In fact, correcting those mistakes was why he created his blog, “Bad Astronomy,” which he launched while in graduate school at the University of Virginia.

“I would read stories and realize people didn’t understand the science behind the story that they were writing, and the correct answer is often more interesting than the misconceptions,” Plait says. “‘Bad Astronomy’ is devoted to airing out the myths and misconceptions.”

Phil Plait’s book, Death from the Skies, explores doomsday scenarios from a scientific perspective. (courtesy Phil Plait)

After finishing his Ph.D. in 1995, Plait worked as a contract research scientist on several NASA projects, but continued to focus on his blog, which was his passion project. After working as a NASA contractor for years, he felt he could make a bigger difference if he concentrated on educating the broader public.

“I had always been doing it: writing about astronomy, talking about it, showing people the sky at night with telescopes or binoculars. It seemed like going to a university and doing writing for a NASA contract…writing up education pieces for the public and for classrooms would be very gratifying work.”

Eventually, he landed at Sonoma State University in California, not as a formal academician, but doing educational work for NASA. Plait was there between 2000 and 2007 and during that time, he also completed his first book, Bad Astronomy. Eventually, he got a call from a publisher asking if he could write another book, Death from the Skies, which allowed him to focus on asteroids and doomsday scenarios.

When asked to rate the biggest threats to human beings, he says, “Climate change is first, Donald Trump is second, probably a pandemic third, a giant solar storm might be fourth, and an asteroid colliding with Earth is in the top ten, if not the top five.”

The threat of an asteroid the size of the one that led to the extinction of the dinosaurs is low on the list, he says. “There have been countless impacts since, but there hasn’t been one big enough for a doomsday in 66 million years.” For instance, the Barringer Meteor Crater in Arizona was created by a nickel-iron meteorite that was 160 feet across; when it hit the planet 50,000 years ago, it was equivalent to a huge nuclear weapon being detonated. Although it created catastrophic damage, it still doesn’t compare to what hit the planet 66 million years ago. He adds that any object that size would be spotted before it hit. “The good news is that we’re getting better at building telescopes that can give us permanent eyes on the sky.”

Plait is more concerned that an asteroid might be mistaken for an attack if it hit near or in an urban area. “My nightmare scenario is humans making stupid decisions…an asteroid
the size of a football field could come in completely undetected and it would blow up like a gigantic nuclear weapon. If it happened in a city, or near a city, or suburbs, or anything like that…if it’s mistaken as an attack, it would be a disaster.”

Though that “nightmare scenario” is more likely to happen than an asteroid impact large enough to cause extinction, he adds, “The odds are very low, the Earth is tiny, there’s a
huge volume of space, don’t lie awake in a cold sweat, don’t need to panic about it, but it is a concern.”

Visit Plait’s blog

Plait himself writes about but doesn’t obsess over such things; he continues to go about his business of science education. SyfyWire has picked up Plait’s Bad Astronomy blog. He’s also served as the head science writer for “Bill Nye Saves The World” and consulted on films like “Arrival.” He is also currently a consultant for the CBS television series Salvation.

What he loves most is seeing people understand something new. Once, a woman asked him: “What’s the coolest thing you know?” Plait recalls her question with glee: “Isn’t that the greatest question ever? When she asked me that question, I told her how stars are born and how planets are made,” he says. “By the end of the conversation she realized that the iron and calcium in our blood was made in stars that exploded billions of years ago. She had this dawning realization of her connection to the universe. I had never been happier to be a science communicator than at that point.”

It was as if she realized for the first time what Carl Sagan meant when he said, “The cosmos is also within us, we’re made of star stuff.” Adds Plait: “It’s our responsibility to help people understand what’s behind Sagan’s words.”