Bad Astronomy: Misconceptions and Misuses Revealed, from Astrology to the Moon Landing "Hoax" - Philip Plait (2002)


 love bad science fiction shows. Angry Red Planet, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, UFO, all those old TV shows and movies in black and white or living color. I grew up on them. I'd stay up late watching TV, sometimes long after my folks would normally let me. I remember clearly coming home from third grade and asking my mom for permission to watch Lost in Space. I worshipped that show, Robot, Dr. Smith, Jupiter 2, and all. I wanted to wear a velour, multicolored V neck sweater, I had a crush on Judy Robinson-the whole nine yards.

Sure, I liked the good ones too. Five Million Years to Earth and The Day the Earth Stood Still were favorites of mine back then, and they still are. But the important thing to me wasn't that they were good or bad, or even if they made sense-I remember an Italian flick about a voyage to Venus that might have been written by Salvador Dali on acid. What was important was that they had aliens and rocket ships.

I would spend long hours as a child pretending to ride a rocket to other planets. I always knew I'd be a scientist, and I was pretty sure I wanted to be an astronomer. Those movies didn't discourage me because of their bad science; they inspired me. I didn't care that it's silly to try to blast a conventional chemical rocket to another star, or that you can't hear sounds in space. All I cared about was getting out there, and if I could do it by watching ridiculous movies, then so be it. I would have given anything-everythingto be able to step on board a spaceship and be able to see a binary star up close, or cruise through a nebula, or go out through the plane of our Galaxy and see it hanging in the sky, faint, ominous, luminous, against a velvet canvas of blackness so dark you can hardly convince yourself that your eyes are open.

Nowadays it would be a bit harder for me to give up everything to take such a ride. Maybe I would so my daughter could someday ... but that day is not yet here. We're still stuck here on the Earth, more or less, and the only way we can see distant vistas is either vicariously through the eye of the telescope or through the eye of a movie director. One of those eyes, perhaps, is a bit more clearly focused than the other. Despite my childhood yearnings, as an adult I can wish that movies did a better job of portraying astronomy (and astronomers) to the public.

The movies may be inspiring, which is their most important job as far as I'm concerned, but there is a downside to the bad astronomy. It muddies the distinction between fantasy and science, between what is only pretend and what can really happen. Movies can portray the make-believe so realistically that the line gets blurred. It's fair to say that most people don't understand all that much about how space travel, for example, really works. Space travel is complicated, difficult, and relies heavily on unfamiliar physics.

Movies, however, make it look easy. Just get in your ship and go! All you have to do is watch out for the stray meteor shower or alien starship and everything should work out pretty well. Unfortunately, it doesn't work out that way in the real universe. If it did, we'd have colonies on Mars and the other planets by now. I've given talks to audiences about movies and astronomy, and the question almost always arises: why aren't we on the Moon now? Why haven't we built starships, or at least colonized the solar system? Sometimes these are honest questions, and sometimes they are asked with an edge of impatience, as if the people asking the question are concerned that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration engineers aren't as up to speed as Scotty from Star Trek. The film industry makes a big impression on people and, as the scenes play over and over again, they worm their way into our brains. Movies show space travel all the time, but they show it incorrectly, and so it doesn't surprise me that the majority of the viewing public has the wrong impression about how it really works.

If movies were the only purveyors of scientific inaccuracies, there would hardly be a problem. After all, it's their job to peddle fantasy. The problem is, it doesn't stop there. The news media's job is to report the facts clearly, with as much accuracy as possible. Unfortunately, this isn't always the case. In general, national media do a fine job; most TV networks, newspapers, and magazines have enough money to maintain at least a small staff of experienced science journalists who do a good job reporting the news. Local news is more often the culprit in misrepresenting science. Local reporters may be inexperienced in the technical jargon and tools of science, and so will sometimes write amazingly inaccurate copy. This is a real problem, with perhaps no easy solution, since many local news outlets simply cannot afford to keep as many reporters needed who are knowledgeable in the vast number of topics covered in the news.

Not that I am sidestepping national news. I remember vividly watching the Today show on NBC in 1994. The Space Shuttle was in orbit, and it was doing an experiment, dragging a large, circular shield behind it. The idea was that the disk would clear out particles in its wake like a snowplow pushing snow out of the way, leaving a cleared trail behind it. In the ultra-grade vacuum behind the wake shield experiments were being conducted that took advantage of such an environment.

Anchor Matt Lauer was reporting on this experiment, and when he was finished, Katie Couric and Bryant Gumbel both commented that it must have been hard for Lauer to read that copy. All three laughed, and Lauer admitted he didn't understand what he had just said. Think about that for a moment: three of America's most famous journalists, and they actually laughed at their own ignorance in science! How would this be different if, say, the report had been about Serbia, and they laughed at how none of them knew where it was?

Needless to say, I was pretty well steamed. That event is actually what started me down the road of discussing Bad Astronomy; I decided to take action when I realized that millions of people in the United States were getting their information from people who didn't understand even the simplest of scientific events. The report itself was accurate, and may have even been written by someone who fully well knew what the Space Shuttle was doing, but what the public saw was three respected journalists saying tacitly that it's okay to be ignorant about science.

It isn't okay. In fact, it's dangerous to be ignorant about science. Our lives and our livelihoods depend on it. No one can doubt the power of computers in today's world, computers that rely on physics to operate and improve their performance. Science is what makes our houses warm, our cars go, and our cell phones ring. Medical science progresses very rapidly, with new medicines, treatments, and preventions coming out almost daily. We must understand the science of medicine to be able to make informed decisions about our health. In the United States, hundreds of billions of dollars are spent every single year on science and technology, disciplines with which the typical voting citizen has not even a passing familiarity. That's your money. You should understand not only how it's being spent but also why.

Unfortunately, getting reliable science information isn't all that easy. Science misconceptions and errors are propagated by the media in all its forms. Unfortunately once again, the problem doesn't stop there.

Anyone who has gone outside on a clear, warm night and lain down on a blanket to watch the stars may know the deep joy of astronomy, but understanding astronomy is a different matter. Unfortunately, astronomy-and science in general-has been under attack lately. This isn't anything new, really, but the recent publicity has been a bit more obvious. From NASA budget cuts to state school boards that promote antiscience, the atmosphere is more hostile than it has been before. The modern consumer is bombarded by pseudoscience at every turn. Most newspapers in the country carry an astrology column, and some even have columns by self-proclaimed psychics, but precious few devote even a single page a week to a regular column about new scientific results. Conspiracy theories abound that twist and pervert simple science into ridiculous claims that are tissue-thin, yet are accepted wholesale by hordes of believers. The World Wide Web propagates these theories and a host of others at light speed around the world, making it even harder to distinguish between what is real and what is fan tasy. In this atmosphere it's no wonder there's so much confusion about science.

Still, there's hope. Science may be on the rebound. The Discovery Channel started small, and many critics predicted it would fail. Yet, just a few years later, it is the most highly rated basic cable channel, and they charge dearly for advertising. Bill Nye the Science Guy teaches science on TV to kids in a fun and engaging way. Even adults can watch the show and get a kick out of it. The web deserves its due-one of the most popular sites on the web is not for a rock star, or a TV celebrity, or something steamy you wouldn't let your kids see. The website to which I am referring belongs to NASA. Yes, the NASA. Their home on the web is one of the most popular sites on the planet. When the Sojourner Mars probe landed on the Red Planet in 1997, their web site scored millions of hits, more than any other event in the history of the then-young web. Since then, the site has had almost a billion hits. When the Space Shuttle serviced the Hubble Space Telescope late in 1999, the NASA web site got a million hits in a single day. When the comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 smashed into Jupiter in 1994, the web nearly screeched to a halt due to the overwhelming amount of traffic as people tried to find pictures of the event from different observatories. Other science-based web sites report traffic similar to these examples as well.

The public not only likes science, it wants more. A survey of the reading public was made by newspapers, and they found that more people would read about science news, if it were offered, than about sports, finance, or the comics. When I give public lectures about results from Hubble, people barrage me with questions, and I usually wind up staying late answering more questions from people curious about the universe around them.

Despite their desire, a lot of people harbor some odd notions about astronomy. Come to think of it, it's probably because of that desire. If you want something enough, you'll take anything to fill that void. People have an innate curiosity about the universe; this is almost certainly a simple outcome of evolution. People who are curious are likely to explore, to learn, to discover. That's a pretty good survival trait.

But if they cannot get to a reliable source of information, they'll accept something less than reliable. People like the world to be mysterious, magical. It's more fun to believe that UFOs are aliens watching us than it is to find out that the overwhelming number of ET sightings are due to misinterpretations of common things in the sky.

The truth can be hard, and so sometimes it really is easier to believe in fiction. Other times, the tale has just enough of the ring of truth that you might not question it. Do we have seasons because Earth moves closer and then farther away from the Sun? Can you really see stars during the day from the bottom of a well?

Over the years I have found that people tend to have a lot of odd ideas about astronomy. Those ones I just mentioned are just a few examples of the host of misconceptions floating around in people's brains. Did I say "floating"? I mean entrenched. Like the movie scenes that ensconce themselves in our memories, misconceptions about astronomy-about any topic-take root in our minds and can be very difficult to weed out. As Cardinal Woosley said, quoted by Alistair Fraser on his Bad Science web site, "Be very, very careful what you put into that head, because you will never, ever get it out."

Far be it for me to disagree with His Eminence, but I think he's wrong. It is possible to yank that idea out and plant a healthier one. As a matter of fact, I think sometimes it's easier to do it that way. I have taught astronomy, and found that even an interested student can be easily overwhelmed in a classroom by a fire-hose emission of facts, numbers, dates, and even pictures relating to astronomy. There's so much to learn, and it can be hard to find a toehold.

However, if you start with something students already know, or think they know, that toehold is already there. Do you think we have seasons because the Earth's orbit is an ellipse, and so sometimes we're closer to the Sun than others? Okay, fine. Can you think of something else that might cause it? Well, what else do you know about the seasons? They're opposite in opposite hemispheres, right? Southern winter is northern summer, and vice versa. So what does that imply about our theory of what causes the seasons?

I won't give away the answer here; you'll find a whole chapter about it later in this book. But I hope you see my point. If you start with something already there in people's heads, you can work with it, play with it, make them think about it. Starting with a known misconception is a wonderful hook that captures people's thinking, and it can be fun and highly rewarding to think critically about these ideas. What do you know that you know wrong?

Some ideas are better than others. People remember movies, right? Then why not start there? In Star Wars, Han Solo dodges asteroids in the Millennium Falcon to escape Imperial fighters. In Armageddon, the Earth prepares for the impact of an asteroid a thousand miles across. In Deep Impact, a giant comet explodes over the Earth, causing nothing more than a beautiful fireworks display.

If you've seen these movies, these are scenes you'll remember. That makes them a great place to discuss real astronomy, and not the fantasy represented by the movies. You can find out what asteroids really are like; how easy it is to spot a big one and how hard it is to move one; and just why they're extraordinarily dangerous, even after you blow one up.

My parents may have thought I was wasting my time as a kid watching those bad science fiction movies. It turns out I was simply laying the groundwork for my life's work.

You can turn Bad Science into Good Science if you start in the right place.

This book is my way of starting in that place. We'll take a look at a whole lot of bad astronomy. Some of the examples will sound familiar, others likely won't. But they're all misconceptions I've run across, and they're all fun to talk about and even more fun to think about.

We'll uproot those brain weeds and plant healthy greenery yet.