Bad Astronomy Finally Hits The Shelves
May 19 2002 @ 11:35 by Tormod Guldvog
After years of revealing shameless hoaxes and common misunderstandings about astronomy on his website, Philip Plait has written a wonderful book which shows that most of us should check our skills when it comes to some basic principles in astronomy.We may all be skeptics, but some seem to be more skeptic than others. Philip Plait has assumed the role of skeptic for all things astronomy, or rather, ?Bad? astronomy ? something which, it turns out, should concern most of us more than you think.
For what is ?bad? astronomy? According to Plait, it is the phenomenon of communicating astronomy in a way which is misleading, or, more commonly, plain wrong. However, it does not necessarily imply that whoever is the source of bad astronomy is a dimwit, but rather that they do not check their sources well enough, or that they simply do not understand what they are talking about.
Although what first strikes this reviewer about the book is the incredibly long title, 'Bad Astronomy: Misconceptions and Misuses Revealed, from Astrology to the Moon Landing "Hoax"', it is indeed a gem when it comes to teaching things about common astronomical phenomena. Plait discusses common ways bad astronomy is communicated, in the media, in the classroom ? and perhaps, most of all, in our own minds.
Even this old skeptic of a reviewer was caught in the act.
Myths and legends denounced
I did in fact belong to those who have always thought that water drains out of the sink in opposite directions depending on whether it happens on the northern or on the southern hemisphere. This, I believed (correctly) was due to the centrifugal forces ? but they are far too weak to have an impact on a brief run of water in a sink. My mother even told me once, after she had visited Kenya, that she had indeed observed this.
Plait uses practical examples to prove her wrong (sorry, Mum). But the draining water is only one of the many misconceptions Plait discusses. The book covers UFO?s, why the stars twinkle, whether you can see stars during the day, whether it is possible to turn blind by watching the sun, whether Polaris is the brightest star in the night sky (most of these turn out to be wrong), as well as a host of other, rather simple, things which you and I ought to know better.
A rather strong North-American perspective
The book is obviously written by a North-American writer, as most of the examples, hoaxes, debates, and observations used in the book have their origin there. But for anyone interested in astronomy or science in general, most of the topics should ring a few bells.
One thing which was quite new to me was that Americans seem to have a habit of standing eggs upright on the Spring Equinox ? and only then. Plait explains that this is something which has occurred on a yearly basis for a while, and amazingly enough, people appear on TV showing off their standing eggs. And of course they claim it is impossible to do it on any other night.
And this is the core of Plait?s book: It shows that people aren?t always wrong. They just don?t follow their ideas through to their logical conclusions: If you can balance an egg on one particular day of the year, why not try it another day and see if it works? I did, and I can proudly report that I balanced my first egg on May 16, 2002.
More serious challenges
The book does cover more serious topics, though. Like the Apollo Hoax conspiracy ? that about 10% of the American populace actually believes that the Apollo 11 mission never happened, and that no human being has ever set foot on the Moon. If you saw the motion picture Capricorn 1 (1978, with O.J. Simpson), you?ll know that the story goes something like this: a technical error was discovered too late, and the entire moon landing was filmed in a hangar in a desert. Plait takes on the most famous conspiracy theories and counters them, one by one.
Much the same treatment is given to the so-called ?creationism science?, which basically seeks to use scientific methods to prove that the bible is indeed correct. You may have heard some of the arguments ? that the Earth is 6000 years old, that the Flood actually happened, that fossils were planted by God to confuse people and so on. Here Plait is in top shape as he dissects the ?evidence?. Basically he shows that all the arguments used by the creationists can be turned around and used against them.
A textbook for parents, teachers, journalists - and astronomers
If you have children who asks why the sky is blue during the day, you might have found a reasonable answer somewhere. Philip Plait is the first person to actually explain to me the basic facts behind this phenomenon.
Plait is indeed a good writer, with a good sense of humour, although he is a bit on the geeky side at times (which he readily admits). A trained astronaut, he no doubt knows what he is talking about. And, as opposed to many of the people he mentions in the book, he has the guts to let the reader know when he is uncertain about something, or when there simply is no good explanation for it yet.
All in all, this is a great book, and should be read by anyone who wants to understand what Bad Astronomy is all about. But most of all, it should be read by anyone who works with communicating science to others.
If you are familiar with his Bad Astronomy website (link below), you may have read some of this before. But most of the material is written for this book, and at any rate the book form provides an easier introduction to the field than surfing the web.
The next time you explain to someone that the changing of the seasons is related to the Earth?s eliptic orbit around the Sun, you should have read this book first. Because you are, simply put, dead wrong.
Jul 29 2002