An Interview With...
When did you first become interested in astronomy? What inspired you to pursue it as a career?
When I was about four or five years old, my dad brought home a cheapo department store telescope. He set it up that night, and pointed it at Saturn. When I saw it for the first time in my life, I was hooked. It was that simple.
I became an amateur astronomer. I bought a 10" telescope when I was a teenager with money I made from delivering newspapers. Even though I have been a professional astronomer for twenty years now, I still really enjoy going out under the stars and observing with smaller telescopes. I consider myself both a pro and amateur astronomer! The line between the two is getting blurrier now, too, since many amateurs have extremely good equipment.
What do you do as a professional astronomer? Are you an "observer" or a "theorist"?
I was a research astronomer for about ten years. I used Hubble Space Telescope observations of a giant ring of gas around an exploded star for my doctorate research. After that, I wound up being on a team of people who helped build and calibrate a camera onboard Hubble (called STIS, for Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph). Eventually, I decided that I liked astronomy education more than research, so now I am at Sonoma State University developing educational activites based on space science. It's wonderful to know that kids are learning about science and astronomy based on what we do.
How did you become "the bad astronomer" ?
When I was still in grad school, I began to realize that a lot of people don't understand astronomy well, and in fact had a lot of misconceptions about it. I started the website as a way to vent my frustrations, but it quickly grew into a much larger resource than I imagined it ever would. In 1998 I got the domain name "Bad Astronomy" to represent the bad ideas I was trying to correct. Now everyone calls me "The Bad Astronomer", and I kind of like that! It's funny.
Maybe someday I'll do more work based on the website, and it will become my career. For now, it's something I do for fun, as well as because I think it's needed. There is too much pseudoscience out there, like people who believe the Apollo landings were faked, or who think there are alien structures on Mars! As long as people are out there giving out bad information, there will be Bad Astronomy.
The website is more than a hobby but not quite a career. I have written many magazine and newspaper articles based on it, as well as a full-length non-fiction book (called, duh, "Bad Astronomy"). I don't have any organized funding, but I do have ads and such on the website that help support it. Otherwise it would put a pretty big dent in my wallet.
What subjects did you enjoy in school when you were a young boy? Were any classes difficult or boring for you?
I loved all the usual nerdy things: science, math, that sort of stuff. I did pretty well in those classes, though later on (like in college) I struggled with them. It takes practice to learn those sorts of topics, so do your homework!
I also enjoyed music, English, and all the other classes too. I just like learning about everything; there is so much to know, so much to understand! Sometimes I think about going back to school and getting a degree in some other topic, like geology. But I don't really have time.
The only time I was bored in class is when I felt like I already knew the material and the teacher was going too slow. Little did I know! I was pretty cocky back then, I guess. Nowadays I know a lot better how little I really do know. A big part of learning is confessing to yourself that you don't know everything. That can be tough for a teenager, but it gets pretty obvious as you get older.
Did you have any teachers who were particularly helpful or inspiring to you through the years?
Of course! My third grade science teacher was very encouraging to all the kids in the class, but especially to the ones who were clearly leaning toward science as an interest. I had a teacher in sixth grade who also encouraged us to learn about anything that interested us; I grew a lot that year, reading about mythology and history.
A good teacher is one who knows more than just what the textbook says, is comfortable with the material, and encourages the students to explore on their own. Science is so much more than just words on a page... it's a growing body of knowledge, it's a method of learning, it's a human story of exploration and learning. It's one of the best things humans have ever dreamed up. The great teachers are the ones who know that too, and can bring that understanding to their kids.
How did television and science fiction inspire you to think and wonder about science and space? How did/does "bad science" inspire you?
I always loved science fiction. I grew up watching Star Trek, Lost in Space, and all the other shows. They inspired me to learn more about space. When I figured out that all the TV shows were wrong, I wasn't really disappointed, because their purpose isn't to teach, but to entertain. But somewhere in there they do have the capacity to inspire. Almost every scientist I know watched science-fiction TV shows and movies, and it inspired them too.
Do you remember being taught any "untruths" that you later debunked?
I don't remember being taught anything that was wrong because it was really wrong, but knowledge grows and so sometimes you are taught things that get out of date. As an example, I never had a teacher say the phases of the Moon are due to the Earth's shadow; that's just wrong. But I do remember being taught that Jupiter had 12 moons. At the time, that was all there were known! Now we know there are lots more. So over time, our ideas about things change. That's good! Sometimes we have theories about how things work, and we find evidence that we are wrong. When the evidence grows, we sometimes have to change our theories. When that happens, we always-- always-- find that the Universe is a more interesting place than we thought before. What could be cooler than that?!
That's why science is so amazing. A true scientist knows that something they think today might be proven wrong tomorrow, and so scientists can admit their mistakes and change their minds when better evidence comes in. Not too many other professions can do that.
What are some of the most irritating "non-truths" that you have had to debunk?
The bad astronomy that irritates me the most is the pseudoscientific kind. If people don't understand why the sky is blue, that's okay, because they can learn it. But there are people out there who are saying things that aren't true to fool you into believing them. People who say the Moon landings were faked by NASA, or that a giant planet will pass by the Earth and kill everyone. These sorts of things are called "pseudoscience" because they sound scientific, but are not. They are not based on good evidence, and in many cases distort the truth a lot. Many of these people sincerely believe they are right when they are not, and others, I suspect, are deliberately lying (because they like the attention, or are trying to sell you their book). Either way, they are wrong, and are hurting real science. That makes me pretty angry, which is why I fight them so hard.
What are some of the most interesting "non-truths" that you might have believed yourself until you did some experimenting on your own?
When I was younger, I believed in everything! UFOs, telepathy, the Bermuda Triangle, you name it and I thought it was true. Eventually, when I learned how to think more critically about such claims, I found that none of them were based on good evidence at all. They were hoaxed, or misinterpretations, or exaggerations. I realized that it's easy for people to believe almost anything if it is presented in a desirable way, but that you need to be pretty skeptical when people make claims. That's true for anything, including politics, advertising, and everything else in life. Don't be afraid to demand evidence and proof!
How can kids go about finding the truth behind things that they are taught? Why is it more important to understand rather than to "know the facts"?
That's a tough one. The ability to question everything is not a trait that humans are born with. You have to learn how to do it, and when to do it. When someone tells you something is true, you have to ask yourself, does that make sense? Have they presented me with good evidence to back up their claims? Can I think of ways they might be wrong? Can I show they might be wrong? Can I think of other things that might cause what they are saying? Can they back up their claims with outside sources?
Just believing what you're told is easy, and being skeptical is hard. That's why so many people just believe what they hear! But like most things in life, the hardest goals are the most rewarding. I love being a skeptic, and being able to question what I hear, and think critically about it. By doing that, I have more assurance that decisions I make in life are more likely to be the right ones.
What have you learned from kids?
A lot of people consider me to be an expert on standing eggs on end, because I have written so much about that (because of the legend you can only stand an egg on end at the Equinox). But I thought it was impossible to stand an egg on the narrow end until some school kids did it, and sent me pictures. I was still skeptical, so I tried it myself. Because they had done it, I tried harder than usual, and I did it! I already knew that just because someone is an expert, they didn't know everything, but that day I really learned it for myself.
I have a young daughter (she turns 8 today!) and to her, everything is new. So I get to experience a lot of the Universe anew again through her. It's easy for me to forget how hard the journey to knowledge can be, and she constantly reminds me to think more about the basics, and to make sure that I explain things simply. I also teach her to question what she hears, even (or especially) from me!
What is the scientific method designed to achieve? How does it work in the "real world"?
The scientific method is supposed to tell us how the Universe works. It does a pretty good job. As I said before, it makes us admit our mistakes, and that is the most important thing people can do. You cannot learn without being able to do that.
Basically, it tells you to observe something, and then think about why it happened. Then, you say to yourself, "If I am right, then I predict that this-and-that will happen." Observe more, and see if what you predicted happens. If it didn't, your theory is wrong, and you have to start over. If it did happen, then maybe you were right. Maybe not, though! You still need to think of more things to support your theory. Think, observe, think some more. Don't be afraid to follow the truth, no matter where it leads, which means admitting mistakes. It's okay to be wrong, but it's not okay to be stubbornly wrong. Being right sometimes means letting go of old notions.
This method works wonderfully in the real world! You are bombarded by people trying to tell you things that aren't true. "Buy this shampoo and people will like you!" "Vote for this politician and everything will be better!" "Believe what I say and you'll be happy!" A lot of the time, maybe even most of the time, those claims aren't true. The scientific method is a guide to figuring out what is true and what isn't.
What does your family think of your job and your popularity as the "Bad Astronomer"?
They think it's great! My wife has been very supportive, and my daughter too. She loves trying to stand eggs on end. In fact, when I first tried to stand up eggs, I wasn't very successful. My wife figured she could do it better, and we wound up competing to see who could stand up more! She was able to get some standing that I couldn't, which showed me I needed to try harder. That was a pretty good lesson for me.
What words of wisdom do you want to share with children around the world?
When I was a kid, a lot of the smarter kids got picked on just because they were smart. Well, I'll tell you: being smart is cool. It isn't easy, but it's fun! What could be better than to understand how things work? To look around you, and say: "I understand why that happens". And sometimes to even say, "I don't know why that happens, but I want to find out."
For teachers, encourage those children to ask questions, to get their hands on experiments, and to find these things out for themselves. If they ask you a question to which you don't know the answer, don't chastise them, reward them! Both of you go out and try to find the right answer. They'll learn new things, and you will too.
Do you have a favorite quote that inspires you?
Astronomer Carl Sagan had many profound insights into science and knowledge. Just finding any web page with things he said and reading them slowly is worth the effort. One of my favorites is this, from his INCREDIBLE book, The Demon-Haunted World:
"If we can't think for ourselves, if we're unwilling to question authority, then we're just putty in the hands of those in power. But if the citizens are educated and form their own opinions, then those in power work for us. In every country, we should be teaching our children the scientific method and the reasons for a Bill of Rights. With it comes a certain decency, humility and community spirit. In the demon-haunted world that we inhabit by virtue of being human, this may be all that stands between us and the enveloping darkness."
[Editor's Note: BadAstronomy.COM is not to be confused with other sites using similar spelling attempting to purposely mislead the reader. There are certain individuals in cyberspace who purposely create 'educational' websites intended to provide blatantly false information to anyone gullible enough to believe it. Please visit Phil's BadAstronomy.COM site here!]
-4 March 2004
10 March 2004
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