Book Review: Bad Astronomy

Bad Astronomy by Phil Plait
Photo Courtesy of Amazon.com – Bad Astronomy by Philip Plait

I was introduced to this book a few years back during an astronomy class at Pierce College in Los Angeles. Dale Fields, the Pierce College resident astronomer and our professor for astronomy 101, began each week with a Book of the Week.

Throughout the semester, I was introduced to a new book each week and needless to say, I added some very interesting and in my opinion exceptional books to my collection. Bad Astronomy: Misconceptions and Misuses Revealed, from Astrology to the Moon Landing “Hoax” by Phil Plait was one of those books.

It is indeed a book about astronomy by an astronomer, but it takes a look at astronomy from a different point of view. That is, the book focuses on the “woo-woo,” as Michael Shermer would say, of astronomy. It focuses on the anti-astronomy. In the book, Phil touches on certain topics that just aren’t good science. In other words, he focuses on the Bad Astronomy.

Phil opens the book with how his Bad Astronomy road began, and we can all thank Matt Lauer, Katie Couric, and Bryant Gumble for what would eventually become Bad Astronomy. I know I certainly can. But has journalism really changed since then?

Are journalists any more competent or knowledgeable about science than their predecessors? And if it is indeed the case that they are not, then how do we know we are getting good journalism on science when it is published?

Astronomy is a science. That may seem like a trivial statement. But in the context of Bad Astronomy and what people believe and put their money into, it’s rather an unfortunate and profound statement.

Have you ever wondered about or accepted egg balancing and the Equinox as fact? Does balancing an egg have anything to do with the Equinox? According to Phil, millions of Americans have either heard of it or tried it, and no, it doesn’t.

Or what about the everyday scientific terms you use like meteorite or quantum leap? If you are anything like me, you really enjoyed the show, Quantum Leap. I used to watch that show every week with my father. He’s also a science fiction geek like me. Every week Scott Bakula would quantum leap into a different time and place, and body, for a new adventure and ultimately hoping that his next leap would be the next leap home, and the end of the show.

Of course, Dad and I hoped he would keep quantum leaping into a new body each week beyond five seasons. How wrong were we. As Phil explains in his book

In reality, a quantum leap is a teeny-tiny jump. The distances are fantastically small, measured as billionths of a centimeter or less…0.00000000001 centimeters!

Photo Courtesy of eventbrite.ca - Phil Plait, the Bad Astronomer
Photo Courtesy of eventbrite.ca – Phil Plait, the Bad Astronomer

Phil Plait’s thesis is critical thinking and analytical medicine for the average American. He doesn’t propose that every person needs to be a scientist, mathematician, or engineer to understand the physical world. What he proposes is that when regular, everyday Americans wonder why the sky is blue, they take that extra step and ask the question, “Why is the sky blue?” followed by a little resourceful research.

When the regular, everyday American wonders how the universe began or why some people appear to have seen UFOs, they take that extra step and ask the question, “How did the universe begin? What do scientists say about the origins of the universe? Why do people see UFOs? Who doesn’t see UFOs? Why is that?” followed by a little resourceful research.

Remember, astronomy is a science. And Bad Astronomy, well it is just that, Bad Astronomy.

Happy Science Friday!

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