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An afternoon with Phil Plait, the Bad Astronomer

Former NASA man talks education, astronomy, and lots and lots of photons

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Phil Plait – one-time NASA astronomer, science educator, and author of the Bad Astronomy blog at Slate, recently visited Australia to renew his acquaintance with the Oz confection-cum-dentist's-nightmare Minties. While here, the Bad Astronomer embarked on a multi-city lecture tour, took part in IFLS Live in Sydney, and spent an hour with El Reg talking about science, tech, and education.

EL REG: I don't have questions about astronomy, because I don't know enough about it.

PLAIT: I mostly make up answers anyhow, so you're fine.

EL REG: What is it that makes astronomy hard to teach?

PLAIT: It's an interesting conundrum. We're exposed to astronomy all the time. You wake up in the morning, you go to bed at night. The sun goes up and down, we see the moon and the stars, experience the seasons, all of it's astronomy. Yet people have a really hard time with it.

I'm not a psychologist or historian … but we're not teaching science terribly well. It is being taught well in certain circumstances, but it could be done a lot better.

People think it's the memorisation of facts, and that's interesting to me because anytime you learn a subject, there's a lot of memorisation, but you tend to do that earlier in life – you do that to learn the alphabet, learn your numbers, that sort of thing.

By the time you're memorising science stuff, you're older, you're already a master of spelling.

EL REG: So you immediately detest it.

PLAIT: Yes, but if you'd done this when you were six, you would have been sucked into this stuff more.

People also think it's really hard, because they immediately leap into really complicated stuff. The expansion of the universe, and mitosis, and all that.

There's a lot of great stuff in astronomy that's not all that hard to understand. If you have a yellow ball that represents the sun, and a balloon that represents the Earth, and a golf-ball that represents the moon, I could show you how the moon has phases, I could show you why it rises at different times.

It's actually easy to see it, but it also needs to be fun. When you're trying to memorise a lot of stuff, it's not fun.

EL REG: Pursuing that teaching question a little longer. In a lot of the things we do in teaching, we try to combine a bit of fun with a bit of fact with a bit of narrative. You don't learn your native language by memorising lists of words …

PLAIT: You're immersed in it.

EL REG: Yep. And then you construct narratives. If you look at an eight-year-old's maths book, it's got narrative as well as stuff to memorise. And then science – we omit the narratives. If this went outside astronomy – what are the kinds of narratives that could bring science to kids younger than we do, but wrap that difficult stuff up in the story?

PLAIT: That's a tough one. At that point – kids that young – do the same thing that you do with learning a language. Take the kids outside, have them go to the local astronomy club, have them look though a telescope. Of course, that's hard because maybe the parents don't know.

But we have the Perseid meteor shower, which peaked last week – when my daughter was a little kid, ten years old, we would go outside, and it was a real treat for her, for me to wake her up.

She hated it at first, at one o'clock in the morning, but then we would go outside, and for her to lie out in the backyard on a blanket with Daddy, that was a lot of fun. And then we'd see a shooting star, that was amazing.

So once you see a meteor shower like that – this takes me to a point – you kind of own it. And that's something I was very heavily wanting to do, when I was developing educational activities for a few years, as part of my job. I wanted students to not just experience astronomy, but to be a part of it – so they would own a little piece of it, and it would become their thing.

If you are somebody studying the Andromeda galaxy, and some news item came out about the Andromeda galaxy, their ears would perk up. “Oh my gosh, that's the thing I looked at!”

The narrative may have to be something as individual as that – to get them to own a piece of it.

EL REG: I'm fifty-three, it's easy to see how it is intrinsically interesting. But what can you point at with something as abstract as that, that a ten-year-old can latch onto, that makes it fun to look at.

PLAIT: I don't have all the answers for every age group – but in the States, at Halloween, kids dress up, go door-to-door, you give them candy, and it's a lot of fun.

Years ago, I started taking my telescope out. Right around twilight. And … I lived in the edge of a sort of rough neighbourhood. There was a kid held up at knife-point for their candy, a block away from our house. That was nuts.

So one year, there were kids coming around, and Saturn was in the West, setting, perfectly placed for my telescope. I would say “look through the telescope, then you get your candy. Nobody gets their candy without looking through the eyepiece first.”

They all did. And I would get some tough kids. Their not in costume, just thugs. “Give us some candy.” “You gotta look through the telescope, dude.”

And they would look through the telescope at Saturn, and like – they were amazed, and awe-struck, many of them. They would be really quiet, and then … “wow”. All of that rough exterior, all of that hurt or whatever it was, just sloughed away, and they were seeing this gorgeous jewel of the sky through the eye-piece.

A lot of them thought I was faking it, “you're holding a book up in front of the telescope”. “No, you see that light in the sky? That's what you're looking at. And that light is coming all this way, going through my telescope, and into your eye, and your eye alone. And those particles of light, nobody else has seen.

And they were flipped out about that. I'll tell you – most astronomers and astronauts and scientists, if they have an “origin story”, it was the one thing that really turned them on? Overwhelmingly, it was seeing either Saturn or the Moon through a telescope when they were a kid.

Its not that it will turn every kid into a scientist, but if they have that predilection, if you do show them that, it may turn them on to being a scientist.

It's the chance to appreciate this.

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