An afternoon with Phil Plait, the Bad Astronomer

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

Next gen security for virtualised datacentres

The utilitarian view

EL REG: It is always hard to justify astronomy from a purely utilitarian view …

PLAIT: Not always hard!

EL REG: ...frequently hard, but we get scientists, not just astronomers, out of it. We can get scientists from kids who look through a telescope.

PLAIT: Politicians tend to not be able to take two steps away from an idea. What I mean by that is – if you start “I want to fund astronomy because astronomy inspires kids, and then those kids grow up to be scientists and engineers, and our economy is economy is anywhere between 50 to 75 percent reliant on tech and science...”

We're recording this on some digital thing, and you've got your laptop, and people are going to read this online and everybody's texting and Skyping and Facebooking … these billion-dollar industries are all based on science and engineering.

But the problem is, it's not a direct relationship funding astronomy. There are steps away.

It's just important to inspire people. We don't live on bread and water. We need art and beauty, and we need to think about things bigger than us.

Science is all about the bigger picture. You don't think that astronomy and biology would have anything in common, but they do – besides just the scientific method and the periodic table of the elements. There's a lot of chemistry in astronomy, the calcium in your bones and the iron in the blood was created in a supernova.

And there's also the search for life on other planets, which is an intimate overlap between astronomy, engineering, chemistry, physics, biology. And the other thing is that science is a way of understanding what's real. And all of these different fields are trying to understand some real aspect of the universe.

If one of them fails – if one of them is relying on the laws of physics that they're all relying on, then they all fail.

They're all woven together. That's what's amazing: they all work, and they all work because they're right.

EL REG: First, I'll let you tear me down on the utilitarian view. Then we can look at the question of “rightness”...

PLAIT: There was one other thing I was going to add to that. In fact – astronomy can kill us.

We have asteroids, as we learned in February in Russia. Asteroids hit us. You can ask a dinosaur that, but of course you can't because they're gone. That's an important thing. Plus the Sun has magnetic storms, and those can knock out our power grid, can knock out our satellites, our GPS.

Society is critically dependent on that. So we have to understand the Sun: spending a billion dollars, or ten or twenty billion dollars in total, for NASA, is pocket change compared to the change that would be done if that system goes down. Then you're talking trillions of dollars.

It's critical that we understand this stuff – so in that sense, funding astronomy is keeping your stuff alive.

Secure remote control for conventional and virtual desktops

More from The Register

next story
Our LOHAN spaceplane ballocket Kickstarter climbs through £8000
Through 25 per cent but more is needed: Get your UNIQUE rewards!
LOHAN tunes into ultra long range radio
And verily, Vultures shall speak status unto distant receivers
NASA to reformat Opportunity rover's memory from 125 million miles away
Interplanetary admins will back up data and get to work
SpaceX prototype rocket EXPLODES over Texas. 'Tricky' biz, says Elon Musk
No injuries or near injuries. Flight stayed in designated area
EOS, Lockheed to track space junk from Oz
WA facility gets laser-eyes out of the fog
Volcanic eruption in Iceland triggers CODE RED aviation warning
Lava-spitting Bárðarbunga prompts action from Met Office
That's right, OVER 9,000 beer tokens - and counting
prev story


Endpoint data privacy in the cloud is easier than you think
Innovations in encryption and storage resolve issues of data privacy and key requirements for companies to look for in a solution.
Implementing global e-invoicing with guaranteed legal certainty
Explaining the role local tax compliance plays in successful supply chain management and e-business and how leading global brands are addressing this.
Advanced data protection for your virtualized environments
Find a natural fit for optimizing protection for the often resource-constrained data protection process found in virtual environments.
Boost IT visibility and business value
How building a great service catalog relieves pressure points and demonstrates the value of IT service management.
Next gen security for virtualised datacentres
Legacy security solutions are inefficient due to the architectural differences between physical and virtual environments.