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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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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.

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