An afternoon with Phil Plait, the Bad Astronomer

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

Science and tech and too much mathematics

EL REG: In the bit of the world that I inhabit and write about, tech – In a similar way, we have trouble getting people interested at the starting point. We know one of the gateway drugs is in IT – I want to program a game.

PLAIT: That's how I started with computers - programming Tic-Tac-Toe on an Apple IIe. And there was a TRS-80.

EL REG: I had a TRS-80 …

PLAIT: And a TI-994A. I'm a geek going way back.

EL REG: Back to the now – it seems that the industry has a lot of similar problems – that gateway problem. How do you get that spark to happen. And if I look at how much astronomy is a really good programer. Biology is similar.

If you look at the generation now – near to medium term, there's no point in graduating brilliant new people in the distant future. What can we think of to get some of those kids that they're convinced they'll get rich in the law to look at this world?

PLAIT: At one level I reject the question. I don't need everyone to become a scientist. We need lawyers, sadly. We need doctors. We need composers. What I would like is for everybody to appreciate science – and music, art, literature and so on.

There is a basic, core curriculum that people should have. I would like to have more scientists, but we need more funding for scientists, and more places for them to do things.

I need the politicians to say “yes, we need more money for this”. We have so any kids learning this stuff, that we will get them interested just by accident. Someone like me, a kid like me, will become a scientist just because they love it. If it's not metaphorically beaten out of them by a bad teacher or a bad experience, they will find their way.

If we taught it better, if we made it more exciting, then everybody gets that basic appreciation of it. Even if they don't understand everything about it: “I understood that once, it was taught to me, and I know that this works”. There's that, and also, you increase the odds of some kid who might otherwise not be able to achieve their potential as a scientist, getting into it.

That's also true in continents that are historically under-represented in science. I was at a meeting of particle physicists, and there was a map of the world showing where everybody was coming from. There was almost nobody from Africa. I thought, “that's interesting” - there are millions of kids in Africa, but they're not getting that chance to learn.

And here I am as this privileged white guy! And we're talking mostly talking about Africans that are living in areas where they can't get a good education at all. We're working on that … there are millions of kids there. How many Newtons, Picassos, Stravinskis, are not getting that chance to shine?

We can worry about our own countries and worry about them as well .. at the very least we should be making sure that our kids get that chance.

EL REG: We know that high school maths really does not fit you for very much in serious science. The first thing you're going to have to do, arriving at university, is start learning real maths. And in some of the sciences, perhaps the only difficult maths you'll ever need is in statistics.

PLAIT: Yeah. That's true in every field of astronomy. As an observational astronomer, I rarely had to use integrals. Calculus. On the other hand, statistics I had to know very well, because you're counting photons as they come in. Most of the math I learned, I never wound up using – because they're trying to give you that broad math basis for whatever you might want to do.

EL REG: Past a certain point – there is that gap between the “applied maths” and the “pure maths”, that chasm to cross for most of us. Are we turning people away, forgetting that many scientists anyway have to come at their maths the hard way as adults?

PLAIT: Raising my hand here!

EL REG: And we say to kids from the age of twelve, “if you want to be a scientist, you've got to pick up the most advanced maths” - and we lose people that would be good as field scientists, observational scientists.

PLAIT: Yes. I don't know what to do about that. I took my differential equations class, and I took my two levels of calculus and all of that. And it was extremely difficult – I'm not good at that kind of math. It just doesn't come naturally to me.

Back then, two. The basic kinematics – the Newtonian equations, the rotations and all that stuff. That stuff was pulling teeth for me. Now, I would go through it so easily, that stuff as an adult I understand way better than when I was nineteen.

I don't know what's to be done about that. When you're 21 and about to graduate from university, you may not know what you want to do. If you have that basis … on the other hand, my wife had to take calculus for college, and she knew she wasn't going to be a scientist or a mathematician, and it's ridiculous that she had to waste her time, her energy, that she could have been studying something that was more interesting to her.

Why teach somebody calculus if they're never going to use it, ever?

Algebra – I think it's good. You can be an architect – it's going to go anywhere. And maybe a little trigonometry. But calculus? Come on: unless you're going to major in something, that has to be thought through more carefully.

EL REG: So some of our habitual thinking in pedagogy - that some of our reflexive thinking is mistaken, and we're scaring people off.

PLAIT: I don't think that's too controversial. It's probably true. And we go over our pedagogy all the time in the United States – the problem is that there's no one solution. Every kid learns a little differently. You can map out what's going to work “the best” …

EL REG: But that's only across huge numbers of people.

PLAIT: Sixty eight percent of the kids are going to be fine, but the kids at each extreme … sorry, the “Bell Curve” has bad connotations … some kids will be better at science, some will be better at English.

There's no one thing that's going to work with everybody, but we have a school system that has to do that. And it's hard to divvy up the kids between the fast learners, the slow learners, the ones that will be fine if they have a little bit of help – that's really, really hard.

We don't have enough teachers, and we don't have enough money to do it. And that's really bad, because we should be doing it, because as a civilisation, it's hard to imagine a more fundamental thing that we should be doing.

It's in everybody's best interests, unless you're trying to take over a country and it's best to keep the populace uneducated. An educated populace will tend to make better decisions, if they're capable of understanding the issues better.

There are lot of issues in the United States that become laws, and they fly in the face of reality, and it's maddening.

In Australia, vaccination is a big issue. A lot of this would go away if there were better access to the data, if it were being described better, and people understood how to parse the two arguments better.

We tend to be more fearful than we are trusting, so if someone says “vaccines have formaldehyde in them” they flip out. And if I come along and say “there's less formaldehyde in a vaccine than in an apple” - that is a much more difficult a situation to get through to that part of your brain.

EL REG: What took you out of being an astronomer and into the columnist and the speaker and the advocate and so on?

PLAIT: I always loved talking to people and talking about astronomy. Even in grad school – when I was getting my PhD. We would have public nights at the observatory. They'd have people running the telescope – massive pairs of binoculars, lenses 10cm each. I preferred those – I was outside, people would crowd in, and I knew my way around the sky, because I'd been an amateur astronomer my whole life.

Some of the grad students were theoretical astronomers – they wouldn't know what was where, but you could ask them questions about black holes.

I really enjoyed doing that, and after I got my degree, I was working on the Hubble Space Telescope for a while. I got my degree with Hubble observations, and I got a job building a camera that went on board Hubble in 1997. So I got to watch that Shuttle launch with my $90 million camera – I was one dude out of all these people – but I watched it. That was terrifying.

But it was a lot of fun to talk about it, and I wound up doing it more and more. Once the camera was on-board the telescope, and I was a programmer.

I was hired because I was a scientist, and I could program. So was writing programs to analyse data, and I was on a bunch of different projects by other astronomers, who were looking at stars that were being born, black holes at the centres of galaxies, supernovae and different things.

They would come to me because they had data and they didn't necessarily how to interpret it.

You get data off the telescope, and it's very complex. You have to calibrate it, massage it, get it to where you can analyse it scientifically. That's hard to know, and to do. But once it was done, they would take off with it and do their stuff with it. But getting it to that stage is not something that most astronomers know how to do.

So I was the guy. But in the meantime, I could say “what is it you want”? Because if you want to analyse it for the bright stuff, I have to do one thing. If you want the faint stuff, I can analyse it a different way.

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