An afternoon with Phil Plait, the Bad Astronomer

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

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Lots and lots of photons

EL REG: Over in Murchison now, they're just firing up the Widefield Array, and the first thing computationally they have to do is work out what data to keep.

PLAIT: You have photons that are being recorded as electrons on your detector, and there's a lot going on between those two ends of the telescope! And you have to know it. People misinterpret that – they take pictures, they see things and think that's what they're getting. Not at all!

EL REG: 700 Million stars – my laptop has enough hard drive to know ten things about 700 million stars. But you're not just talking about stars, you're talking about heaven-knows how many photons?

PLAIT: Yes. And what I'm saying – the camera itself is affecting the light. We need glasses to correct your eyesight. Same thing with the camera. You have an electronic camera, one side of it might be more sensitive than the other, and you have to correct for that.

And that's what I did, and I wound up being involved in a lot of different projects, but I was never the kind of scientist that was going to be cutting edge. I was always going to be a middle-of-the-road scientist, which is fine, but it's not really what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.

I was really enjoying writing about it, starting to go on TV talking about it. And the way the funding works, the camera is built and launched, and you have three years of funding. So – by the time the funding was winding down – I thought “I could stay on, there's another camera”, or “it's time to move on”.

So I moved on to do educational stuff for six years, using NASA science to develop educational activities for younger kids. That was fantastic, but after six years – I decided I wanted to do this on my own. It's the informal stuff, the speaking in crowds, going on stage, writing the Website – I'm really digging that. And the idea of working from home – that's me.

When I got my second book contract, I decided to write the book. We moved to Boulder Colorado, and I'm working from home. And I wrote for Discover, and then for Slate. I get to do this stuff, and I love it.

EL REG: I know scientists younger than me, and they're already at that point where the only way to advance is to do less science. Two, maybe three grant cycles from where they are now, the only way to keep going up the pole is to cease being a scientist and be an administrator. I would find a bridge and jump off it. How do you keep scientists doing science?

PLAIT: If you work on Hubble, what happens – you start to become part of a team, and then suddenly you're managing the team. Not everybody's good at that. I've had a couple of opportunities to take a shot of management and I'm just awful at it.

The more science you want to do, you rise in the bureaucracy – at Senoma State University I spent a lot of my time writing grants. It's terrible to realise that I'm good at writing grants. I don't want to be doing this, but “we need 800 words in the next two days with all the buzzwords in it to get this grant”.

And you get this grant for $50,000 and it looks like a lot of money.

EL REG: It gets you through the first half-hour.

PLAIT: You have the employee for a month and that's it. So it winds up eating up all of your time.

Letting scientists to be scientists, you need managers to run these projects … some scientists are, I've worked with excellent managers that were scientists, but they weren't doing as much science as they wanted.

So the managers have to understand the science – or they have to kind of give them the room they need to do what they want, but constrain them when necessary. That's not me. There must be a better way. I don't know what it is.

But: in some ways it works. We have these labs, and they make results. We built Hubble and it works … well, not at first. I waited many years to get my data. The very first data I remember looking at, and thinking “that looks weird”, and then a day later going “ohhh nooo”.

And we built the Large Hadron Collider – that is one of the most magnificent ventures humanity has ever undertaken. It's got a bazillion parts to it, any one of which is insanely complicated. And it works. And we're going to be seeing spinoffs for the best part of a century.

The fact of the matter is that we have some system, and it seems to work. It could be better at some scales, but the fact of the matter is: it does work. It may be able to be made more efficient. But in the end, humans are curious apes and we are social beings, and we get together and do things. We like to interact and we like to build things and we like to explore.

All together, what happens is we wind up building these magnificent machines which extend our sight, our voice, our reach, and we learn about our universe. And there is nothing better than that. Nothing. ®

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