An afternoon with Phil Plait, the Bad Astronomer
Former NASA man talks education, astronomy, and lots and lots of photons
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.
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.
Post-modernism and science
EL REG: Then there's the post-modernism view: in the humanities there are any number of efforts to try and “de-right” science. How damaging is that in terms of trying to get understanding? How damaging is the attitude that science is just point of view.
PLAIT: That's actually maddening. Look: you can interpret life through poetry, you can interpret life through art. These are all viewpoints, interesting, and a diversity of views that you can legitimately support this way.
I'm a huge classical music guy, so I can listen to a piece and understand what the composer was trying to say, or how it affects me, or whatever.
But – just because there are subjective interpretations of reality does not mean there is not an objective version of reality. In fact, we are immersed in reality.
No matter who you are, no matter how you try to deconstruct science: if I hold a rock over your foot and let go of it, one million times out of one million, it's going to fall on your foot!
EL REG: “I refute it thus”
PLAIT: QED. Not only is that rock going to fall, given some very simple assumptions, I can tell you how long it will take to hit your foot, how quickly it will be moving when it hits your foot, and all sorts of things.
You can predict it, it will always come out that way, and that is essentially the simplest proof that there is objective reality. No matter how you try to interpret that through poetry – the numbers win.
EL REG: Chopin is physics …
PLAIT: There's a difference between between post-modernism, and reductionism. Which is different.
You can take the piece of music, run it through the Fourier transform and get all the waveforms. But that isn't the same as listening to the music. It's like trying to look at the score of a piece of music, and try to feel it. Unless you're a conductor or something … I certainly can't. I can try to describe to you Stravinsky's Firebird. But you still have to experience it.
That's okay: science and math is one part of the experience that you have, but the waveform is the same for everybody – that's the science. Interpretation is experience and nurture, and all of that,
EL REG: Similar to looking at Saturn through a telescope.
PLAIT: There's poetry and art in science. You'd be mad to deny that. But it's not all there is. People who think of science as a compendium of facts, but it's more than that. It's a method. But it's not just that, it's more than the method, the code. There is inspiration, and there is induction, and there is a beauty in science.
If you have two things that describe the same thing, the one that's simpler, the simpler proof, usually is correct – Occam's Razor. Not always, but usually. There's a beauty in that. To say that scientists lack imagination, or this is just another interpretation of things, is to me incorrect at its most fundamental level.
Another reason post-modernism is wrong is that because science has predictive power. It's not just some random thing – I can't predict if you're going to like a poem, but if there's an objective reality, it should be predictable, and it is. There are rules that the universe obeys.
It's amazing at all that we can figure out what they are – but you can figure them out by observing the universe. Sometimes people say “science is just another religion based on principles you can't prove”. But in fact, the only assumption that science makes is that there are rules that the universe obeys, and by observing them, you can figure them out. And it turns out that's true.
It's like watching a roulette wheel – you can figure out the game by watching it. We watch planets around the sun, watch microbes divide: you can tease out the underlying mechanisms of the universe this way.
Some of them may be random. A lot of this quantum stuff is random – but the fact that it's random is a rule, like flipping a coin a million times. Even in randomness there is order on a larger scale.
This is why science is absolutely our best way of understanding the universe.
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.
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. ®