Astronomy-wizard, Philip Plait takes science to the extreme with his blog, Bad Astronomy. See where this "science geek" got his start, where he's going and what he likes to watch on television in this edition of the Scientist Spotlight.
Tell us about your background. What drew you to the field of astronomy?
I have always loved astronomy. That’s literally true; I have been a science geek, especially an astronomy one, for as long as I can remember. When I was 6 my family went down to Florida to watch the launch of Apollo 15, and even then I was huge into this stuff. I remember coming home when I was in grade school and immediately watching sci-fi on TV. It has been a lifelong love affair.
And I still do. The beauty of astronomy draws you in, but it is the knowing – the actual understanding of what you are seeing – that is what keeps me doing this, that is what still gives me chills.
Why did you create the badastronomy.com website? Do you think it is accomplishing its purpose?
I started it because I was getting tired of watching astronomy get spun, folded, and mutilated by the media. It has been around a long time – I started it in, yikes, 1993 – and it is possible it has helped. Well, in fact, I have evidence it has: after all, I work with The Exchange! But over time, I think the purpose, or at least my thrust, has changed. I used to be a lot more strident about it, but I have mellowed over time. I decided that being more positive, and showing the amazing story of science, has a bigger impact. Facts do not speak for themselves, they still need an advocate. I am not only happy to do that, I am thrilled. I do this because I love it.
Few scientists choose to speak out against pseudoscience, Carl Sagan being the most famous exception. Why aren’t more scientists actively involved in helping the public understand how science works?
There are lots of scientists speaking out, but we could always use more. In the past the attitude in academia was to frown on public outreach – Sagan’s travails are legendary – and some of that is still around. But, it is a whole lot better these days. Finding younger scientists to write blogs, do interviews, or even do their own podcasts is a lot easier. I think that is wonderful. The more the merrier.
How did you become involved with The Exchange?
I actually first heard of The Exchange back in 2008! My friend Jennifer Ouellette was the director at that time, and wrote about it on her blog. I sent her an e-mail basically saying, “I’m in.” I have always been a big fan of sci-fi, and the idea of actually being involved with a group that seriously wants to improve not just the science in entertainment, but also the way science and scientists are portrayed? That is my dream job. I have done several events with The Exchange and have always been really happy about them, and I have had a chance to meet terrific people. That is why when I needed a sponsor for my Comic-Con panel on “The Science of Science Fiction” I turned to The Exchange, and was thrilled when they not only agreed to help, but also to organize things. It was a major boost, and the panel was a hit. So, thanks!
Were there any films or television shows that sparked your interest in science when you were growing up? What were your favorites? What do you watch now?
Sure! You won’t be surprised to know a biggie was Star Trek, but because I am of a certain age, I will throw in Lost in Space (I wanted to be Will Robinson) and Space:1999. I just rewatched that last one recently, and several of the episodes held up! Or maybe I was just seeing them with my 13-year-old-self’s memories. Still, it was fun. I know a remake/reboot is in the works, and I will admit I am pretty excited about it.
I still consume that sort of thing all the time. Battlestar, Stargate (all of them, but particularly Universe) and of course Doctor Who. Yeah, that is my favorite. I watched that when Tom Baker was the Doctor, and I still love it.
The Exchange recently hosted an event at the Directors Guild called “A Night of Total Destruction.” Do you think movies make us appreciate science – or fear it?
Both! But it is not necessarily the role of movies to do either. However, having said that, what I have found is that when the writers know the science, the story is better. When I have talked to writers, they want to know more science, they want to know what ramifications their story science has. It gives them more potential story ideas that they may not have thought of otherwise. They can always not use it, even ignore it if the story demands it, but the option is there.
And I have had this discussion many times: in a movie or television show the story must win out. If science needs to be sacrificed for the story, that is okay. But I think the story has to be internally consistent at least. And I will admit it bugs me when the ignoring of science tears me away from the story. Somewhere in there is a middle ground that works. The trick is to find it, and a lot of writers do.
Take a movie with the word “paranormal” in its title. Do such movies make it more or less difficult for audiences to distinguish fact from fiction?
I would need to see the research on that one! I suspect that people who think ghosts are real will not think otherwise if they see one of these, and someone who thinks they are not (cough cough me cough) will not either. Stories like that have been around as long as there have been stories, so I doubt these movies will have a long-term impact. But I do wish people would think more critically about the television shows with people “hunting ghosts.” The abuse of science in those shows is really appalling. Thermal cameras do not work that way! Electromagnetic sensors do not work that way! Arg!
Do films and television shows influence young people to want to become scientists? Should that be a goal of science consulting?
The goal of science consulting is to give the writers insight into science and how scientists do it, and to inspire them to depict it better. I think that will naturally resonate with a lot of younger people; science really is cool, and if they can see that the influence will happen.
How important is it that the audience sees science portrayed accurately in film and television?
I used to think it was critical, but I have eased up on that. The science I saw on television when I was a kid was pretty silly, but I loved it anyway. It inspired me, and I think that is what is important. Accurate is better, usually, unless it interferes with the story. If the story is compromised, though, there is not much hope to reach the audience. With both story *and* good science, well, that is the best. What more could you want?