Saturday, September 28, 2013

Bad Astronomy: Misconceptions and Misuses Revealed, from Astrology to the Moon Landing "Hoax" by Philip Plait

As I have mentioned before, astronomy was one of my first adult hobbies. Before I could drive, I was peering into a 3" telescope in our front yard. I was fairly well-versed in observational astronomy back then—especially for a preadolescent—though my grasp on cosmology was much weaker. Of course, that was 30 years ago and some things have changed. For example, astronomers have identified many more moons orbiting the outer planets since the days of the Voyager probes.* Regrettably I didn't maintain my interest; by the time Halley's Comet returned in 1986, probably for its only visit to the inner solar system in my lifetime, I couldn't be bothered to look for it.**

I learned of Plait from General Carlessness years ago and last year read his most recent book, Death from the Skies!, which I found fascinating in a terrifying sort of way. I bought Bad Astronomy before I read Death from the Skies!, but I was a little less interested in it. I remember enough about astronomy that I harbor few of these misconceptions. I think most are ridiculous, and my 13-year-old self probably would have agreed. Seeing stars in broad daylight from the bottom of a well?!?! So I feared that I would merely enjoy Plait's presentation and refutation of each myth without learning much.

I should have known better. I learned a lot from Plait, who definitely knows his stuff. Sometimes, such as regarding the cause of tides, I had a vague notion of how something worked and he explained it clearly with greater detail and consideration of additional factors. Other times, he included some historical background or other enriching information that was new to me. And of course it's fun to read. Plait knows how to speak science to the masses.

One of his rants is misguided, though. Plait rails against advertisers using the phrase "light-years ahead" as in "light-years ahead of the competition." His complaint is that light-year is a measure of distance and that admen are mistakenly using it as a measure of time in place of "years ahead". But I would counter that people say "miles ahead of the competition" so there is nothing wrong with substituting light-years as another unit of distance. Of course it's hyperbole, but it's not scientifically incorrect. He has much firmer footing pointing out other linguistic errors in that chapter, such as meteoric rise and quantum leap.


* Jupiter had 16 known moons in the early 1980s, but now there are 67! Saturn has gone from 17 to 62! Of course, none of those "new" moons are visible to an amateur astronomer anyway.

** I don't regret it enough to get back into it, though. Once I lose interest in something, it never comes back with anything approaching the previous intensity. World War II, Route 66, architecture, photography, county collecting, and historic preservation are further examples of this. I retain a lot of knowledge and enjoy occasionally revisiting those subjects/activities, but the passion is gone. Actually, my biggest regret about losing interest in astronomy when I did is that it happened before I could afford a bigger telescope like the ones my pre-employment self drooled over in Sky & Telescope. By the way, I still have that 3" telescope even though I haven't used it in two decades and perhaps never will again. But now we're discussing my hoarding problem.

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