On October 17, 2012, I called my friend Phil Plait, creator of the Bad Astronomy site, writer of the Bad Astronomy blog for Discover Magazine, and author of awesome science books. I was thrilled to have a chance to ask Phil (@BadAstronomer) about his background, worm holes, time travel, and more.
TechRepublic: How did you decide to be an astronomer? Was it always a hobby that you turned into a career, or was there one moment that really sticks out to you?
Phil Plait: Yes and yes! Honestly it’s something I’ve loved my whole life. Ever since I was a little kid. I was a dinosaur and a space nerd, so it was probably inevitable I’d be fascinated by asteroids. Dinosaurs were wiped out by astronomy! Both of my favorite things! If only Superman had been involved.
But, literally as long as I can remember I’ve loved this stuff. Watching Star Trek and Space: 1999 when I was a little older really got me going. When I started doing it in college I found it really supported my geek lifestyle. “Ooh I can read about this and then do it!” Reading Larry Niven‘s sci–fi books “Oh, neutron stars are cool!” and then I got to do research about them later on. How charmed a life is that?
As far as the moment that really sticks out to me, well it sounds like a made-up story, but this is true. And it’s funny because a lot of astronomers and astronauts have a very similar story.
When I was about five, my parents bought a junky department store telescope and set it up at the end of the driveway. I looked at Saturn through it and that was it, I was hooked. And it’s really funny how many astronomers say they got hooked when they saw Saturn, because when you look at it through a telescope it’s exactly like a picture. Those rings are as clear as day, and it’s an incredible thing to see.
TechRepublic: Are worm holes real? What are they and what do they do? Also, if aliens inside a wormhole wanted to call you “Emissary,” would you do it?
Phil Plait: No and no. Are worm holes real? The way I would answer that is carefully. I would say we do not know of any that actually exist. To answer more carefully, let me give a brief description. They are called worm holes because if you picture an apple, a worm chews from one end to another, which is less distance than if you go around. So you’re taking two points in an apple, connecting them, and creating a hole that is actually shorter than going around. That’s the idea of a worm hole in space. One end here, one end at, say, Alpha Centauri and going through it would be like going through a doorway rather than traveling light years to get there.
It actually falls out naturally from a lot of Einstein‘s work and some work before him. But it’s hard to bend space that seriously. Mass bends space, and that was sort of Einstein’s big idea, that mass bends space with gravity. The amount of mass needed to create a worm hole is so massive, you’d have to have a black hole. So there was this idea that maybe a black hole in one spot would connect to another black hole in another spot. Turns out, there’s a problem with that because you have to actually fall into a black hole. So there are issues with this…such as getting destroyed. So in that sense it doesn’t work.
It turns out there may be ways to open up space to create a worm hole in other ways, but they are incredibly unstable. Like building a pyramid and resting it on its point. Just the act of passing through the mouth of such a worm hole would collapse it. So, in the end, it’s a really cool idea and we love it for science fiction, but it’s not really workable in life.
If these things do exist and some alien were to say to me, “Hey, here’s this lantern thing with mystical powers!” The first thing I would say is “Can it make me rich and powerful?” If the answer is no, I’d say “Sorry, I’m busy.” Len Peralta had a similar question in my interview with him which was, if you had superpowers would you use them for good or evil? I’m pretty sure I was the only one who said “Hello! Evil!” I mean, let’s be honest. We would all use it for personal gain. Except Wil Wheaton because he actually is that nice. But, basically, I think Sisko could have done a lot better with what he was given.
TechRepublic: How did your work with the Discover blog come about? Was that before or after you wrote your awesome books?
Phil Plait: It was during the books. It takes me like 10 years to write books. Anyway, I was doing a lot of outreach while writing them, the first of which was while I was working on Hubble. My editor said “You should do a newsletter,” which was in 2000. Then Fraser Cain at UniverseToday.com suggested I should do a blog, so I started blogging. He and I are good friends and have always considered our blogs to be sort of sister sites.
After a while, I had a couple of offers from the original science blogs but it never really worked out for various reasons. Then Henry Donahue, who was editor of Discover Magazine at the time, asked me to come write for them. And I said “OK, but I’m still going to write about Creationism and Doctor Who and stuff.” And he said “Cybermen, Daleks! Bring it!” and I thought, “I love this guy.”
I’ve been writing for them for about five years now. I just passed my 7,000th blog post. That is a crazy amount of writing. Some of it is just a picture, like: “Oh look at this picture! or I love David Tennant!” but a lot of them are really long and detailed, so thousands of those is crazy.
TechRepublic: Is it possible to go into a black hole and come out in the future?
Phil Plait: You can do that! (Note from Jessica: When he said this I was like “Oh my god are you serious?!?!” It was basically the Squee Heard Round The World.) You don’t have to go through the black hole, you just have to go near it. We think time just ticks along, 60 seconds per minute, etc., but it doesn’t work that way. As you get closer to something with mass, time goes more slowly for you than someone far away. This was the second part of Einstein’s big idea, that time can be shaped, molded, and distorted. So for someone near a black hole, time is going more slowly. As you go near a black hole, mere seconds pass by for you, but the Universe could have aged millions of years based on how close you get.
That being said, it’s not that easy, even if you had the Enterprise, because the gravity of the black hole would tear you apart. However, the bigger the black hole the less you have to worry about it. This has to do with spaghettification.
As you know, a black hole is created when a star explodes and the core collapses. So a lot of these are only miles across. As you fall toward the black hole, your feet are closer than your head, and if you calculate the difference in the force, your feet are getting pulled harder. Like having an aircraft carrier strapped to your ankles. So as you get closer that force can stretch you out and turn you into, basically, a long noodle. However, the bigger the hole, the less the distance between your feet and your head matters. For example, I can stand on the Earth and because it is so big my feet and my head are about the same distance from the center of the Earth, because who cares about 6 feet? But the smaller the black hole is, say a mile across, 6 feet makes a big difference.
So… build a faster than light ship, get really close without getting torn apart, and actually physically, when you come back years would have passed and it would be the future.
TechRepublic: What was it like working on the Hubble telescope? What part did you play in that project?
Phil Plait: Hubble is like a telephoto lens that you can snap on different camera bodies. It’s a big telescope, but it has a ton of cameras in the back of it. I worked on one of the cameras that went up in 1997. You build these things, and you have to kind of know “If we point Hubble at this star, what are we going to see?” Those photons have to be turned into electrons between the front and the back in a particular way depending on what you’re looking at. My job was to calibrate this camera, and I wrote a massive piece of software that did that. So if you say “I want to observe this thing,” the software would tell you how long to expose, etc. That much coding gets pretty tedious, as any software developer will tell you, but the cool thing is that after they launch it into space, astronomers would want to look at certain things, and they would come to me to help them. So I wound up being involved in a bunch of different projects, and it was really exciting for a really long time.
A lot of astronomers would, literally, come down the hall, and they would want to look at, say, disc of material around a star 40 light years away. And I would help them figure out how to get the data to get the science out of it. So I got to see all this Hubble data all the time. I had a computer that would print out what had been observed overnight. I would show up in the morning and look at it and go “Oh, wow. That’s cool!” and it was amazing work. Then I realized I liked talking about these things more than doing it, and decided to do that full time. I left research and did more educational stuff for a few years and then braved it out on my own. Now I work from home and hardly ever wear pants.
TechRepublic: I saw a picture of you, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Bill Nye the Science Guy. Were the three of you at all concerned that your combined awesomeness would rip a hole in the space time continuum? Also, SQUEE! Also, also, is it possible to rip a hole in the space time continuum?
Phil Plait: That’s what black holes do, so yes. But you’d have to squeeze the three of us to smaller than the size of a proton to do it, so I’m not that concerned. Plus, I’m a just a fluctuation on those guys, I mean we’re talking Neil and Bill. I’m just that guy on Twitter.
I haven’t known Bill that long, we cross paths a lot so we’ve hung out a little bit. I’d say we’re acquaintances. It’s fun to see him and chat with him. I’ve actually known Neil forever. He was a post doc looking for work when I was a grad student in Virginia, and he came to give a talk. He and I were doing similar research, and over the years we keep bumping into each other. We really like doing stuff together.
That pic was from a panel with Pamela Gay and Lawrence Krauss, and it was a rollicking good time of a panel. It’s really fun to see legit scientists who have paid their dues doing actual research doing this fantastic public outreach so that their names become synonymous with science. It’s fantastic! Especially when I go give talks and someone wants to talk about outreach — you mention Bill Nye and everyone knows who he is. That’s great. We could use more voices. The more people talking about science the better. We need people getting the public interested. We need diversity, women, younger people talking about this. We’re seeing it. It is happening, but I would love to see even more.
Neil was at Comic Con, and it was fun because Brent Spiner and Levar Burton wanted to meet him, and I got invited along. It’s so cool — while I was waiting to talk to Neil, there were a bunch of people watching him do an interview. I met a woman there who was dressed as Daenerys from Game of Thrones, and it turns out she’s a young actress, Alexis Knapp, who’s made a couple of movies. She’s a big science and space fan, and I think it’s great that young people in Hollywood are so into real science. It’s just so cool that so many people your age are excited about this stuff. I was your age once and excited about this stuff, but you guys are shaping the fandom of the future. You’re making web series and TV shows and movies. It used to be that the actors who were influential (Shatner, Nimoy) weren’t necessarily part of fandom, now people who grew up a part of fandom are now writers and actors. Jeri Ryan and Wil Wheaton of Star Trek, Aaron Douglas from Battlestar. The BSG writers were all big sci-fi dorks, as were the Eureka writing staff, and a lot of other shows too. Things have really changed and it’s great.
TechRepublic: What part of your work is your favorite?
Phil Plait: I don’t know what part is my favorite. I get so excited when some really cool news comes up. Or, one of the things I love doing is writing about something no one else is going to write about. “Oh this pic from Hubble is gorgeous, but look at this part of the picture no one is talking about!” I love having the background to look at those details and explain them.
Also, for instance, yesterday the news broke that Alpha Centauri has a planet. And to think I grew up on Lost in Space and Star Trek, and now I’m writing about a planet that is orbiting a star. Now it’s like, holy crap, science fiction is real! A lot of the stuff I grew up watching or reading about in science fiction as a kid is real. We’re finding planets around other stars! It’s incredible! People are so excited about this stuff and that is among my favorite things. To see things differently and to be able to write about this stuff and talk to people about this.
And a lot of it is going to Comic Con and meeting people who are creating and writing. To go to a Con and be on a panel with someone and it’s like “Oh my god, that guy did this!” Then I introduce myself and they know me, too, and we’re mutual fans. That’s awesome! First of all because I’m a huge fanboy and dork, but also the implication that the people who are sci-fi dorks are shaping the way we’re being entertained these days and they want to do it right in TV and movies.
Thanks so much to Phil for taking the time to chat with me and give serious answers to my silly questions. The science nerd in me is still squeeing about black holes and time travel.
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