Bad Astronomy's Phil Plait on worm holes, the Hubble telescope, spaghettification, and sci-fi

In this interview, astronomer, science writer, and sci-fi fan Phil Plait talks about getting hooked on astronomy, working on the Hubble telescope, palling around with Neil deGrasse Tyson at Comic Con, and more.

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?
Philip Plait (Photo by D. Scott Frey)
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 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.

Read part two of our interview with Phil Plait.