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.

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.

Note: TechRepublic and are CBS brands.