back to article An afternoon with Phil Plait, the Bad Astronomer

Phil Plait – one-time NASA astronomer, science educator, and author of the Bad Astronomy blog at Slate, recently visited Australia to renew his acquaintance with the Oz confection-cum-dentist's-nightmare Minties. While here, the Bad Astronomer embarked on a multi-city lecture tour, took part in IFLS Live in Sydney, and spent an …


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  1. Sorry that handle is already taken. Silver badge

    I missed him when he was in town because I didn't even know he was here. And then I did the same thing with Lawrence Krauss a couple of weeks later... So thanks for the interview!

    (you didn't happen to interview Krauss as well?)

  2. Vociferous

    Maybe scientists are born, not made.

    Every scientist I've ever met, were deeply interested in their subject by the time they said their first words or took their first steps. The exact direction comes later, but they were born with the burning passion for their subject. Any kindergarten teacher can point out the future scientists, just as surely as she can point out the future criminals.

    1. Anonymous Coward

      Re: Maybe scientists are born, not made.

      I think it's just a difference between wanting to learn, and just letting the world go by. As long as it's not of the type who detest learning though!

      1. Don Jefe

        Re: Maybe scientists are born, not made.

        I truly believe that Humans are innately curious by default, especially as their brains and bodies mature to the point where they notice they really have an effect on the natural world and the world has an effect on them. But then 'the real world' comes along and for various reasons, almost always about money, people sacrifice that curiosity to support their version of reality.

        It is sad, but I don't know what to do about it. I can almost guarantee someone will comment on this article about how science funding could be better spent on (x); all the while blind to the fact that those funds could be used to alleviate (x) if politics and religion weren't so disproportionatly weighted in our society.

        This was a great article!

  3. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge

    I don't know whether it was a Time Life book about "Spaceflight" (and another about "Energy") or the movie 2001 that did it. The books were mysterious because they had impressive illustrations - but I couldn't decipher the text. The movie was mysterious because they had impressive footage - but I couldn't decipher anything.

    2001 was definitely responsible for the interest in IT.

    Did I mention that Scott Aaronson's "Quantum Computing since Democritus" is out in book form?

  4. keithpeter


    "And they would look through the telescope at Saturn, and like – they were amazed, and awe-struck, many of them. They would be really quiet, and then … “wow”. All of that rough exterior, all of that hurt or whatever it was, just sloughed away, and they were seeing this gorgeous jewel of the sky through the eye-piece."

    I once spent half a Maths lesson letting a group of 'foundation' students use a couple of Silva compasses I brought in. The classroom had a view of the city centre over a valley., they took bearings on the taller buldings and plotted the position of the College. Amazingly, most had never used a compass. Its stuff like that that keeps me in teaching.

    PS: the stuff about calculus isn't relevant in UK we have a more specialised 16+ system. Fully agree with statistics though, the basic 'law of large numbers with fluctuations' stuff is so important.

    Good article.

    1. Gene Cash Silver badge

      Re: Nice

      There's little "personal application" in modern teaching. Phil talks about making kids look through a telescope or go out to look at meteor showers. You talk about using the compasses. There's the chemistry demos that always go bang. Yeah, this gets folks interested. The problem is that's the ultra-rare exception to sitting in a chair for 8 hours listening to someone talk.

      For example, I'm a space buff from WAY back, saw Armstrong walk on the Moon on my fourth birthday. So I've amassed this huge library of space books and rocket models and I "know" space stuff, like "oh I know what a Hohmann minimum-fuel trajectory is!" and I visit KSC visitor's center once every couple months.

      Well this month, I got Kerbal Space Program, and I sure as hell DID NOT know how to design a Hohmann trajectory or figure out a launch window! However after watching the computer do it, I dug out all my old books and had a renewed interested as I finally saw the real-life application of it and it was no longer just a dry academic interest. I even found Buzz Aldrin's old MIT Ph.D thesis on rendezvous and started going "oh yeah! that's why that happens!" and I started actually learning the stuff I'd been parroting for years.

      This is why computers are so popular... you can sit down and pound away for a while and get an inkling of how they work.

      I don't know how to fix it. Most teachers barely have the budget to just stand there and talk. They're lucky to have the room and the blackboard, at least in the US.

      1. JCitizen Bronze badge
        Thumb Up

        Re: Nice

        Buzz became my hero too - when I learned he used one of the 1st digital pocket calculators to check the orbital calculation on-board systems on the Apollo rendezvous space craft. That pocket calculator was already light years ahead of what they had on that mission! I've been hooked on him every since!

      2. keithpeter

        Re: Nice

        "The problem is that's the ultra-rare exception to sitting in a chair for 8 hours listening to someone talk."

        Not in UK FE Colleges, perhaps in some HE institutions outwith the UK. Google 'Geoff Petty Active Learning' or 'Phil Race Making Learning Happen' for current UK orthodoxy. In the under-18 sector anyone talking for 8 hours wouldn't last very long!

      3. Tom 13

        Re: I don't know how to fix it.

        I do. Get the government out of it.

        Most teachers barely have the budget to just stand there and talk. They're lucky to have the room and the blackboard, at least in the US.

        DC, which according to its politicians has the worst possible funding formulas because it doesn't have a state to supplement its budget, spends almost $30,000/student/year. And they're one of the worst offenders with "teachers can't afford basic supplies for their classrooms." If they can't afford basic supplies on that kind of per pupil spending, something about its governance is badly, badly broken.

        Progressive's hate the idea, but voucher's for students are the solution. Not only to funding to the teachers but the one-size-fits all mentality of the public school system. Make it a refundable tax credit, for 12 years your kid can use it for any school you want to send him to. What are now public schools get to compete for the dollars just like the private and charters do now. Some will specialize for smart kids, some will specialize for slow kids, and the bulk will specialize for the rest of the kids.

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Great interview, guys.

  6. LINCARD1000

    More of this stuff, please!

    I am forever grateful to people like Mr. Plait who are so enthusiastic and passionate about astronomy, science and the like. You cannot help but get swept up at least a little bit in the excitement when you hear/watch/read what they have to say.

    It is unfortunate that we have so many others trying to drag us back into the stone age with their attitudes and beliefs, but I'd like to think that despite this we are still slowly but surely moving ahead toward an enlightened future as a species. Due in part to people like Phil.

    Great article/interview, would love to see more of this sort of thing on El Reg :-)

    1. Mike Richards Silver badge

      Re: More of this stuff, please!

      Can we get Phil to give Lewis a masterclass in science education? Many people would benefit.

  7. Alistair

    Governments and interest in science.

    Not sure I've ever been exposed to Phil Plait before, but have to agree with him on a heck of a lot of that interview.

    Sadly, on this chunk of terra firma, the government has decided to gag the scientists it can put a leash on, just in case. In case they might make the government look like utter idiots that is.

    1. Michael Hoffmann
      Thumb Up

      Re: Governments and interest in science.

      I can highly recommend his books. Especially "This Is The Way The World Will End" is enjoyable and fascinating. He makes a small reference to its topic in the interview when mentioning that "astronomy can kill".

  8. Jtom

    As a grad student I had the great honor (to me, anyway. It was a chore to other grads.) to teach an astronomy lab to undergrads. We had a small student observatory with a good size (30"?) scope to use. Saturn was within view during class hours, so obviously, I spent one class having the students look at it, and a discussion of it. One co-ed stared at Saturn through the scope and came away on the verge of shock. She said she had of course read about the planet, and seen pictures of it, but had never honestly realized that it was actually in the sky right above her. She was just in awe. I clumsily tried to explain that that was what science, all science, was about; trying to explain the world - universe that we live in, that's all around us.

    I can't recall how she did in the course, at least a grade of B, I think, but it made all the effort required to teach the course worthwhile to see one student so profoundly moved by what she learned in that one lesson.

  9. NotMyRealName

    Too true

    "It's in everybody's best interests, unless you're trying to take over a country and it's best to keep the populace uneducated. An educated populace will tend to make better decisions..."

    Yup. And I think we can perceive the trend, on both sides of the pond.

    1. Brewster's Angle Grinder Silver badge

      Re: Too true

      It's the outcome. But Michael Gove just wants to make lots of Michael Gove clones. And there are various people trying to selfishly preserve what they have - "Pay more tax to educate everybody? You must be kidding! I can buy another yacht!"

  10. Zebo-the-Fat

    Phil Plait for Prime Minister!

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