I had the opportunity on Thursday to interview Phil Plait, the Bad Astronomer and host of the new TV show Phil Plait’s Bad Universe. I had a great time talking with him, and, since the show premieres tonight at 10pm ET/PT on the Discovery Channel, I thought I’d share a partial transcript of our conversation.
If you haven’t yet, you should read my review of the premiere from Friday, because without an understanding of what the show’s about the interview may not make as much sense. And I should mention again that this is a partial transcript only, as we chatted for more than 45 minutes. I thought many of GeekDad’s readers might not really want a complete transcript of, for example, the two of us simultaneously Googling to try to find details of an L.A. Law episode.
Which reminds me: In the premiere, you’ll notice Plait saying “Holy Haleakala!” a number of times. If you’re a regular reader of his blog, you’ll know that he uses it there every so often, but he’s never explained where it came from. He told me he’s pretty sure it came from an episode of, yes, L.A. Law, in which (he thinks) Douglas and his ex-wife are getting back together and are on vacation in Hawaii. If you can confirm or disprove this, and especially if you have a clip, please leave a comment here.
And now to the interview:
GeekDad: What kind of ideas and in what kinds of science do you want to cover in the show, if it gets made into a series?
Phil Plait: It’s not like we’re ever going to run out of ideas. These three episodes were loosely – well not even that loosely – but were fairly well based on my book Death from the Skies!, from a few of the chapters in that book. But this sort of show can be broadened easily into all kinds of science. […] There are a million things we can test – and it’s not just testing: it’s exploring, it’s experimenting, it’s demonstrating. […] I am an astronomer, and I’m most comfortable in that area of science. On the other hand, I’m a voracious reader of science, and a huge consumer of popular-level science books, magazines, blogs, whatever – TV shows – so everything about science fascinates me.
GD: Of course a hosted science TV show invites comparisons to Carl Sagan. Sadly, he’s no longer with us…
PP: He set the bar for this sort of thing. On occasion – it’s very flattering – on Twitter, through e-mail, or whatever, somebody will say “You know, you’re the next Carl Sagan.” And I just have to laugh and say “No. No, I’m not.” And my mom says that, too: “This blog post you wrote was not the way Carl would have done it.” And it’s like “No. No, it isn’t. But I’m not Carl Sagan.” I wear my nerdiness on my sleeve – if I can make a Doctor Who reference, I will. In Bad Universe, there are actually several Star Trek references. […] I can’t see Carl Sagan doing that so much – he was very academic, very high-level, highbrow, and he did it beautifully. I mean, who wasn’t influenced by Cosmos if they’re my age?
GD: When you were talking about comets, I kept expecting you to mention Tunguska.
PP: This is one of those times when, you know what, it’s a TV show – we have 42 minutes. And we actually filmed some terrific stuff about Tunguska, which was an impact in June of 1908 over Siberian swampland. And we think it was a chunk of a comet or a rocky asteroid that blew up several miles in the Earth’s atmosphere, detonated with a 15-20 megaton yield. It was like blowing up a 20 megaton nuclear weapon. And it flattened the forest and set it on fire, and it was a tremendous thing. And in the end, we just didn’t have time to put it in. It was a segment that was several minutes long. And in the end, even though it was really cool, it didn’t add enough to what we were already saying to make it worth the sacrifice of that much time. This is the difference between being a scientist – being a blogger and an author – and hosting a TV show, creating a TV show. I can write as much as I want on my blog, except that people start losing interest if you’re writing a 15,000 word article. And in a book I can take an extra four or five pages to talk about Tunguska, and I do in my book. On TV, you have to make tradeoffs.
GD: I was going to ask about the lack of actual pictures of asteroids and comets. I mean, the CGI was beautiful, but…
PP: There are just times when it doesn’t work, when you say “That just doesn’t show what we wanted it to show.” One thing I did not want to do – I won’t name names, but there are a lot of astronomy documentaries, series and otherwise, that just sit there and throw graphics at you. And a lot of times the graphics have nothing to do with what they’re talking about. But even when they do, it’s overload – and the one thing I said, when the production company sat down with me, I said “I’m not making another show like this one, this one over here that we’ve all seen, that is simply those interviews with astronomers where they’re just looking off camera and answering questions. And it’s just graphics, graphics, graphics. Because what happens is, you watch the show, and it’s cool – you see a lot of nifty stuff – and you walk away thinking “That was nice,” and then the next day, if I were to walk up to you and say “Tell me three things you learned from that show,” you’re not going to remember a damned thing. I want a show that has a host, that has a host who knows what he’s talking about for the most part, and I want people to see that I love this stuff! I live and breathe and eat and sleep science. I love it! And if I can excite them about it, that’s what I want. I want them to understand what we’re talking about. And so I don’t want to just throw stuff at them that’s all short-attention-span theater. I mean, there is some of that, and sure, we’re blowing stuff up because that’s fun, and in this particular episode it makes sense. But we’re not going to blow stuff up in every episode. […] I want to take the viewer by the hand and say “Come with me – this is cool!” and have them nodding their head afterward going “That was cool, and I remember that, and this is why…”
GD: I think you definitely accomplished that in the pilot. I loved that you were doing hands-on stuff. Because when you think astronomy, you don’t really think of hands-on stuff.
PP: Exactly. There’s a lot of stuff we can do when you have a host that you can’t do with a voiced-over show. The real thing is, the name of the show is not “Bad Universe” – the name of the show is “Phil Plait’s Bad Universe,” because it’s being told through the eyes of the host. You know, I didn’t come up with the name – it’s what the production company and the network agreed on, and of course I love seeing my name on the screen because I’m a huge monomaniacal egotist, but in reality the point is that this is personal. You know, Cosmos was called a “personal voyage,” and I want this to be personal as well – I don’t know if I’d call it a “voyage,” but it’s certainly a journey, as told through the point-of-view of an actual living, breathing person who loves this stuff. That was the whole point.