Phil Plait’s Bad Universe Makes TV Science Personal Again

Geek Culture

Phil PlaitPhil Plait

Phil Plait. Photo: Discovery Channel.

Right now, even as you read this, there are asteroids and comets hurtling towards Earth, and only Phil Plait can save us!

Well, all right, that’s a slight exaggeration. The danger is probably at least 26 years away, and Plait isn’t going to hop on a shuttle to plant a nuke in anything. What he will do, though, is test out whether doing that would actually work, and he’ll explain the results to you.

There are a lot of good science shows on TV these days. There are even a lot of really well-made astronomy shows. But isn’t it strange that, despite all the huge advances in technology in the last thirty years, from computer simulation to the Hubble Space Telescope, there hasn’t been a science show on TV in all that time that’s held a candle to Carl Sagan’s Cosmos? Now, I’m not saying that Bad Universe is today’s Cosmos, or that Plait is this generation’s Sagan, but both the show and its host are very much aimed in the same direction.

Plait, best known on the internet as the “Bad Astronomer,” is trying to make science accessible to everyone in a way that no other show on TV now does. It’s not a revolutionary idea, but it’s a very effective one: he appears on camera, talks to the viewer, and shows us in a hands-on way just how wonderful science can be. “I want a show,” he told me, “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 breath and eat and sleep science. I love it!”

Burning a grapefruitBurning a grapefruit

Burning the grapefruit. Photo: Discovery Channel.

And it’s Plait’s love for science that makes this show great. You can see the glee in his eyes when he’s pushing the button to set off an explosion to simulate an asteroid hitting the Earth. You can see the anticipation in his face when he’s rushing to check on the results of firing a simulated nuclear missile at a simulated asteroid. You can hear in his voice how much fun he’s having burning a hole in a grapefruit with the sun and a Fresnel lens or mixing a homemade comet. And, though Plait is the first to say that he’s not Carl Sagan, I recognized the feeling I got while watching Bad Universe, because it wasn’t very far removed from the feeling the grade-school me got watching Cosmos. It’s a feeling you can’t get from a bunch of cool pictures of space phenomena and a narrator explaining what you’re seeing in voiceover. Think back to your school days — what did you learn more from, lectures with slide shows or live demonstrations?

The first episode of Phil Plait’s Bad Universe, “Asteroid Apocalypse,” airs this coming Sunday, August 29, at 10:00pm ET/PT on the Discovery Channel. So far, two other episodes have also been filmed, but air dates have yet to be announced for them. If the first episodes do well, Discovery might make a whole series out of it, so tell your friends and neighbors to watch. They’re almost guaranteed to learn something (I know a fair bit about astronomy for a layperson, and I learned a lot), and to have fun learning it.

Check back on GeekDad Sunday morning for a transcription of an interview I did of Plait yesterday, and check out Jenny Williams’s interview with Plait from last year.

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