It is always exciting to meet people you admire. I had an opportunity to do that on August 9th this year, during a trip to Boulder, Colorado. I met and interviewed Phil Plait, aka the Bad Astronomer. I was joined by my awesome friend Alan Eliasen, who shares my appreciation of Phil. Unlike some famous people, Phil just acts like a regular guy, and talking with him was a delight. [Note: This interview originally ran in 2009.]
Phil used to work at NASA and a bunch of similarly interesting places. Eventually he quit having a conventional day job and wrote a couple of books: Bad Astronomy and Death From the Skies! He also is the new president at the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF), which promotes skepticism. Oh, and he has a blog at Slate’s website. There, he writes about astronomy, science, vaccinating your children and critical thinking. Whenever people rally against science, evidence and facts, Phil is there to argue the other side. That is why he is my champion for science.
And today is the big day. Phil Plait will get a tattoo. See his blog and below for details on why that is. So enjoy my interview with Phil Plait. We covered everything from astronomy and Hubble to Star Trek to the JREF to Wil Wheaton.
On Talks and Interviews
Phil Plait: When I meet up with somebody who’s semi-famous I like to do a One Minute Interview. Ask them something really stupid. … At The Amaz!ng Meeting a few years ago, I got Jamy Ian Swiss, who is a world renowned close-up magician doing card tricks on camera, which doesn’t work so well on low resolution YouTube, but you watch it and it’s like, How did he just do that? … At Comic-Con I was able to get Brea Grant from Heroes on for one minute, just saying “What science blogs do you read?” knowing full well she only reads one. That was pretty funny. So she’s really adorable.
Me: When we went to the Maker Faire, where GeekDad had a booth, Adam Savage was there, but we didn’t get to meet him.
PP: I’ve always wanted to go. He’s busy at meetings. It’s really really hard to get any face time with him because it’s what everybody wants.
Alan: I just saw him at DEFCON.
PP: His talk just posted on Vimeo. It’s the same talk that he gave at our Amaz!ng Meeting in July. It’s a great talk. And a couple of people ask, what does this have to do with skepticism? And I said, It has everything to do with skepticism. This is maybe the most important talk we heard here. It’s all about failure and learning from failure and moving on. That’s what skepticism is all about.
Me: I think that’s the same talk he did at the Maker Faire, too.
PP: Yeah, he develops like one new talk a year and gives it at all the big places. It’s terrific. His one about building the Maltese Falcon and the Dodo skeleton, is great. People are saying, What does this have to do with skepticism, and I said, I don’t really know. There are things about building an obsession and getting things right that you can apply to skepticism, but basically it’s just a really awesome story and it’s coming right from him. And so as far as I am concerned, that’s all I need. I don’t need all skepticism all the time. If somebody has a compelling story to tell at the meetings, that’s fine with me.
Me: I’ve got a lot of questions, but we probably won’t get to them all.
PP: Oh my god, you have things written down.
Me: I have dots by the more important ones.
PP: Let me get out my written down answers.
On His Daughter
Me: How do you share your geeky interests with your daughter? I’m guessing she’s probably got to have some of it in her.
PP: Some. She’s interested in astronomy. She’s interested in science. She’s not 100% all the time like I am. She’s into anime and manga. She draws, she’s really good actually. We watch a lot of stuff on the Science Channel, Discovery Channel, National Geographic. So we do that a lot together. … She loves venomous animals. So we watch all the shows about cone snails and box jelly and blue ring octopi, those horrifying things, so if you go to Australia, even looking at a map of Australia, will kill you. It’s one of those kinds of things. She watches a lot of Mystery Diagnosis and those kinds of shows that are interesting. She likes that. So that’s cool. But basically the big one is Dr. Who. I sat her down and said, Watch this with me! And she loved it. And she’s a huge fan.
On Television Shows
PP: We love Big Bang Theory. Have to explain some of the jokes to her. Because I’m over there in the chair convulsing, I can’t even breathe in. And my wife looks at me and says, alright, he’ll tell me later. Some inside joke. In the first season, Leonard has to give a talk, and he’s nervous. So Sheldon tells him to tell a joke. I may have these characters backwards. And I’m thinking, Spherical cow! You’ve got to tell the spherical cow joke! And they said that and I almost died. This is the basic physics joke. So I said, yes, I love the show. This show owns me now at this point, if they’re going to do stuff like that.
Me: I’m worried they’re going to cancel it.
Alan: My geek barometer question for the Big Bang Theory is, Do you ever pause it and look at the board and try to decipher the equations?
PP: I don’t need to pause it, just a quick glance. Actually, it’s all really advanced stuff, like string theory and more. Actually I don’t think it’s string theory because Sheldon said some nasty things about string theory in the past. But I never really understand it. There’s some other things that they’ve got in there that I recognize.
Me: What’s the coolest thing you’ve seen through a telescope, any telescope?
PP: In 1994 I saw the black marks on Jupiter that were left by Shoemaker-Levy 9, the comet that broke up and slammed into the planet over and over again. I was a grad student at University of Virginia. We had a pretty big telescope, a 26 inch refractor. That’s a lens. It’s a monster telescope. It was about 110 years old at the time. It was a really gorgeous instrument, easy to use. I went out and looked at Jupiter. Nobody was using it. It’s not really used for that much research anymore. So I pointed it at Jupiter and couldn’t see anything. I thought, Well that’s weird. And then I realized that the telescope was magnifying the turbulence in the Earth’s atmosphere. Virginia doesn’t always have the best weather. And so I thought, well I need a smaller telescope with less magnification. It’s kind of ironic but I need something smaller so I’m not magnifying the noise. And the building next door has a roll-off roof with a six inch brass telescope with the same vintage, from the 1880s. And looked through that one, just a small refractor. Bam! You could see them as clear as day. Black dots on the surface, they were right on the edge of what I could see. If they were any smaller, I wouldn’t have been able to see them. But they were clearly there. So that rocked. But I’ve also seen a supernova with my own eyes in the center of a galaxy using a slightly bigger telescope than that, that was cool. There were three stars in the nucleus of this galaxy, there were three stars. And I thought, I have this picture in my hand that shows only two stars. So clearly a star has blown up here. There was comet Holmes last year which was out past the orbit of Mars. Had some sort of eruptive event and had this huge expanding ball of gas around it. You could look up and see with the naked eye that it was a big fuzzy thing even though it was like 30 million miles away. And through a telescope that was spectacular. I could go on and on and on. There’s just any number of stuff you could look at through a telescope that would be jaw dropping.
Me: Yeah, it just doesn’t stop being cool.
PP: I spent three hours watching a moon transit in front of Jupiter’s face in grad school. That was coincidence, just happened to see it at the time. You could see the shadow moving across, too. It took three hours for the moon to move across, and it was pretty slick.
Me: What are the easiest interesting things to find in the sky for an amateur astronomer?
PP: The moon. Yeah, the moon is awesome because it changes every day because of the phases. It orbits the earth and its phases are changing. What that really means is that the sun is shining at different angles on different parts of the moon every day. So if you go out when the moon is new and you’re seeing a thin crescent, up to when it’s about half full or so, any mountains, any craters, any hills, anything like that, are casting long shadows. You can watch over the course of a night and watch these shadows change. It’s not easy. You have to be patient. It’s really cool to see, especially when it’s half full or something, you can see mountains that are on the dark side of the moon, the part that’s still night time, but the mountain tops are poking out into the sunlight. So they’re lit up. So you see the moon with this dark line across it and these little stars on the other side where it’s like, Oh, mountain tops shining in the sunlight. It makes you think that this is a world, not just some disc in the sky. And that’s a lot of fun. The sun is easy, too. I wouldn’t recommend looking through a telescope at the sun unless you want to boil your eye. But if you project it onto a piece of paper, you can see sun spots and that’s pretty cool. This time of year, Jupiter is up. And Jupiter is fantastic even through a small telescope. You can see the moons, it’s a disc, you can usually see some of the stripes on it, sometimes the red spot, if you’ve got a big enough telescope.
Me: We did that last fall, with Jupiter. We could see the stripes and the four largest moons.
PP: It’s incredible. Saturn’s the best, but right now as we do this in 2009, Saturn is on the opposite side of the solar system from us, so it’s near the sun, it’s really far away. Plus its rings are almost edge on. It’s really cool scientifically when the rings are edge on. Cassini is returning unbelievable pictures, I just wrote about one today, in fact. But when you look at it through a telescope and you want to see these big glorious rings and you see Saturn the planet with this line across it, you’re like, dude, I got ripped off! So it’ll be months, years actually, before they’re tipped all the way open again. It’s still really cool to do that. Planets are always the best because you can see moons and little discs.
Me: We looked at Mars once and there wasn’t much to see.
Alan: It is, it’s always very disappointing.
PP: I keep telling people Mars is small, and even when it’s close by, it’s like 25 million miles away. It’s a long way.
Me: It doesn’t have anything that can stand out like rings, or stripes..
PP: You can see some surface features. Then you get things like the Orion nebula, big galaxies, those are great, too. Those are usually pretty easy to find. I recommend going online, type “your sky” into Google, and you’ll go to this website in, I want to say Switzerland, it might be Sweden [note: it’s Switzerland] and put in your latitude and longitude and time of day it will show you what is up in your sky. There are a million things like that online. Heavens-Above.com, Stellarium.org is free software you can get from SourceForge. I use Starry Night. I got a special version of it years ago when I had a job doing that kind of stuff. I actually like Starry Night quite a bit. Of all the software, I like that one the best. It’s got a little bit of a learning curve to it, but once you figure out, Oh, I see what I was doing wrong before, bang. It is very useful software. Since this is a geeky interview, I suppose we should talk some software.
Me: What are the most overrated and underrated sights to see through a telescope?
PP: Depends on who you are talking to. A lot of amateur astronomers don’t give a damn about the moon. The moon is an irritant. It’s this big bright thing that lights up the sky and you can’t see your galaxies. Through a telescope, for most people, for the public, the most overrated thing to see is the Andromeda galaxy. If you’re just somebody who doesn’t know any astronomy and you go to a public night and somebody takes a telescope and points it at Andromeda, you see this little fuzzy thing like the end of a Q-tip. You’re like, Dude, that’s it? But if you know what you’re looking at, you say, yeah, that’s a collection of a hundred billion stars 2.9 million light years away, or whatever the current distance they’re using now, it pretty much rocks. It’s very cool. So you might call it the most underrated and the most overrated thing. There are other galaxies that are just as nice, but unless you have a really dark site and a really big telescope, you’re not going to see spiral arms and you’re never going to see what Hubble shows you. My favorites are always planetary nebulae. These little.. The ring nebula, the helix, but the helix isn’t so good, it’s too big and so it’s faint. If you have a moderately dark site and you look through the telescope at something like the ring nebula, it looks like a smoke ring. It’s actually a little bit hard to see. When you look right at it, it disappears. When you look away, it pops back in because of the way our eyes construct it. And so that rocks. And a lot of people once they see that, they totally like it. It’s one of those things that through the telescope that looks just like pretty much what the pictures look like but there aren’t as many details. When Saturn is up in the sky and close by, people can’t believe it. So it’s not the most underrated in the sky, but when you see it you’re like, you’re kidding, right? You’re faking this. It looks just like the pictures in the books. Love it.
On Astronomy Books
Me: What are the best astronomy books for small kids, under 12?
Alan: H.A. Rey?
PP: Yeah. It’s a classic. I haven’t seen it in years. But it’s a great book. There’s one on space exploration called Max Goes to the Moon. It’s not an astronomy book per se, it’s about space travel. And it’s by a local astronomer here named Jeff Bennett. It’s really quite cute. It’s a good book. I read it to my daughter. It was in California, so she was no younger than 5, but I don’t think she was older than about 8.
Me: How old is she now?
PP: 13. So that was fun. She understood it. I had to ask her why Max had to wear a helmet on the moon. She said, there’s no air on the moon! That kind of thing. So that was cute. Gosh, other than that there are just a million books out right now, kids’ books. What I tell people to do, is go to a library, see what’s there. Or if you’re in any place that has an astronomy society, an astronomy club. Any even moderate town has one. And they’ll have good recommendations for books. And I recommend that. People always ask me, What kind of telescope should I buy? That’s like saying, What kind of car should I buy? It depends on what you’re looking to do. If you’re hauling rocks all the time, I wouldn’t suggest a Lamborghini. It’s the same sort of thing. Go to a star party, go to an astronomy club, see what’s there, and try them all out. Get a good feel for telescopes. Same thing with books.
On The Big Debate: Star Wars vs. Star Trek
Me: Star Wars or Star Trek?
PP: Trek. Star Wars is a good flick. Empire Strikes Back is a better flick. Return of the Jedi is a miserable but semi-watchable movie. I heard they were going to make three more but I don’t know anything about that. … It’s not that I don’t like Star Wars. Of course I like Star Wars. I want to watch the movie with my daughter. I’m waiting to get the copy of it. Nothing where Greedo shoots first. Nothing where you see Jabba walking along with Han, none of that crap.
PP: Yeah that’s what I want. I don’t mind the expanding ring from the blowing up of the Death Star. Oh, spoiler alert, they blow up the Death Star at the end of Star Wars. I think that’s an okay special effect. But the other added stuff where he actually changed what happens. … [Lucas is] treating [the audience] like consumers. Not like an audience. And it’s different. And so I think that’s where it is. He thinks, I can improve this product. Yeah, you could go back and reframe the Mona Lisa, but don’t go and touch up where the paint is fading or whatever. But I’ve always been more of a Star Trek guy because I’ve always been more of a science fiction guy. Star Wars has trappings of science fiction, it’s got space ships and everything, but it’s really fantasy. … There are sword fights and that kind of stuff. It’s more of a fantasy novel set in a science fiction background. I’m more of a straight science fiction guy, I like space ships and aliens and all that. Star Trek has let me down many times, but I still really like it and when it’s at its best it’s still phenomenal story telling.
What He Wanted to Be When He Grew Up
Me: When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?
PP: An astronomer.
PP: Yeah. Well, an astronaut. I wanted to be an astronaut and then I figured out, this means strapping a rocket to my ass. Okay, maybe not so much. I want to be in space, I don’t want to have to go to space. Poof, you’re in space. Yay! Rockets, no, not so much. I’ve wanted to be an astronomer forever. The irony is that I’m not really doing astronomy anymore.
Me: No, but you’re furthering the cause.
PP: I guess. I like writing about it. And I still go out and use a telescope or binoculars and do star parties and that kind of stuff. I love it. One of my favorite things when I do talks, I’ll talk about the Moon Hoax or whatever. But I really love it when I’m invited to one of these things and they attach it to a star party. I just did one of those in Michigan and we all went out. There were a ton of amateur astronomers there with some really, really sweet scopes. We were out until one or two in the morning just observing. We saw a gazillion satellites and meteors and just tons of stuff. Once the moon set it was incredible. So I’ll always do that.
Me: What’s the most fun you’ve had debunking something?
PP: It’s never fun debunking something.
Me: It has to be done.
PP: It’s a pain in the ass debunking stuff. The most fun? I think standing eggs on end is the most fun. It’s a dumb myth that you can only stand eggs on end on the first day of spring, on the vernal equinox in March. It’s not a legend that has a lot of legs anymore. Back when I started debunking it in the early 1990s, it was everywhere, it was on TV every year and all that. And I still get a bump in traffic around March 20th. And September 20th, too, for that matter. The autumnal equinox. But it’s not as big as it used to be. But still, it’s how I start one of my talks. I stand eggs on end and then that leads into me talking about the tilt of the earth and seasons and distance from the sun and a lot of other myths. It’s fun, standing eggs on end is fun, actually. It sounds really stupid, but in fact, once you start doing it, it’s actually fun for the whole family! So that’s okay. I joke around a lot when I do talks about the moon hoax, or planet X, or 2012, ugh, and those are fun, it’s fun to make fun of them, but it’s also irritating. And I mean irritating. It angers me to have to do some of this stuff. But it’s got be done. 2012 is a big deal right now. It’s just stupid. Why do we have to do this? There’s nothing to this. But as long as there are people out there who can wrap their nonsense up with the trapping of science and say, Oh yes, the sun is going to align with the galactic center or something stupid like that, in 2012. Which is wrong. It’s ridiculously wrong, in fact. As long as they can wrap that up and make it sound vaguely scientific, or touch into the new age stuff, or whatever it is they’re touching into, there will have to be people out there debunking it. And it’s the people who are trying to scare people that really make me angry. The moon hoax thing is just denigrating national heroes and one of the greatest achievements mankind has ever made. That’s one thing. But then scaring people and saying, Yeah the Earth is going to be destroyed in 2012, so buy my book. And it’s like, I want to write them a check and postdate it December 22nd, 2012. It’s like, what good is money going to do you in a year and a half, if we’re all going to be dead? So a lot of these people are scam artists. It makes me angry. I still haven’t tackled 2012, not really, but I probably will eventually, I’m just really busy right now. And, you know, 2012 is going to come and go and nothing will happen. So I don’t feel like I’m in a big hurry to do it.
Me: How do you aim the Hubble telescope?
PP: Me personally? I aimed it once, actually. It was cool. Hubble. Well basically, if you want to observe a target, and you get your proposal accepted and all that, I won’t even go into that. That’s a nightmare of epic proportions. You have to give really specific coordinates on the sky of your target. The sky has coordinates just like the Earth does, latitude and longitude. The sky has right ascension and declination. The problem is that unlike on the Earth, it’s not fixed on the sky, because the Earth’s motion over time, over thousands of years, changes. The coordinate system on the sky changes. So not only do you have to say, My target is at 5 hours 30 minutes 18.4 seconds, you have to say when it was at that position. So you have an epoch, sort of a benchmark in time. So you say, These are 2000 coordinates. Now it’s 2009 so there’s been nine years of this drift, so you have to account for that. And it turns out that sometimes people forget. Or they do it the wrong way. And you point Hubble and there’s nothing in your picture. That’s happened. Also your target might move. Nearby stars move over time. They’re orbiting the center of the galaxy. So if you want to observe Sirius or Epsilon Eridani, you have to account for that. Because the last time you looked for it was in the year 1950, in a half century, it’s moved. So that’s a problem. So then once you do that, they upload all these coordinates. Hubble knows where it is located because there are guide stars. There are several million stars whose positions are very accurately known. There are fine guidance sensors which are telescopes on board Hubble which have a very wide field of view. … When they look at the sky, there are three fields of view that they see, it’s not just one thing like a square on the sky. And they’re shaped like pickles. They’re actually rectangles that are curved. They are called pickles, that’s what everyone calls them. And you try to get at least two or more guide stars inside of those so that guidance sensors can see them, lock onto those stars, and then they can move around, since they know exactly where those stars are. It’s kind of like somebody saying, How do you get to the library? Well, you drive down and turn left at Miller’s house, and you see the fire hydrant. It’s kind of like that. You have these benchmarks on the sky. And then once Hubble’s locked on, it can observe that target for as long as you need. It turns out it’s a ridiculously complicated process, but on the other hand, you’re talking about an object the size of a school bus which is floating in space. It’s not so easy to point it. You have to know exactly where it is at all times.
Me: Who makes the decision on what Hubble will look at next?
PP: If you want to observe something, you have some pet project, you’ve got some galaxy you want to look at, you go to the Hubble website, you download the form. There is a proposal form, and you fill it out. You can’t just be Joe Schmo off the street, because then it would make their lives more difficult. You have to have a sponsoring institution or university or something like that. I think you have to have a PhD now. I’m not sure that that’s true. I’m not sure that was always true, and I’m not sure it’s true now, but I think that’s true. You have to have an professional astronomer on your team. That’s not really that big of a hindrance. If you’re an amateur astronomer and you have a target, and you hook up with somebody and say, This is a really good project, can you sponsor me? They might do that. You fill out the forms, which isn’t easy. It’s a lot of complicated stuff you have to do. You submit that, and they’re all collected. They do a call for proposals roughly every year. It’s called a cycle. I don’t even know what cycle they’re in now. Hubble’s been up for 19 years, so I guess we’re in cycle 18 or 19 or 20 something like that. They’re collected, divided up by kind of target: galaxies, quasars, planets, whatever. And they’re sent to a committee called the Telescope Allocation Committee, or some people call it the Time Allocation Committee, but it’s called a TAC either way. And that’s a group of people who are experts in the particular field who then rate the proposals and say, this is a great proposal, won’t take too much effort, they can get a lot of good results, go for it. Versus, These guys are crazy, they’re going to need 700 hours of telescope time, and even then they’re going to have a negative result, so No. Then there’s a gray area, where you’re saying, I need 25 hours of Hubble time, which is a lot kinda, but if this works it’ll be really cool. So they can immediately separate into two piles, and you have a third iffy pile. And then they decide and they send their suggestions, and that’s what gets observed. I know these answers are taking probably a lot longer than you were expecting.
Me: No, not at all. I know there are probably hundreds or thousands of people out there that are as interested as I am.
PP: I should also say that there are also archival proposals. Hubble records everything it’s observed. It’s all digital. It’s all sitting in an archive. A vast, vast archive, well over a hundred thousand observations I think now. And so when I was working on Hubble back in ’98 I think, I made a proposal to go through the archive and look at brown dwarfs. These weird objects that are bigger than planets but smaller than stars that are on this borderline. And it got accepted. So I didn’t need telescope time, so it was a relatively inexpensive project. And I wound up not being able to finish the project. It took me many years to develop the software for it, besides the work I was working on at the same time. I wound up giving the whole thing to a friend of mine who continued on with it. We changed it to actually look for low mass red dwarf stars because it turns out Hubble is pretty sensitive to them. And we can see them really far away, thousands of light years away, which is tough to do. So that project just kind of morphed a little bit, but it turned out we could do good science with it. So you never know what’s going to happen. So that was kind of cool to not have to use the telescope but be able to access all this data to play with it. Almost everything imaginable it has taken a look at. It’s very cool.
On The James Randi Educational Foundation
Alan: I’m interested in some of the work you’re doing with the James Randi Educational Foundation.
PP: Oh, that old thing.
Alan: When you were chosen to fill James Randi’s shoes, did you feel all of a sudden that you had to go study magic tricks?
PP: Well, I blacked out actually I think for a minute. I told him, I don’t know any tricks about magic or mentalism or all the kind of stuff. … And he said, “That’s okay, I do.” I thought, Oh yeah, he does, doesn’t he? It’s not like he’s moving on like a Jedi cut down or something like that. Although he does seem to sparkle a little bit, in the sunlight. Putting a lie to my not being a big Star Wars fan. It was really cool. It was right after TAM 6, The Amaz!ng Meeting 6, 2008. That was in July. And we had talked about it before, a little bit. He said, “We’re looking for people to take over, and we’re thinking about you “and all that kind of stuff, and I was like, alright, sure. But I didn’t take it that seriously because I’ve pitched book ideas, I’ve pitched TV shows and documentaries, and you learn that people are always like, This is a great idea, the best thing I’ve ever heard! And then six months later there are tumbleweeds blowing across your idea. So when he pulled me aside after TAM 6, and said…. Oh, it was TAM 5.5, the intermediate one in January 2008 where he brought it up to me. I thought, Oh great! And then it was after TAM 6 where he said, “We want you to do this.” So I freaked out. I mean, Oh my God! Randi’s a hero of mine and to have him pull you aside and say… And it’s not like he’s saying, we want you to take over. A lot of people are confused about that. As a matter of fact, we’re still working out how all this is going. It’s not like you’re being brought in as the new head of a bank or something like that where everything is in place. It’s a little bit fluid. So I wasn’t coming in to take over for Randi. … Randi is still going to do his thing, he just wants to be pulled away from the day to day grind so that he can write his books. So now it’s not like Randi is gone, so it’s not like I can just say, Oh, we’re going to do this now! Ah ha ha ha! I’ve told Randi a couple of times, “I’m not trying to take over! But… can we try this?” So that’s what I’m doing. I’m trying to figure out where we’re headed, what we’re going to be doing. It’s taken many many many months just to get used to it. And there have been some tangible results and I’ve actually been really thrilled. We’ve had the vaccine drive which raised $12,000 for vaccinations for kids in Las Vegas. That’s a big big push of mine, the anti-vax movement is something that makes me really really angry because they’re killing babies. And I’m kind of pro-baby myself. And so I don’t like the fact that they’re saying, No, don’t vaccinate your kids, and babies are dying. It’s just that simple. So being able to raise money at TAM 7 for Las Vegas, which has one of the lowest vaccine rates in the nation, was just fantastic. We’re talking about vaccines for about 500 kids. Which, when you think about it, that’s a school of kids. So awesome.
There have been other things like that, mostly behind the scenes. Some of them in front of the scenes. A big push to do things a little bit differently with TAM 7, bring in a little bit more Hollywood, move the science in a different direction, talk about the science of TV shows and movies, to make it more popular level stuff. There were some mixed reactions to that but I think it was mostly positive. I want to try more of that. There are more people in Hollywood trying to do better science. And I think this is something I can do every year and have a panel on. … And there are lots of big names doing this in Hollywood. I want to get more scientists to come. Year to year, it’s funny, you invite all these people, and you don’t know who is going to say yes and who is going to say no. I have this irrational fear that we’re going to invite five or six top level scientists and they’ll all say yes. And it’s like, Oh crap, now what am I going to do? But it doesn’t work that way. And then there are some years we invite so many people, and then at the last minute they can’t make it or whatever. It’s really hard. But I’m trying to formalize that process a little bit. So it’s not anything that you’d really see, but stuff that I’m hoping will have major impacts on the JREF in the long run. And like I said, we’re still working this out. Randi and I worked quite a bit on what we want to do next and how we’re going to do it. And the biggest problem is always funding. People think because we have these huge meetings, and Randi and so famous and all this, and we have this million dollar challenge, where we have a million dollars in the bank, if you can prove a claim of the paranormal, we’re going to write you a check for a million bucks. It’s just that simple. That million exists. I get the bank statements every month from Goldman Sachs. It is there. And everyone thinks, But you have a million bucks! I can’t touch it, it’s for somebody else, you know? The interest on it is nice, but when you think about it, even if it’s 4% interest, that’s not even somebody’s salary. 10% interest, then it’s someone’s salary, when you have taxes and deductibles and all that kind of stuff. So it’s not even coming close to paying our operating costs. It’s a fraction of our operating costs. We exist on donations. So we have enough money to pay our salaries and to do some stuff every year, but if there is a millionaire out there and listening and says, Here is a check for $100K, yeah, call me! Talk to me! Email me! I’ll be happy to talk to you about this.
On the Tattoo
PP: I made a bet with my boss, the owner of Discover Magazine, that if I got 2 million page views and the site got overall 5 million in one month, I’d get a tattoo. And as we speak, that’s going to happen in two weeks.
Me: What’s the tattoo going to be of?
PP: Not gonna say. It’s going to be funny, and I’m going to get the whole thing filmed, and we’re going to run it as a big, big stupid thing for the magazine. It’s going to be pretty funny. I’m going to have a lot of fun. I’m going to cry like a baby, is what I’m going to do.
More on JREF
PP: So there. There’s your JREF, to make a short story long. But I wanted to do a bigger impact in education. That’s something I’m trying to do, but it’s been really hard to get that started. There’s just so many things to take care of. We have a huge community. The JREF exists because of its community. It’s amazing to me how… how rabidly excited and supportive … the audience is. At TAM, they’re there for the speakers, they’re there to hear Randi and they’re there to hear everybody else, but they’re really there for each other. And to see them doing their own thing… And that’s me, I’m a fanboy. I go to TAM and hang out with my friends. I love watching, we had Bill Prady from The Big Bang Theory and some other folks. It was great to be a fanboy all over them. But it was also tremendous to do the community stuff. Just hanging out in the bar with friends, which is something I didn’t get to do much because now I’m official, and I’m always running around being busy. Kind of the sucky thing about being in the administration is having to administer things. But the community is just terrific for us, and supporting them, being able to give them the inspiration, but also saying, hey, come up with an idea, and maybe we can help you with that, and give them a little bit of funding, we’ve done that before, is great. So as far as I’m concerned, one of the things I really really want the JREF to do, is support grass roots skepticism a lot more. Somebody who says, you know what, I want to develop an iPhone app. I’ve actually got an iPhone app idea I want to do. I won’t have JREF fund me, I’m just going to throw the idea out for somebody and have them do it. But if somebody says, I want to put up a website about paranormal influences on, I don’t know, botany, or gardening, or whatever. We’ll say, hey that’s a great idea, you know what, we’ll buy your domain for a year, or something like that. That’s the kind of thing I want to do. I want to have specific grants for that. I don’t want to just throw money at somebody. I want to say, We have a pool of say $25,000 we’ll give away every year to people who have website ideas or people who want to develop software, or people who want to build an online community. That’s the kind of thing I really really want to do. And it turns out in some cases, it’s just like, alright just do it. Just set aside some money and do it. Other times it turns out a disastrous nightmare of epic proportions. I’m just trying to separate those two and figure out how to do that.
On How We Can All Get Involved
Alan: So what is the best way for somebody to get involved at a grassroots level with the JREF? Is there a good way?
PP: In a lot of things in life, the best way to do something is to do it. I’m the laziest guy anybody knows and everyone says, Wow you must be a hard worker, you’ve written two books and all this. When I tell my friends who have known me for a long time that I wrote a book, it was like, You, you, you wrote a book? You wrote a book. Yes, if I wrote a book, anybody can write a book. It’s just a matter of sitting down and doing it. It’s the same thing with the JREF. If you have an idea, email us. I’m PhilPlait@randi.org. Or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We have a community, a bulletin board there, which is very active. If you have an idea, if you say, You know what, I want to develop this, I’m a teacher and I want to do skeptical curricula. I’m a software programmer and I’m tired of seeing websites that do this. Go to the forum, post it. Talk to people. The community there is very strong. And we love them. The best way to get our attention is to be able to have 20 people emailing me saying, Yeah, we’ve got this idea. That’s what I love. I love hearing from people because I’m too busy. I can’t do what I’m trying to do now. But if someone else has an idea and the time and the ability to do it, then bang, do it.
On Critical Thinking Curricula
Me: I’d love a skeptical curriculum. We homeschool, and I’m trying very hard to teach my kids to think critically and make their own decisions about things.
PP: One of the very few homeschoolers who does that.
Me: Logic and critical thinking are one of my priorities. My job is to teach my kids how to think and think for themselves, and not be influenced by someone else just because they said so.
PP: That’s fantastic. It’s hard, and there are lots of teachers who are skeptical critical thinkers. But they are not well organized. I’ve seen this with science teachers across the country. My last job was developing in-class curriculum based on NASA satellites: x-ray, gamma ray stuff, electromagnetic spectrum, Newton’s laws, all that kind of stuff. And I would go to teachers’ meetings all the time, National Science Teachers Association, California Science Teachers Association, National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, all these national groups. And the teachers would come, and the reaction was always, I had no idea that NASA does this. NASA is not the best at getting the word out a lot of the time. It turns out, a lot of places aren’t. And the teachers were shocked when it was free. They were used to paying for stuff, with the different science companies out there selling their kits. But even with critical thinking curriculum, there’s not an organization that does this. As far as I know, I should say. I may just not know about them. The science associations, the big ones, they know about stuff like this, they encourage stuff like this just like we do at the JREF, but it isn’t organized. That’s something I’d like to do, have a National Skeptical Curriculum. I’d have to come up with a good acronym, NSUC, National Skepticism United Curriculum, I don’t know, where teachers like this could find out about it and say, You know, I have a week-long in-class formal curriculum that’s been tested at workshops and in class that teaches kids about eyewitness testimony, about lie detectors. There are a million things. I used to sneak in critical thinking stuff into my NASA curriculum. And say, think about what this means, the next time you see something, what does this mean, the way your eye interprets data. It’s something that I think should be done and needs to be done, but it’s hard.
Me: I try to put a lot of that together myself, but there is a company called The Critical Thinking Company and they sell things like that. They have critical thinking materials in science, math, history, etc.
PP: And I’ve never heard of that. Wow. People think of skepticism in science, right? But it’s everything. It’s language, especially history. There are Holocaust deniers, moon hoax believers, every field could use critical thinking.
PP: Even more than that, there is research into critical thinking. Not just the fallacies, but why do we get fooled? Why do we think the way we do? And one of the ones that’s killing me, because it’s my whole bread and butter, is that if you teach somebody a myth and debunk it, they’ll remember the myth, which is killer for somebody like me who does that. I’ve got to rethink how to do that. And that’s important as well. You just have to do it carefully. The problem here is that it takes money. If I want to develop a week long curriculum with a teacher, I need to pay their salary for a year or part of their salary. We’re going to have materials, we have to send people to meetings, you have to field test this in workshops, go to schools and test it on kids. Just because a teacher likes it doesn’t mean it’s going to work in the classroom. And that costs a lot of money. We’re talking millions here if you want to develop this the right way and do it cross-curricular and interdisciplinary.
Me: You’d think there would be people out there who would help you for cheaper.
PP: Oh, there are tons of people out there. They’re devoted, they’re smart, they’re talented, they want to do this. I’m just having a hard time, myself, figuring out how to organize it. Probably what I need to do is corral somebody. The next person who emails me and says, I want to this, I’ll say, send me your resume, and if it looks like they’re not going to be an axe murderer or a Creationist, say, You’re in charge! Go! Go call NSF and get yourself a nice $150,000 grant as seed money and get this thing rolling. I’d love to be able to do that, to be able to have JREF do that. I want the JREF to be a catalyst. We’re a small group. It’s Randi and me and like four other people. And we’re not even all full timers. So it’s not like, well, the Center for Inquiry up in New York, which has got a couple of dozen folks. They’re amazing. Those guys are incredible. And they’re doing a huge amount. We’re not like that. So I’d love to be able to do all this stuff but I don’t have time. I’d love to find deputies. I’d like to see us being a catalyst, of getting things started. The thing about a catalyst is, it’s the same before and after. We come in and say, Here, do this. And then I walk away and somebody else takes over and it keeps running. I’d love to see that happen.
On Contributing Money to JREF
PP: Send us money! In fact, the JREF is a non-profit, so you can go to Randi.org, there’s a big donate button there. If somebody out there is gazillionaire, yeah! Yeah! Talk to us! But you know what? If a thousand people sent in $10, that’s going to get something done. We give out academic scholarships to the tune of $10K. Four scholarships. It’s $5000, $2500, $1500 and $1000. Something like that. That’s helping four people go to school. If I could make that $50,000 a year, that’s a lot more. That’s helping a lot. So you never know. Obama basically made all his money in small amounts, these microdonations. So that’s what we really need to be able to cover our operating costs. But we also need brains and we need feet on the ground. So if somebody’s out there reading this and just has the gumption to want to do something, contact us!
On Gelato, Wil Wheaton and Fame
PP: Powell’s is my favorite store on the [Pearl Street] mall. Their gelato… I was never really a gelato guy… I’ll drop a name again. I was in Pasadena…
Me: Where Wil Wheaton lives!
PP: …and I went out with Wil. And it was where we met, actually, when we first met in real life. And we were walking down the street and there was this gelato place. And we’re just looking and it’s like, This is nuts, look at all of this. He said, Well, we’ll try it. We took one bite of it. His eyes rolled back in his head. He got coconut something. And I took one bite of the mint chocolate chip and said, Oh my god, where has this been all my life? So the place here… Oh, their Bavarian Mint is out of this world.
Me: Wil Wheaton is one of my favorite people.
PP: Oh yeah. People. My wife is a cynic when it comes to me, especially. She had to come to TAM before she would believe. I said, Yeah yeah, it’s weird people like crowd around me.
Alan: You’re a superstar.
PP: It’s a little weird, I’m just this idiot who is sitting around, if I’m even wearing pajama bottoms, in my office. “Oh, this pisses me off, I’m going to write about this!” And she was at work and mentioned my website to a coworker, and he knew what it was or he showed her something, and she said, Yeah, that’s my husband’s website. That’s your husband? He’s secretly famous! And I thought, that’s it. That’s perfect. I was walking down Comic-Con and somebody said, Oh I love your book! Really? Really? And George Hrab talks about this on his podcast, his geologic podcast. And I know exactly what he means. I’m not a TV star or movie star or anything like that. It cracks me up. But I understand it because when a friend of mine years ago said, You should read Wil Wheaton’s blog, and I was like, Wesley Crusher, Wil Wheaton. Yes, she said, read his blog. Fine. She was right, his sense of humor is exactly mine. I’m reading it in my voice when I’m reading his stuff. I love this guy! And then years later he was doing a video reviewing some piece of astronomical equipment that he thought was cool, and at the end of it he said, Hey and if you like astronomy, you should read this blog, I never miss it, Bad Astronomy. And my head exploded. Oh my god! And so we started emailing each other, and then when we met, and I’m like, It’s Wil Wheaton! And it’s not that he was a big TV star or anything like that. It is because he’s a real guy. He’s an uberdork, he’s not a dork, he’s a geek. He can be dorky but he’s more geeky. He writes what he’s thinking, and he’s terrific. And then to be able to meet some of these other folks, Richard Dawkins and Randi and all these other folks.
Me: I loved your account of meeting David Tennant.
PP: Talk about a head asploding moment. That was terrifying. First of all, to have Adam Savage call you and say, I want you to moderate the Mythbusters panel. Yeah, that’s kind of a moment. Even though I’ve known Adam for years, I met him through The Amaz!ng Meeting, it still kills me when I get a text message from him or he calls me or whatever. It’s so funny. He’s awesome. He’s exactly like he is on TV. So it cracks me up. So to be sitting in the green room at Comic-Con with the Mythbusters and we’re hanging out talking, and I look over to the next table and Mark frickin’ Hamill. Again, Star Wars. And that kills me because, as we were getting up to go to the panel, I walked up to him and I said, Mr. Hamill, you don’t know who I am, I just wanted to say I’m a big fan, that sort of thing. I try to just say that and then just get out of their face, because they don’t need a guy hanging on them. I’m a big fan, I know you don’t know who I am, I’m with the Mythbusters panel. Oh, I love you guys! I love the way you test things and do all this. Okay, so Mark Hamill thinks I’m a Mythbuster. I could say no, but there’s really no time. It’s not that I want to mislead him or anything. I really wasn’t like, Why yes, I am. It wasn’t anything like that. It was just, no, there’s no time. The impact on his life is minimal, so I’m not going to worry about him. But being able to do that was freaking me out. And then I was sitting there with the Discovery Channel folks, saying how I don’t think I’m going to have a chance to see David Tennant. And literally somebody just says, Turn around. Yeah, there’s David Tennant standing there. Ahhh. Hold it together, everything’s cool. That was phenomenal. And like I recounted on my blog, my daughter had drawn a picture of him. Basically I was just going to give him a copy, but then Russell Davies, I showed it to him, and Russell Davies said, I think we have to show this to David. Yes, I think we should have to show this to David! I can’t just go up to a guy and ask for an autograph in the green room, which is the sanctum sanctorum, you’re not supposed to bug people there. But he was terrific, he signed it and everything was cool. And then two hours, three hours later I was at the SyFy Channel party, and I got Anna Torv, who is the actress from Fringe, and she also did the voice of a character from a video game called Heavenly Sword, that my daughter loves. And my daughter had drawn a picture of that character. And I got Anna Torv to sign that. At that point, I’m like, Yeah you’re going to sign this because, you know who I am? I’m the guy who is meeting everybody and having a great time and I don’t care anymore who you are. If I want to meet you, I want to meet you. So I just walked up to her and said again, I’m a big fan and everything, and I want to show you this, and can I get you to sign it? She was like, Oh, totally! She thought it was cool and was showing it to people. And I’m like, Yay! And so we’ve got my daughter’s drawings signed by these two stars. So she was wow. Wow. She freaked out when I showed these to her.
Me: I met Wil Wheaton at the Phoenix Comicon last year.
PP: And he’s just such a super nice guy. And he really will go out of his way to do something nice for people. And watching him work the convention, and I don’t mean work the convention like Shatner works the convention. But to see people come up to him, and to see him… A lot of these people get the practiced, Oh thank you, that kind of thing. But with him it’s honest every time. It’s like Oh! Oh! Thanks! You know, the surprise every time somebody says, You’re totally awesome dude! He’s just terrific.
On Bode’s Law (More Astronomy)
Me: About Bode’s Law. How would you explain the regularity in spacing of planetary orbits?
PP: Oh! It’s not coincidence, but it’s not like there’s some magical thing going on. If you were to take a thousand planets and line them up and then give them the velocity they need to orbit the sun, they would all interact gravitationally. And so some of them would fall into the sun, some of them would smash together, and some of them would get flung out of the solar system. So eventually you are left with, after a long time, millions of years, hundreds of millions of years, are planets spaced out in such a way that they don’t interact anymore. And because there is an underlying law, there’s gravity, and resonance. In other words, Jupiter goes around the sun once for every time some asteroid closer in goes around twice, gravity plays into that. So not only is it not a surprise, but if you develop a really good law of gravity first, Bode’s law is actually what you’d expect, I’d think. Now for it to be that simple, what is it, distance from the sun in AU divided by 10 plus .4, something crazy like that. It’s not perfect. And the planets’ orbits change over time. So Bode’s law now would not have worked a billion years ago. As a matter of fact, there’s a 50/50 chance that Neptune and Uranus actually swapped positions a couple of billion years ago. Something like that. It’s not known if they did or not, but it’s possible they did from simulations. So that law doesn’t always apply. But probably in every solar system we see, and I’d love to have enough observed to make a catalog and get statistics. But I bet there will be a simple version of Bode’s Law for every solar system we find. And it’s going to be because planets interact gravitationally. So there is an invisible hand, almost literally, guiding this. So I think that’s why.
And… Back to Star Trek
Me: Last question. Kirk or Picard?
PP: Depends. Is this an in bed story or who do I want commanding me story?
Me: Probably a who do you want commanding you story.
PP: I’ve watched these arguments go back and forth, and I just laugh. As a skeptic, I say Picard, because Kirk always makes his saving throw. It’s almost as if he has a psychic +20 get out of Kobayashi Maru scenario three at the last second. Whereas that very rarely happens with Picard. Picard is very slow and steady and works his way out of the problem. On the other hand, if I’m in a group of pissed off Klingons, I think I want Kirk in there to get them off my back. On the other hand, Picard was Worf’s cha’DIch. See I am a huge Trek nerd. … Look, Kirk can fight his way out of any Klingon problem, but geez, Picard can talk his way out of any Kingon problem, which is pretty damn cool. I’m thinking both. Especially if I’m on horseback. You see because of Generations, yeah. I’m a huge Trek dork. Yeah, not Janeway for sure. I didn’t watch Deep Space Nine much. Archer was okay. I’m wondering how many people died under each command. There must be some comparison. Kirk must have lost…
Alan: I’ve seen a graph of things.
Me: Kirk must have lost at least one person in each episode.
PP: Picard didn’t, but he tends to lose them in large amounts. The Borg come in and there’s 20 people gone, bang, like that. I don’t know. That would be a funny comparison. Kirk only had 400 people, right? Picard had over 1000. There must be a body count for Star Trek. Now I need to look that up. I’m going to find out.
[Note: This interview originally ran in September, 2009.]