- Bad Astronomy: Misconceptions and Misuses Revealed, from Astrology to the Moon Landing 'Hoax'
- Publisher: Wiley
- Year: 2002
- Pages: 288
Phil Plait’s Death From the Skies! was one of my favorite books the year I read it; it was not only solid science writing, but also just lurid enough to appeal to my nascent morbidity.
When I first saw Bad Astronomy, I thought it was a new book, but in fact it’s almost ten years old; published in 2002, it is Plait’s foray into the world of popular science, and something of a companion piece to the blog of the same name he started in 1999.
Bad Astronomy is just what you might expect, especially if you’re familiar with Plait’s work; unlike Death From the Skies, which was a somewhat narrowly-focused work about impending doom, and which maintained a narrative tone through which was geared by its topic, Bad Astronomy is a loosely-coupled collection of articles about astronomical topics that people get wrong. Such topics include pervasive and important misconceptions such as the moon landing qua hoax or astrology, while others are merely pedantic corrections of malformed phrases such as “the dark side of the moon”1. Yet other items aren’t even really “bad astronomy” at all, such as when Plait explains why stars appear to “twinkle”.
As so often happens, I find most satisfying the sections wherein Plait tears down the peddlers of snake oil, googly-eyed astrologists, tinfoil-wearing conspiracy loons, and phony corporations selling nonexistent naming rights to stars. Of course, Plait excoriates them in a book read by people who don’t believe in them in the first place, so it doesn’t take the same chutzpah or create the same glee as watching, say, James Randi humiliating psychics and astrologers on national TV. But while taking fraudsters to task may seem more satisfying, I feel as though Plait is at the top of his game when he’s not dealing with antiscientific malcontents, but rather with simple misconceptions, phrasal foibles, and human interest stories.
The chapter on balancing an egg on its end during the equinoxes (spoiler: it has nothing to do with equinoxes), for instance, is wonderful for its playfulness; it includes Plait’s own voyage of discovery, including a marathon session of attempted egg balancing which did prove that it is possible to balance eggs on any day of the year—the relatively difficult has much to do with the care of the balancer and the perturbations in the eggshell. If you’ve ever looked closely at an egg, you may have noticed tiny imperfections, which can act as kickstands. Part of what makes the egg-balancing chapter such a good one is that it manages to cover all the bases. Plait identifies a problem: every equinox, local news and even (perish the thought) misguided science teachers repeat a well-worn fiction, namely that eggs can only be balanced on their long ends during the equinoxes. The justification for this is never explicit, but rather vague hand-waving about the gravitational alignment of the earth on the equinoxes. What’s more, as Plait points out, it is trivially easy to disprove: if hypothesis is that eggs can only be balanced on the equinoxes, the null hypothesis is that eggs can be balanced at any time. And yet, no one seems ever to bother trying to balance on egg on non-equinoxes. Except Phil Plait, of course, who did just that with the aid of his wife.
Of course, there’s no perfidy here; the egg-balancing error is simply the result of a poorly-worded mid-20th-century article in Time2 which managed to get so thoroughly entrenched in our cultural consciousness because it’s repeated so very often by well-meaning people who don’t understand science very well. Such is our plight.
If you’re a follower of Plait’s blog, there won’t be much new in Bad Astronomy; it mostly serves as a “best-of” which cleans up and expands upon topics he’s already covered. As a formal compendium of Plait’s best stuff, it’s a decent addition to any bookshelf and certainly worth the read.