In the early 2000s, Phil Plait wrote his first book, Bad Astronomy, which debunked conspiracy theories and fallacies, like the idea that NASA faked the moon landings in the 1970s or that planetary alignments can affect life on Earth. Twenty years later, he’s continuing his quest to quash astronomical misconceptions while sharing his love for the cosmos. Plait, an astronomer and science writer, has spent his career sharing space news and explaining complex concepts to the public through his popular blog and newsletter, both called Bad Astronomy.
In his new book, Under Alien Skies, out today, Plait brings his usual curiosity and humor to exploring 10 fascinating spots in our solar system and beyond. Plait delves into the science—and science fiction—of these space destinations, going beyond what telescopes and space photography can tell us about these strange worlds, and what it would actually be like to visit them in person.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
WIRED: I always wanted to ask you. Why do you call yourself the Bad Astronomer?
Phil Plait: It’s because when I first started writing on the web—and we’re talking 1993 here—I started writing about misconceptions in astronomy. Over time I started calling that “bad astronomy,” and somebody started calling me the “bad astronomer” on bulletin boards back then. I thought that was funny, and the name kind of stuck.
You’ve referred to yourself as a “scientific skeptic.” Can you explain what you mean by that?
Scientific skepticism—what a lot of people call “critical thinking,” which is probably better—is basically just saying: “OK, here’s a claim, and here’s the evidence for it. Does the evidence support the claim or is there more going on? Is there evidence I’m not being shown? Is the claim a logical conclusion from that evidence? Is there some way I can falsify this claim? Is there some evidence that does not support it? And is there some other idea that might do better?”
And that’s what the scientific process is. That’s something that I think is sorely needed these days. There’s so many people making claims about climate change, about vaccines, about guns. The fact that people are uncritically accepting claims made by people they trust is not a good thing.
What was your motivation for writing Under Alien Skies?
Getting people interested in astronomy is not that hard: “Look at this gorgeous picture of a galaxy. Isn’t it awesome?”
And then I started getting this question [about images from space]: “What would this look like if you were there? Sure, there’s this picture from Hubble, but if you were actually floating in space, at Saturn or next to this gas cloud, would it really look like that?”
A lot of times the answer would be, “Yeah.” If you’re floating above the moon, the view would be like what you’re seeing from these satellites. But when it comes to gas clouds and galaxies and some other things, especially now with the James Webb Space Telescope, the answer is, “No, it wouldn’t look anything like that.”
I started thinking: What would it look like if you were actually in a gas cloud? Turns out, the answer is complicated. I decided to pitch an article to Astronomy magazine, basically covering three different scenarios, and wrote it, and it was a popular article. I thought: You know, this would make a good book! And boom, just 25 years later, I decided to finally get around to writing it.