The Bad Astronomer

Today I’d like to give a shout out to one of my favorite astronomy writers and educators, the self-dubbed “Bad Astronomer” Phil Plait. Tomorrow is Phil’s birthday, so warm birthday wishes are in order. If you’re not familiar with Phil, read on!

Phil started his career in astronomy as an avid amateur, observing the night sky with his own telescopes. He went on to earn a PhD in astronomy from the University of Virginia (UVa) in 1994, where he also taught beginning astronomy courses and astronomy labs. He branched out into public education by holding Public Nights at the UVa’s observatory, where he honed his skills of interacting with the public and answering their questions about astronomy. In his Education and Public Outreach role for the Physics and Astronomy department at Sonoma State University, he worked on a variety of NASA-sponsored public outreach programs including those for the Gamma Ray Large Area Space Telescope and XMM-Newton. He went on to work on NASA’s Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph (STIS) to help calibrate the STIS by analyzing test images to determine its level of functioning. He is well known for his website “Bad Astronomy” (ca. 1999 – 2006) where he debunks some of the misinformation that runs rampant on the internet, and, as he puts it, “…airs out myth and misconceptions in astronomy and related topics”. He has authored three popular books on astronomy, has appeared on multiple documentary series, and currently writes an extremely entertaining and informative blog.

On the subject of “Bad Astronomy”, I come across many examples in the media fairly frequently. Most recently, I read an article about Saturn being well-placed for observations during August, having reached opposition in late July. I have no complaints about the contents of the article, it was all good information. But the header image they used for the article is a different matter! Someone (I’m betting some design staff, not the author) chose a striking graphic of a fictitious rocky planet with rings and a bunch of moons from Shutterstock rather than use an actual image of Saturn. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a very cool graphic. My problem with this kind of depiction is that there could be folks out there who think they are looking at an actual image of the gas giant Saturn, rather than an artist’s conception of a ringed planet with a rocky surface. Perhaps I’m just splitting hairs, but for me this misleading graphic puts a stamp of “misinformation” on an otherwise nice article. You can see it yourself at this link.

I’ll share some other examples of bad astronomy and misinformation in future posts. Until then, I encourage you to check out Phil Plait’s old website Bad Astronomy and his new Bad Astronomy blog, I think you’ll be glad you did!

M. Colleen Gino, MRO Assistant Director of Outreach and Communications