Review: Plait PC. Bad Astronomy: Misconceptions and Misuses Revealed, from Astrology to the Moon Landing “Hoax.” New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2002, ISBN 0-471-40976-6, www.badastronomy.com, $15.95.
It doesn’t matter how beautiful your theory is, it doesn’t matter how smart you are. If it doesn’t agree with experiment, it’s wrong.
— Prof. Richard P. Feynman
Comedian, author, and skeptic Steve Allen, one of the few men worthy of the honor “renaissance man,” devised rules to avoid becoming “dumb”–functionally ignorant. With this goal in mind, the Editor embarks upon a few works to avoid the descent into ignorance that can only lead to country-western music and NASCAR. One of Allen’s rules specifies gaining an understanding of the current theories of how the Universe works. How does the Noble Readership gain this understanding? What seems basic and simple for a physicist will melt the brain of a layman, and some of the more cutting edge theories challenge specialists. A number of books intended for a “general audience” strive nobly but fail miserably. Hawkin’s A Brief History of Time is one such work, and it remains the most successful book to gather dust on a nightstand.
The answer, of course, is through the kind, learn’d, yet humble guidance of the Editor. The Editor confesses He is not a physicist and suffers severe allergies to mathematics. Over the past few months, the Editor has struggled through a few potential books designed for “the laymen” that have sent Him scurrying to a far corners with a bowl of ice cream and a graphic novel until His brain ceased squirming. In the meantime, the Editor’s morning post filled with increasingly threatening “requests” for a review from this site’s Administrator. Rumor has it the Administrator employs ninja . . . or is it yakuza? Fortunately, all for a cartoon, the Editor will not have to find out. He spied one of a mother helping her child with her third-grade science homework thinking, “oh, so that’s why the sky is blue!”
Suddenly, the Editor was reminded of this wonderful book he read when it first came out. Bad Astronomy is the work of Dr. Philip Plait, “the Bad Astronomer,” and creator of the wonderful internet site, www.badastronomy.com, infamous for taking apart pseudoscientists such as Richard Hoagland, Emanuel Velikovsky proponents, and your basic astrologer.
He also explains why the sky is blue.
One of the charms of Dr. Plait’s work is he never forgot why science is actually interesting. He examines interesting subjects and urban legends “we all swear by” to reveal the basic science of astronomy. Does the Coriolis Effect cause the water in toilets and drains to swirl in different directions above and below the equator? Dr. Plait not only demonstrates why this does not happen, he even exposes the hoax run by a man in Kenya who charges tourists to watch drain water after he walks across the equator, a hoax unwittingly propagated by Michael Palin in his PBS series, From Pole to Pole.
His section on the “Moon Hoax” claims alone makes his book work. While this Editor hopes the Noble Readership recognizes that, yes, Neil Armstrong and others did actually land on the Moon, there is a significant pool of conspiracy theorists. The Moon Hoax Conspiracy serves as a wonderful paradigm for other current conspiracy theories, such as JFK, 9/11, Bigfoot, Holocaust denial, and George Steinbrenner. Proponents raise a number of objections that appear reasonable in order to call in question the accepted theory. Regarding the Moon Hoax Conspiracy, proponents note that no stars appear in the sky in photographs taken on the moon. The Moon is in space; there should be stars. Dr. Plait patiently explains the mistaken assumptions and often frankly bad science behind this and objections. He carries this patience into other areas such as tides, astrology, and even whether or not the Moon and Sun actually “looks bigger” at the horizon. Regarding astrology, he demonstrates why that beer can to your left exerts a stronger gravitational pull on you than, say, Saturn. Indeed, he explains why the Moon can exert an influence on a large body such as an ocean while having negligible influence on a human.
Along with various astronomy topics, Dr. Plait devotes an entire chapter to bad astronomy in major motion pictures. Dr. Plait is not a killjoy; he freely admits to loving “bad science” movies while educating why the ship cannot bank, the explosions cannot go “boom.” However, where movies “go wrong” reveals quite a bit about real science even if fans simply cannot accept a USS Enterprise that does not “whoosh!”
This is a well-written book, neither obscurely technical nor condescending. It covers a range of topics that should interest just about any reader for a very reasonable price. This Editor cannot recommend it too highly.
—John David Morenski, M.D., Godan, Uechi-Ryu
Allen S. Dumbth: The Lost Art of Thinking with 101 Ways to Reason Better & Improve Your Mind. New York: Prometheus Books, 1998.