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CSIcon 2011 Preview: Death from the Skies!

CSI Staff

October 18, 2011

Astronomer Phil Plait worked for ten years on the Hubble Space Telescope and writes the Bad Astronomy blog for Discover magazine. At CSIcon he will draw from his book Death from the Skies!: These are the Ways the World Will End … (Viking, 2008) to explain what really happens during an asteroid impact and how Hollywood gets it wrong. Here, he discusses the U.S. space program’s place in the universe, what parents and teachers can do to improve space education, and how he’d like to see the world end.

What’s your favorite bad Hollywood depiction of an asteroid impact scare, and why? Which of the possible world-ending scenarios you discuss in Death from the Skies! is your favorite?

The part that always gets me is how so many movies actually underestimate the damage. At the beginning of Armageddon, for example, they say the dinosaur killer asteroid hit with the energy of thousands of atomic bombs. Actually, it’s millions! The only movie that got it right was Deep Impact, and even they messed up the final impact scenario... but I won’t spoil it. That’s in my talk!

My favorite in the book is probably a gamma-ray burst. The sheer energy and destructive power is amazing, unbelievable, and yet very real. They can damage us physically from a distance of eight thousand light years! Happily, there aren’t any potential GRBs that close.

With the end of the space shuttle program and possible defunding of the James Webb Space Telescope, and NASA’s future uncertain, do you foresee pseudoscience and sensationalism growing in the public understanding of space and the universe? How will scientists and astronomers need to change their approach to educating the public in the future?

I think there’s always that danger—more so now that politicians are actively promoting nonsense. I’m not sure NASA’s program will help staunch that flow; I’m more concerned about it at the parenting and teaching level. I do think we need more scientists working on public outreach. We need to find the ones who are good at it and cultivate them. There have been some great efforts along these lines lately, including television shows and movies hiring science advisors and listening to them. It may not always help, but it doesn’t hurt. 

Of the countries (China, perhaps) most likely to challenge the United States in space exploration in the next century, which, if any, are you watching closely? Are any in a position to carry on the torch if our space program declines amidst an antiscience government and public?

I don’t think the United States will wind up pulling too far back in space exploration. NASA has been in trouble for a long time, not just recently, but we still manage to do a lot of amazing things! And my eye is actually on the private space companies like Space X. I think in a few years they may very well be doing more in space than any single government agency. But China really is working hard; it’s weird the media aren’t saying much about it. They are taking steps to build a space station and are serious about going to the Moon. I don’t want another space race—those tend to be near term–oriented, and not long term in their goals—but it would be nice if that maybe spurred on our government a little bit.

Register for CSIcon 2011 here.