Philip Plait wants to punch holes in all the ‘Bad Astronomy’ out there, from myths about the coriolis effect to the astronomical aspects of creationism to UFO’s and the moon-landing hoax. To that end he’s created a website, www.badastronomy.com, he lectures at schools and research centers, and he’s written a book named, appropriately enough, “Bad Astronomy”. I just finished reading it.
Plait is a solid scientist, an astronomer for the physics and astronomy department for Sonoma State University. He’s very good with explanations…
‘Anything with mass has gravity. You do, I do, planets do, a feather does. I can exact a minute amount of revenge on Earth’s gravity knowing that I am pulling back on the Earth as well. The amount I am pulling is pretty small, sure, but it’s there. The more massive the object, the more it pulls. The Earth has a lot more mass than I do (something like 78,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 times as much, but who’s counting?), so it pulls on me a lot harder than I do on it.
If I were to get farther away from the Earth, that force would weaken. As a matter of fact, the force drops with the square of my distance; that is, if I double my distance, it drops by 2×2=4. If I triple my distance, it drops by 3×3=9, and so on.
That does not mean that I feel one-quarter of the gravity if I climb a ladder to twice my height, though! We don’t measure distance from the surface of the Earth, we measure it from its center. A few hundred years ago, Sir Isaac Newton, the seventeenth-century philosopher-scientist, showed mathematically that as far as distance is concerned, you can imagine that all the mass of the Earth is concentrated into a tiny point at its center, so it’s from there that we measure distance…”
- Philip Plait, Bad Astronomy
Not to say I didn’t enjoy reading the book; I did. But I do have a few quibbles over style.
First, he should remove remove the exclamation-point key from his computer, and give it to his wife under instructions to return it only when he can provide a good rationale for using it in the current sentence. He tends to use exclamation points in places which are not points of exclamation. I found it annoying, but then I am rather grouchy.
Second, he should hire an editor who isn’t in love with him. When he says, “something like 78,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 times as much” it’s distracting and conveys less information (due to the difficulty in reading it) than saying “something like 7.8×1022 times as much” or “something like 78 sextillion times as much.”
Or when he says; “a few hundred years ago, Isaac Newton, the seventeenth-century philosopher-scientist” he should eliminate either “a few hundred years ago” or “seventeenth-century”.
Third, and most important, he tends to go on for multiple paragraphs about how ridiculous some huckster’s fakery is, before explaining why it’s ridiculous. He knows a lot of synonyms for “absurd”, and it just gets old. OK, Phil, you’re mad at the guy for being such a flim-flam; we get it. Would you mind getting on with the debunking?
He writes exactly as one might lecture: “Let’s stay at the North Pole for a while (I hope you’re dressed warmly)”, “as a matter of fact”, etc. There are lots of worse ways to write (and he is reputed to be an outstanding lecturer) and no style will appeal to everyone, but what works in a lecture is often cumbersome on the printed page.
OK, so he isn’t Shakespeare; no one will confuse me with the Bard, either. You shouldn’t let my stylistic natterings stop you from enjoying the book. The two best things about the book are the infectious! enthusiasm! of its author, and the correctness of the explanations. I’d like some of that fever to infect a few school boards. After all, if you aren’t going to get the kids worked up about learning the truth, why have school? Teachers, especially, should read the book, and better yet, invite Plait to speak or take a class full of kids to one of his events.