“It was in 2001, I wrote a simple debunking of the awful Fox TV show "Conspiracy theory: Did We Land on the Moon?" - a festering piece of offal promoting the idea that the Apollo missions were faked,” writes Phil Plait, a former Hubble scientist at NASA, whose Bad Astronomy blog has been the bane of bad space science for two decades.
“My traffic jumped - a lot - and I got a lot of email, including a note from Charlie Duke, who walked on the Moon during Apollo 16! That was pretty amazing.”
Dr Plait - who has a PhD in astronomy - has appeared in documentaries, and written popular science books - and while he’s keen to “bust” hoaxes, he’s not afraid to hype real threats. The title of one of his books is “Death from the Skies.”
His TED talk, How to Defend Earth from Asteroids, has been watched nearly a million times.
“If we do nothing, then eventually a decent-sized asteroid will hit us,” Plait says today. “It doesn't take a very big one to do real damage: that's one of the lessons of Chelyabinsk, where a rock only 50 feet across blew out windows across a city. And that one was so small we couldn't have seen it coming.
“We need more eyes on the sky, and a plan in place if and when we do see one with our number on it. I'm glad people like the B612 Foundation are thinking about this, and working towards finding Earth impactors, and preventing them from hitting us.”
Plait said that the entire Cold War arsenal of nuclear weapons would have amounted to a millionth of the power of the explosion that wiped out the dinosaurs.
“The only other threat from space that concerns me is a solar storm, which if big enough can take down our power grid,” Plait says.
"Something like that happened in March 1989 in Quebec, a time and place you do NOT want to be without power. We cannot stop a big solar flare, but we can protect our power grid from the overload. Unfortunately, power companies would rather fix the problem after it occurs than prevent it (spend potential money later rather than real money now). The good news is, like with asteroids, the chance of an impact at any given time is small. The bad news is, eventually it will happen - will we be ready?”
Plait says that some myths have diminished over time, “I started writing my website back in 1993 (yes, seriously) when I was watching the local news on the vernal equinox and they were standing eggs on end.”
“This legend isn't as popular as it was a while back, but for some time it was fairly viral. I sat and wrote about how eggs will stand on any day of the year, the first day of spring notwithstanding (harhar), and a website was born.”
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Plait has busted myths about science large and small - including the one about toilets flushing “the other way” in the Southern hemisphere.
“I think the biggest public misconception about space is its scale,” he says.
“It's pretty hard to grasp just how far the Moon is — 400,000 km, or 240,000 miles — and that's the closest astronomical object to Earth! It took astronauts over three days to get there, and they were moving fast.”
“It takes months to get to Mars, years to Jupiter and Saturn, and multiple lifetimes, hundreds of them, to get to the nearest stars. And even getting to space is pretty hard, which is why even today only a few countries have managed to do it.”
Plait still steps into science arguments via his blog on Slate, with pieces such as “10 Failed Climate Change Denial Arguments.”
“I’ve been doing this for years now, and I’m still not tired of it,” he says. “I just love writing about astronomy. The gorgeous pictures, the sense of awe, the incredible knowledge we ascertain about the Universe; it's all wonderful.”
Plait’s joke book, "2^7 Nerd Disses: A Significant Quantity of Disrespect" was produced with Zach Weiner of "Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal".