TAM 4: Report #3

TAM 4: Report #3

TAM 4: Report #3

Bad Astronomy
The entire universe in blog form
Jan. 30 2006 3:30 PM

TAM 4: Report #3

Hoo boy!

The hotel the TAM was in had a really crappy internet connection. I paid for the first day, and had such a rotten connection I didn't bother with the rest of the days (the room had dialup!). So I had to let this blog lie fallow for a couple of days, for which I apologize. The timing could not have been worse: the meeting has been incredible, a blog comment war was started over my last post, and I'd like it if I had fun and exciting entries for people coming here from the Bloggie award site.

Phil Plait Phil Plait

Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!  

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I'm sitting in the Vega$ airport right now, and they have free wireless! Woohoo! The only thing in this town that is free. So I wrote an entry the other day, and now I can finally upload it. If I had more time I'd add pictures, but that will still have to wait until later. Again, my apologies. Hopefully tonight I'll have time to post some more, but until then, here are some thoughts about something Penn Jillette said.

After lunch on the second day, Penn took questions for a few minutes. He was in typical form; loud, obnoxious, and very funny. He talked about future episodes of his Showtime program (I won’t give the name here, but the link makes it clear), as well as skepticism in general.

Penn said an interesting thing: he was asked how a famous trick he and Teller do is done. He didn’t give the actual answer, of course. But he talked about how people are almost always disappointed when they find out the secret of a trick. It’s not that revealing the magic itself is disappointing, it’s that the way the trick is done is generally "ugly". It’s not magic, not something hugely slick; it’s tape, or a misdirection, or a reach into a pocket.

People don’t want to believe a trick can be done in such a clumsy, ugly, obvious way. It’s not the knowledge itself that disappoints; knowledge, Penn said, is always good, always beautiful.

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I agree with him. I watched a friend of mine do some simple tricks, and I was shocked at how simple and how ugly some of them were done. I guess my problem was that the trick was actually a lot simpler than I thought. I was expecting some incredibly deft sleight of hand, requiring hours of practice to perfect. I was not expecting a magnet! I mean, that’s cheating!

I felt silly thinking that. It’s a trick, you idiot! I told myself. It’s cheating no matter what.

It’s like watching a movie, and seeing how the special effect is done. I find that disappointing, sometimes. But in that case, it’s because when I watch the movie, I am suspending my disbelief. I don’t mean to sound formal, but when I watch a movie, I enter a contract with the movie maker: they will entertain me, and I’ll try not to ask too many questions. I’ll buy into their premise, and they won’t violate that trust.

The real world isn’t like that. There is no contract; the universe obeys a set of rules, and those rules will hold sway whether you believe in them or not. So finding out what’s happening behind the scenes can’t be a let down. There’s no violation of disbelief, because there’s no disbelief.

Sometimes people tell me that when they learn the science behind something, they feel disappointed. I think that’s silly. Knowing more is never disappointing. When you look at the stars, they may look pretty. And that’s great! But look at that star there. It’s one thousand trillion kilometers away. Or that one: it’s so young, it’s still surrounded by the gas and dust cloud from which it formed. That one there will blow up in less than ten thousand years. That one is blue because its temperature is twice that of the Sun’s. That one there has a system of planets orbiting it. This one weirdly has three times the amount of magnesium in it than current theory predicts.

When I think of those things, my heart swells with that knowledge. And not just the knowledge itself, but the fact that we can, in fact, have that knowledge. Knowing those things enriches my experience and magnifies my sense of awe and wonder, exponentially increasing my enjoyment of the stars.

How can knowing something ever be disappointing?