2013: The Best of Bad Astronomy

Bad Astronomy
The entire universe in blog form
Dec. 31 2013 8:00 AM

2013: The Best of Bad Astronomy

Best of 2013

Photo by Radu Bercan/Shutterstock/Adam Block (Mount Lemmon SkyCenter/University of Arizona)

The end of 2013 marks my first full year writing for Slate. It’s been a lot of fun for me, to be honest. The folks behind the scenes have been supportive, helpful, and just all-around good people.

Best of all, when they let me start using their electrons back in November 2012, they allowed me do what I like to do: Write about whatever the heck I want. It’s mostly science, and mostly astronomy, but I do tend to speak my mind about matters I find important: issues over vaccinations, climate change, women’s rights, Doctor Who, and more.

Advertisement

I was thinking about this recently because a post I wrote in June popped up again. It was an article about vaccines, and somehow my editor wound up on the phone for an hour having her brain melted by an anti-vaxxer because of it. And not just any anti-vaxxer, but … well, you’ll find out who in a sec. The point is, this showed up in a 2013 roundup of articles on Slate, which inspired me to go back through my posts from this year and pick a few I liked best. Yes, this article is a clip show, a flashback episode for the blog. But I wrote several hundred posts in 2013, and these few may have been easy to miss; please allow me to indulge myself and highlight them.

Anti-anti-vax

I am a big supporter of vaccination, and in fact I think it’s one of the biggest medical advances of all time. Vaccines have saved hundreds of millions of lives, and the risks involved are incredibly small. Still, a small but very vocal group of people have flung reality to the wind and claim vaccines cause all sorts of problems, including autism, the diseases they actually prevent, and even, sometimes death.

RFK, Jr.
RFK Jr. has a famous name, but less-than-realistic beliefs about vaccines.

Photo by s_bukley/Shutterstock.com

The anti-vax movement depends entirely on emotional arguments and celebrity endorsements—as they have to, since the facts are solidly against them—and it turns out they have a very unlikely hero: Robert F. Kennedy Jr. He’s quite vocal about this, and, it turns out, also quite the spinner of conspiracy theories and believer in crackpottery. In an article I wrote in June 2013 I called him out on his beliefs. This prompted him to contact Slate so he could talk to me. I turned this down flat—I’m not a big supporter of giving false balance to dangerous ideas like anti-vaxxer claims—but my editor Laura Helmuth decided to talk to him on the phone. He subjected her to his anti-reality claims for nearly an hour. She wrote up a pretty damning article about it (after reading it I penned my own follow-up as well). Bottom line: I stand by my original post, as well as the fact that vaccines are a critical part of our health care. And also? You can expect more posts on this topic in 2014.

Key quote:

As Helmuth notes at the end of her article, Kennedy was only able to make one even marginally tenable claim about my article being wrong: He said he wasn’t anti-vax but acknowledged vaccines had saved millions of lives and was actually “pro-vaccine.” But I disagree. Saying in one breath that vaccines have done good but then in another attacking them and increasing fears of them based on nonsense puts him squarely in the anti-vax camp. It’s like saying that most UFO cases are just misidentified normal things, but the ones we haven’t identified are definitely alien spaceships that come here to stick probes in our various orifices. Acknowledging one aspect of reality and then claiming absurdities does not make you pro-science.

The Earth Heats Up

Earth on fire
Not to be taken literally, but you can insert your Nero metaphor here if you'd like.

Fire photo by peasap on Flickr; Earth photo by NASA; composite by Phil Plait.

I write about global warming quite a bit, because it may be the single biggest problem facing humanity. We are dumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and that is heating up the planet. As our climate changes, weather will change, and it’s hard to see any way this is good news. We’ll see more forest fires, droughts, floods, disease outbreaks, severe weather … the evidence is overwhelming.

But not undeniable, as deniers love to stick their fingers in their ears and say, “LALALALALALALA!” In the past year I wrote about deniers quite a bit, including specific debunkings of individuals as well as their ridiculous claims. But one post, in September 2013, probably covers the most ground on this topic and is the best one to read: “Climate Change: It’s Real, and It’s Us”. I go over the basics, talk about the ramifications, debunk the deniers, and show just why we have to take this seriously.

Key quote:

That last one is the key to this whole thing. We have been dumping all three of these greenhouse gases into the atmosphere at a rate of billions of tons per year for the past century, and that’s upset the natural balance of the planet.
We’re heating up, and it’s our damn fault.

Why Science?

I think the study of science is one of, if not the, most important endeavor we humans undertake. We learn about ourselves, our environment, our Universe this way, and it’s a way to minimize the effect of our own internal biases.

I wrote about this many times this year; how science is both a personal quest and a subject of attack, from without and within. I mentioned meeting a Miss Utah pageant winner with whom I might disagree on much, but not when it comes to educating people, especially girls, in science. And I wrote about why we need to fund science and not let narrow ideological beliefs cripple it.

arnade_prostitutes_telescope_920
Two women, Takeesha and Deja, look at Saturn.

Photo be Chris Arnade

But my favorite was a piece I wrote after seeing a picture of two women looking through a telescope. Those two women, it so happens, are prostitutes, and if it hadn’t been for photographer Chris Arnade, they may never have seen the wonder that is Saturn. I put that picture up as one of the Best of 2013, but it bears repeating: The Universe is for all of us. It doesn’t give a damn who you are, but everyone should give a damn about what it is.

Key quote:

One year Saturn was perfectly placed in the sky, and I showed it to dozens of kids. It didn’t matter if they went to the private school to the east of us or were from the riskier neighborhood to the south; every last one of them was amazed to see that shining bauble with their own eyes. A few thought it was a trick, a picture I hung in front of the telescope. But when they realized what they were seeing, grasped that the light entering their eyes came from outer space, from an entirely different world, the gasps, the awe, were real.

The Earth From Above

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!  

I love time-lapse animations, and that’s why I posted dozens of these wonderful videos over the year. So many of them struck me so deeply … but one in particular provided me with a deeply profound personal moment, an experience I never truly felt before. The video, “The View from Above Our World”, shows images put together from the International Space Station, and it’s incredibly lovely. While I was watching it, I had an overwhelming feeling of being distanced from everyday human concerns, a sensation that came over me without my noticing until it flowed over my mind. I hope that if you watch it, you will have the pleasure of the same feeling.

Key quote:

As I watched the video, I caught a brief glimpse of that feeling. As I watched the Earth glide by underneath, just watching it go past, I suddenly realized I had no idea what part of the planet I was seeing. Africa, America, Europe, Asia; I didn’t know, and more importantly, it didn’t matter. It was just Earth. But what struck me is I did recognize the stars, the familiar natural patterns of the northern summer constellations. For a moment, just a moment, I had the surpassingly extraordinary feeling that only the Universe mattered, not our names and labels and boundaries for it. I had never truly felt that before.

The Universe Tells Us About Itself

Of course, I’ve put fingers to keyboard and written tens of thousands of words about astronomy. From the Moon to the most distant reaches of the Universe, astronomy is, to me, the most beautiful and profound of sciences. It covers everything, and poses the biggest questions that we humans have: What is the nature of reality? How big is the Universe? How did we get here?

Planck image
The Universe as a baby

Photo by the ESA-Planck Collaboration

And the thing is, we have a good shot at answering these questions through science. This year, results from the European Space Agency mission Planck took a look at the ancient and fading light from the birth of the Universe, seeking out ripples in the glow so small they’re like comparing the thinnest layer of skin to the height of your entire body. Yet in those distortions are the key to understanding the cosmos itself: How old it is, what it’s made of, and even if there was something that existed before the Universe.

Writing about that result was a great joy, and I still remember smiling madly as I put that article together. The numbers weren’t quite what we were expecting, but that’s the Universe, isn’t it? Surprising, every time we look more deeply at it. And that’s science as well, our best way to understand the Universe. If we knew all the answers, got the results we expected every time, well, it wouldn’t be worth exploring, would it?

Key quote:

Every day, we get better at learning what the Universe is doing. And the work continues to find out how. It may even lead us to the answer of the ultimate question of all: why?
If that answer exists (if the question even makes sense), and we can understand it, then we are making our first steps toward it right now.
I still hear some people say that science takes the wonder out of life. Those people are utterly and completely wrong.
Science takes us to the wonder.
  Slate Plus
Working
Dec. 18 2014 4:49 PM Slate’s Working Podcast: Episode 17 Transcript Read what David Plotz asked a middle school principal about his workday.