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SYFY WIRE Bad Astronomy

2013: The Best of Bad Astronomy

By Phil Plait

The end of 2013 marks my first full year writing for Slate. Itâs 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. Itâs mostly science, and mostly astronomy, but I do tend to speak my mind about matters I find important: issues over vaccinations, climate change, womenâs rights, Doctor Who, and more.

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, youâll 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.


I am a big supporter of vaccination, and in fact I think itâs 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.

The anti-vax movement depends entirely on emotional arguments and celebrity endorsementsâas they have to, since the facts are solidly against themâand it turns out they have a very unlikely hero: Robert F. Kennedy Jr. Heâs 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 flatâIâm not a big supporter of giving false balance to dangerous ideas like anti-vaxxer claimsâbut 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.

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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 wasnât anti-vax but acknowledged vaccines had saved millions of lives and was actually âpro-vaccine.â 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. Itâs like saying that most UFO cases are just misidentified normal things, but the ones we havenât 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

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 itâs hard to see any way this is good news. Weâll 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, âLALALALALALALA!â 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: âClimate Change: Itâs Real, and Itâs Usâ. I go over the basics, talk about the ramifications, debunk the deniers, and show just why we have to take this seriously.

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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 thatâs upset the natural balance of the planet.
Weâre heating up, and itâs 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 itâs 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.

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 hadnât 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 doesnât give a damn who you are, but everyone should give a damn about what it is.

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One year Saturn was perfectly placed in the sky, and I showed it to dozens of kids. It didnât 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

I love time-lapse animations, and thatâs 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, âThe View from Above Our Worldâ, shows images put together from the International Space Station, and itâs 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.

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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 didnât know, and more importantly, it didnât 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, Iâve 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?

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 theyâre 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 itâs 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 werenât quite what we were expecting, but thatâs the Universe, isnât it? Surprising, every time we look more deeply at it. And thatâs 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 wouldnât be worth exploring, would it?

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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.
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