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SYFY WIRE Bad Astronomy

Universe Unplugged: Learn about exoplanets with the cast of The Expanse

By Phil Plait
Cara Gee and Cas Anvar (“The Expanse”) and Perry Shen (“General Hospital”) star in a series of videos about exoplanets. Credit: NASA/IPAC/Caltech/Universe Unplugged

My friend Robert Hurt is a good guy to know.

Besides being an astronomer and just a nice guy, he is also an artist, a writer, and a director. I mean, if his only contribution to the world of science communication were his incredible map of the Milky Way (and here’s the unannotated version) based on observations using Spitzer Space Telescope, radio telescopes, and more, he could call it a day and be done.

But he continues to do great work. He helped create a really funny and entertaining series of videos about infrared astronomy, featuring Wil Wheaton, Felicia Day, Veronica Belmont, Sean Astin, Linda Hamilton, Mark Hamill, George Takei, Sandeep Parikh, Amy Okuda, and lots of other scifi geek folks.

His new effort fits right in with those. For a new project called Universe Unplugged with NASA and Caltech's Infrared Analysis and Processing Center,e wrote and directed a pair of science fiction videos about the science of exoplanets. Both feature two space travelers in a ship they can’t control, popping them out somewhere in the Universe, where they try to find a habitable planet. Using real science, they analyze their environment and decided whether to stay or go.

And oh, the two hapless explorers are played by Cara Gee and Cas Anvar, who are in the amazing sci-fi series The Expanse (seriously, if you haven’t watched it, it’s on Amazon and the fourth season premiers in December). The videos are short, aimed at lifelong learners, and delightful.

The first is about the Goldilocks Zone:

The second, which just came out, talks about how many red dwarf M stars have some surprises in store for any planets you’d think would be habitable.

Favorite line: Anvar saying, "Oh yeah. I know a lot about Mars."*

I love projects like this, which make learning fun, especially when they use science fiction as the basis. Adding to it, they also have a four-part series of behind-the-scenes videos for the first episode called "The Goldilocks Zone Unplugged," in which Robert and exoplanet astronomer Johanna Teske talk about the actual science of the episode. Here's Part 1:

You can watch Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4 on their YouTube channel. I hope he and his team make more of these. As I found out with Crash Course Astronomy, video series can be engaging, fun, and best yet used in classrooms as a way of going over the material quickly. There's so much to know about exoplanets that they could easily make dozens more of these… and that's just for exoplanets. Don’t even get me started on neutron stars, or nebulae, or galaxies, or dark matter, or low mass stars, or brown dwarfs, or supernovae, or tides, or white dwarfs, or… oh wait. I got me started there.

There's a lot of stuff in the Universe to understand. I hope Robert and the folks at Universe Unplugged continue to tell us about all of it.

But wait! There's more!

This is weird. Literally while I was putting this article into the queue at SYFYWire, I saw via Frankie Adams' Instagram feed that some of the cast of The Expanse went head-to-head against Robert in a video called "Are You Smarter Than A NASA Scientist?" This is pretty funny:

Note: I played along and did pretty well, but I might argue some of the questions (like, it depends on what you mean by "repercussions" about eating spicy food. I knew about the part they use in the answer, but that's, um, not the only repercussion of eating spicy food). Still, fun.

*I wrestled with whether I should explain this joke or not, and compromised by putting it in a footnote: On The Expanse, Anvar plays Alex Kamal, an ex-Navy pilot from Mars.