Ossus Library Index Non-Fiction Index

BAD ASTRONOMY

By Philip Plait (2002, John Wiley & Sons)

A clarification of the most common misconceptions and misuses of Astronomy by scientists and non-scientists.

 

 

3 stars

Read September 16th to October 6th, 2003  
    Very typical of what I expect from this author, based on his web site, which is to say mostly clear and extremely scientific reasoning, written for the layperson.

This comes with an attribute that I don't appreciate, which is his ability to seem to talk down to his audience. Perhaps it is simply because I know the subject of astronomy, or because I know the answers to some of what he describes here, but I feel like he's writing to a pre-teen audience at times. Of course, he's just trying to explain things in as simple a manner as possible, to an audience that might not have any knowledge of science whatsoever. Unfortunately, things can't always be targeted at both audiences, and this seems to be one of them.

The sections that I enjoyed most, pretty obviously, are the ones where I had little or no knowledge about the topic, especially the topics that I had not read about on his web page.

This means that I enjoyed the egg-balancing section and the tides, for example, less than I enjoyed reading about the Coriolis "magician", why the Moon appears big close to the horizon (I am not convinced about his explanation, but it seems very logical), the reason for the blue sky, and some of the others. Strangely enough, even though I've devoured his material (and that of others) regarding the Moon landing "hoax" and the Great Planetary Alignment of 2000 on his website, I still really enjoyed reading about them here; I find debunking those to be a joy, because it is so easy.

A lot of what he talks about is basic astronomy, and I had a tendency to lose focus partway through, as I found my mind wandering. Twinkling stars, star colors, Polaris, phases, seasons, and so on are basic stuff, and anybody with any scientific training should know all of this. Still, for people without astronomical training, he makes things pretty clear.

This is not the type of book people should read straight through. It's best spread over many many nights. The reason for this, strangely enough, is his logical and rational way of thinking. Since he puts absolute faith in science and the scientific method, his logical arguments become repetitive in some later chapters. It is one thing to show that the Moon Hoax advocates can't keep their information consistent, but using the same arguments on creationists, astrology, the planetary alignment, star naming companies, UFO conspiricists and so on in subsequent chapters gets a little long. They are good arguments, and I don't see any other way of debunking these without using the same logical manner -just don't read them all back-to-back.

As a reference book, however, this is an excellent addition to my bookshelf. Being able to look up a rational argument against so many of the irrational things we are assaulted with in life comes in really handy. How many times have I been at a loss to respond to something somebody says, simply because I was not prepared to defend what I thought was common knowledge? The author did so much research that all I have to do is reach for his book. He has a terrific and  index, as well, making finding things very easy.

His tone is very conversational, which as noted above can make it sound like he's talking down. However, it also allows him to be less of a textbook author, and more mainstream. When he speaks of his experiences, it is possible to travel with him. It's almost like sitting down and having a discussion.

Plait definitely has a passion about science. It can easily be seen through his writing style. He has little tolerance for those who abuse scientific notions. I enjoy his writing, but not too much in a single dose. I, for one, will continue to visit his web site (see the links page) for a long time to come.

 
   

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