Phil Plait, creator of the popular astronomy blog Bad astronomyattributes his interest in space in part to his childhood love of science fiction films such as Angry red planet And Robinson Crusoe on Mars.
“I’m a huge science fiction idiot,” says Plait in episode 541 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “I’ve watched almost every TV show, movies and everything, and read countless books. I love science fiction.”
In his new book Under strange skies, Plait examines what various cosmic vistas would appear to a physically present person and studies them with normal human vision. “I start each chapter with a short vignette, basically a fictional story,” he says. “Mostly in the second person. So I say, ‘You are on this planet’, ‘You are standing on the bridge of your spaceship’, ‘You are standing there watching a dust storm approaching you on Mars.’ And hopefully that will make it even more engaging for the reader.”
Plait hopes the book will be a valuable resource for filmmakers and science fiction writers looking to add an extra dose of reality to their speculative visions. “I’ve actually done some consulting work for movies and TV shows and even a few video games,” he says. “So I know that process of advising writers or other people who are in the entertainment business, which is the real science.”
As much as Plait enjoys watching science fiction that incorporates real science, he recognizes that the ultimate goal of any book or film is to tell a good story. “Even if you don’t get the science right, it’s okay because you still inspire people,” he says. “And if you get the science right? Hey, premium.”
Listen to the full interview with Philip Plait in episode 541 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.
Phil Plait on Mars:
On Earth, the sky is blue during the day, and when the sun goes down you can get a red sky around the sun because of haze and debris floating in the air that tends to absorb or scatter blue and green light. The end process is that this light doesn’t get into your eye, only the redder stuff and that’s how the sun looks red and the sky around the sun looks red. But on Mars it’s the other way around. There’s all this dust in the air, and that dust is iron oxide, it’s rust, and it’s floating in the atmosphere and it’s turning the sky red. But at sunset it tends to scatter the blue light towards you. So during the day the sky is red, but at sunset – and of course at sunrise too – the sky is kind of blue.
Phil Plait on Science Advice:
I got an email from one of the Digital Effects guys [on The Expanse] and said, “Hey, we’ve got a shot where we’re approaching Jupiter. What would that look like?” So I wrote a few paragraphs and then sent it off, and then when that episode aired, it was like, ‘Oh look! You did all that.” That was really cool. … I took advice on the film Arrival, and that was another completely bizarre circumstance when I was consulting with a production company about something completely different and they said, ‘Hey, we have this script for this movie that’s coming out, if you want to look at it and check it out the science of it.” And I did it and made some notes and sent it back and forgot about it. And then, years later, the movie comes out and I look at it and I’m like, ‘Hey, wait a minute! I remember that scene.” So it was really cool. It’s fun how the stuff works sometimes.
Phil Plait on Asteroids:
Many small asteroids are actually what we call “debris piles”. They are huge accumulations of rocks, ranging from tiny rocks smaller than pebbles to boulders that can be as big as a house or more. But they are not a fixed object. It’s not a gigantic rock in space. … When you approach an asteroid a mile across in a spacecraft, it has negligible gravity. So you’re in your spaceship, hanging off the side of this thing, and you jump from your spaceship to the asteroid, which might not have a solid surface to land on. You could just sink to the top of your spacesuit and beyond just to be able to stand on it. So I thought that would be a weird way to open this chapter, with an astronaut who’s basically stuck in an asteroid a few feet below, and his countryman has to come and get him.
Phil Plait on Globular Clusters:
There is another type of star cluster called globular clusters, and these are roughly spherical clusters of hundreds of thousands or even a million stars. … If you go outside at night, you will see a few thousand stars in the sky in the darkest place on earth, and it seems like the sky is covered only with stars. But in a globular cluster, you could have 50 times as many stars in the sky, and a lot of them would be that bright — because these are red giant stars, or other stars that are very luminous and very bright and pretty close to these planets, because these clusters are not so big – that one could read them. They would cast shadows on the ground. And so you could have thousands of such stars in your sky.
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