A Collection of Strange Beliefs, Amusing Deceptions, and Dangerous Delusions

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Book Review

Bad Astronomy: Misconceptions and Misuses Revealed, from Astrology to the Moon Landing "Hoax" (John Wiley & Sons, 2002)

by Philip C. Plait


Bad Astronomy is Phil Plait's answer to dozens of myths and misconceptions people have about stars, the moon, the planets, meteorites, asteroids, comets, the universe, and the observers of all those things. In addition to setting the record straight on hundreds of astronomical errors, he also gives us a lesson on human perception, with and without the aid of lenses and mirrors.

That alone would make the book worth recommending, but what I find most attractive about Bad Astronomy is that it teaches science as something that has a history and is inquiry-based and problem-driven, rather that the mere passing on of facts to be remembered or not. This is a book for the rest of us--those who are not professional astronomers, written in a language we can understand without sacrificing accuracy and precision, qualities important in any science. Because the style of writing is the style of a good teacher, the reader is likely to find every lesson interesting and rewarding. There are plenty of colorful verbal illustrations to help with some of the more difficult concepts.

The book grew out of Plait's Web site of the same name, where he initially took on claims that an egg can be balanced on end only on the equinox and the Apollo moon landing was a hoax. The book has 24 chapters, covering such mundane topics as water running down the drain to the grand questions about the origin and nature of the universe. He'll answer the child's question "Why is the sky blue?" with something a bit more elaborate than "because blue is God's favorite color." He'll remind you that Earth is closest to the Sun in January when it's winter in the northern hemisphere and summer in the southern hemisphere, so think again as to why there are seasons. Learn or re-learn all about the tides and the moon, and evaluate his speculation as to why the full moon appears larger on the horizon than when directly above us, even though it is closer when directly above. (I think his explanation is correct. Hint: It isn't because the rising moon is perceived against a backdrop of hills or trees or buildings.)

Want to know why stars twinkle or whether they have color? Want to know the truth about planetary alignments and whether they portend disaster? Plait devotes an entire chapter to each of these topics and many more.

It is not surprising that this astronomer is quite skeptical about astrology, creationism, UFOs, and Velikovsky. He offers very good critiques of each of these topics, using scientific facts to undermine pseudoscientific claptrap.

He also has some advice for those who are thinking of paying to have a star named for someone. Not a good move, unless you don't mind giving somebody money for a piece of paper you could print out yourself. The star names you pay for are not considered official by professional astronomers. Plait's brothers paid International Star Registry (ISR) to name a star located in the constellation Andromeda "Philip Cary Plait." Unfortunately, all astronomers call this star BD+48° 683.

Bad Astronomy is a stellar book by a rising star in the world of popular science writing. (Did I really write that?) Plait received his Ph.D. in astronomy from the University of Virginia and is currently working in the Physics and Astronomy department at Sonoma State University. I give his book five stars. (Did I really write that?) Enough. Buy this book!

more book reviews by R. T. Carroll

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