Phil Plait, creator of the popular astronomy blog Bad Astronomy, credits his interest in outer space partly to his childhood love of science fiction movies such as Angry Red Planet and Robinson Crusoe on Mars.
“I’m a huge science fiction dork,” Plait says in Episode 541 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “I’ve watched every TV show, just about, and movies and everything, read tons of books. I love science fiction.”
In his new book, Under Alien Skies, Plait explores what various cosmic vistas would look like for a person who was physically present, studying them with ordinary human eyesight. “I open each chapter with a short vignette, basically a fictional tale,” he says. “Most of the time it’s in second person. So I say ‘You are at this planet,’ ‘You are standing on the bridge of your starship,’ ‘You are standing there watching a dust storm approach you on Mars.’ And that way hopefully it’s even more of an immersive experience for the reader.”
Plait hopes that the book will serve as a valuable resource for filmmakers and science fiction authors looking to inject an extra dose of reality into their speculative visions. “I’ve actually done some consulting for movies and TV shows, and even a couple of video games,” he says. “So I kind of know that process of advising writers, or other folks who are involved in the entertainment business, of what the real science is.”
As much as Plait enjoys seeing science fiction that incorporates real science, he recognizes that the ultimate aim of any book or movie is to tell a good story. “Even if they don’t get the science correct, it’s OK, because you’re still inspiring people,” he says. “And if they get the science right? Hey, bonus.”
Listen to the complete 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 then when the sun sets, around the sun you can get red sky, because of haze and junk that’s floating in the air, which tends to absorb or scatter away blue and green light. The end process is that that light doesn’t get to your eye, just the redder stuff does, and so the sun looks red and the sky looks red around the sun. But on Mars it’s the opposite. There’s all this dust in the air, and that dust is iron oxide, it’s rust, and it floats in the atmosphere and tints the sky red. But at sunset, it tends to scatter the blue light toward you. So during the day the sky is red, but at sunset—and sunrise of course, as well—the sky is kind of blue.
Phil Plait on science consulting:
I got an email from one of the digital effects people [on The Expanse] saying, “Hey, we’ve got a shot coming up where we’re going close to Jupiter. What would that look like?” So I wrote a few paragraphs and then sent it away, and then when that episode aired it was like, “Oh look! They did all that.” That was really cool. … I did some consulting for the movie Arrival, and again that was a complete, bizarre circumstance where I was consulting with a production company on something completely different, and they said, “Hey, we’ve got this script for this movie coming out, if you want to take a look at it and check the science of it.” And I did, and made a few notes and sent it back and forgot about it. And then years later the movie comes out, and I’m watching it and I’m like, “Hey wait a minute! I remember this scene.” So it was really cool. It’s fun how that stuff works out sometimes.
Phil Plait on asteroids:
A lot of small asteroids are actually what we call “rubble piles.” They are huge collections of rock, from tiny ones smaller than pebbles up to boulders that could be as big as a house or more. But they’re not one solid object. It’s not a gigantic rock in space. … If you were on a spaceship approaching an asteroid a mile across, it has negligible gravity. So you’re in your spaceship and you’re hanging off the side of this thing, and you jump from your spaceship to the asteroid, it might not have a solid surface for you to land on. You might just sink up to and past the top of your spacesuit, just to be able to stand on this. So I thought that was kind of a funny way to open that chapter, with an astronaut basically stuck inside an asteroid, a few meters down, and his compatriot has to come and get him.
Phil Plait on globular clusters:
There’s another kind of cluster called a globular cluster, and these are roughly spherical clusters of hundreds of thousands or even a million stars. … When you go outside at night, from the darkest site on Earth you’ll see a few thousand stars in the sky, and it looks like the sky is just covered in stars. But in a globular cluster you could have 50 times that many stars in the sky, and a lot of them would be so bright—because these are red giant stars, or other stars that are very luminous and very bright, and quite close to this planet, because these clusters aren’t that big—that you could read by them. They would cast shadows on the ground. And so you could have thousands of stars like that in your sky.