Posted by: Ticktock | September 14, 2008

An Evening With the Bad Astronomer!

Phil Plait, the Bad Astronomer, visited Cincinnati yesterday for an event at the observatory.  If you aren’t familiar with Phil, he is a major player in the skeptic world and a well-respected intelligent astronomer.  He worked for several years on the Hubble Space Telescope, he is known for his debunking of the moon hoax conspiracy, he was recently elected president of the James Randi Educational Foundation, and he has a new book coming out next month called Death From the Skies.

Needless to say, I was happy to catch the announcement of Phil’s lecture at the observatory, and I quickly snatched up tickets.  I also dragged my wife along, and she ended up having lots of fun and learning new things.  I had the chance to meet Phil before the lecture.  We talked about all the new skeptic parenting blogs that are emerging, including a new one that I’m looking forward to.  He was really nice and chatted with me for a while, so that was pretty cool too.

Phil’s lecture focused on the myth that an egg can only be balanced on the vernal equinox.  I remember hearing this myth as a child, and I think I remember my brother trying the trick on the vernal equinox.  This urban legend is what started Phil on his journey as a skeptic blogger many many moons ago in the pre-cambrian era of the internet.  He went on to talk about the worst astronomy movie ever, which was Armageddon, and he detailed the reasons why it was so bad.  He also spoke highly of the movie Deep Impact, which took science seriously enough to consult actual scientists.

After the lecture, Phil opened the floor up to questions.  I asked him if he was familiar with John Symmes Jr., the Cincinnatian who developed the deeply flawed theory that there is an inhabitable inner planet in the core of our Earth.  John Symmes speculated that the polar ice caps had holes that dropped into the inner Earth; these holes were later called “Symmes Holes“.

Phil really disappointed me with his answer to my question.  I wanted to know the top reasons that we are certain our planet isn’t hollow.  Instead of using my question as an opportunity to teach us about some geologic science, he just dismissed it as trivial nonsense that is so demonstrably wrong that it doesn’t justify an answer.  His only response is that we live on a solid crust and that proves our Earth is not hollow; however, I think that answer misses the point since we could very well live on a solid surface and still have a hollow inner core.

Of course, I know that the Hollow Earth theory is bogus, but it’s also a historic error in logic and reasoning that deceived many people in the 19th century, and was the inspiration for Jules Verne’s Journey To The Center of the Earth (one of America’s first sci-fi fantasy novels and a recent 3D movie).    You could almost say that Hollow Earth was one of the first widely believed astronomical pseudo-scientific theories in the post-enlightenment era that presented an easy challenge for early skeptics and scientists. So, just for fun, tomorrow I will talk more about Hollow Earth, how it started, why it’s wrong, and the Hollow Earth connection to LOST.

By the way, Phil Plait was absolutely rigid in his refusal to watch LOST, and I just want it on record for when he gives it another chance some time in the distant future that I was right in saying it is one of the best shows on television.  LOST has an extremely cool approach to science fiction and drama, and I flat out reject Phil’s claim that the creators of LOST are writing by the seat of their pants.  I may be biased because I’m a fan of LOST, but I’ve also watched enough episodes to understand that there is a pre-planned arc to the story that is impossible to detect by watching one or two episodes.  Those of you who have stuck with LOST can back me up in the comments.

Thank you Phil for a great evening and an entertaining lecture!  And thank you to the volunteers at the Cincinnati Observatory who educated me about America’s first professional telescope, dedicated over 150 years ago by John Quincy Adams.  Looking through that lens and seeing Jupiter and it’s moons was simply awesome!


  1. Hmmm. Well, first, thanks for the kinds words. I liked to talking to you too!

    About the Hollow Earth, I thought you meant that we were living inside the Earth, as one variation of this idea goes. That’s what I meant when it was so blisteringly obvious it’s silly to talk about it. I didn’t realize you meant just the Earth being a shell; if I had known that’s what you meant I would have had a ready answer: earthquakes, which propagate through the planet, clearly indicate the Earth is a filled sphere, with two cores, a mantle, and a crust.

    Also, if the Earth is a shell, what holds it up? Gravity would collapse any know material that makes a shell with the mass of the Earth (which we can measure very accurately).

    So anyway, sorry to misinterpret your questions. As far as Lost goes, I’m still not terribly interested. There are way too many things to watch on TV right now, and I am way too busy to keep up with them all! 🙂

  2. Thanks so much for the quick reply! Sorry to give you a hard time about stuff.

    I figured gravity and the weight of the outer-crust would be a problem with Hollow Earth. Also, the obvious dilemma that an inner sphere would be tumbling around inside causing all kinds of problems for the people hypothetically inhabiting it.

  3. Do you still believe in Lost????

    • I’m still enjoying LOST, except I’ve become a bit tired of the “emmy winning moments” with the violins and the overly-dramatic dialogue. LOST has excellent writers that constantly surprise me; it’s one of my favorite shows.

      • I watched every episode of “Alias.” J.J. Abrams has pretty much lost me as a viewer.

        Ah… that’s why I still haven’t watched “Star Trek”!

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