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Protecting the World From Bad Astronomy

30 May 2000 6:00 pm
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From the ceiling of New York City's Grand Central Station to backsides of disposable diapers, images of stars and other heavenly objects surround us. Unfortunately, popular depictions of the cosmos often part company with reality. Comets in movies roar through empty space where sound is impossible, meteors rise in spite of gravity's pull, and the spring equinox mysteriously enables eggs to balance on end for a day. But lovers of astronomical truth can take heart from the Web site Bad Astronomy, which tries to set the record straight.

Bad Astronomy offers clear explanations for a wide variety of goofs, gaffes, and flights of fancy found in news stories, movies, television shows, and urban myths. (For example, it explains why you can balance an egg on end whenever you like.) The site reaches out to the lay reader, but the chatty essays and analyses provide enough detail to enthrall even the professional scientist. Annotated links lead to other sites that debunk bad science, as well as those that provide solid information, and a bulletin board lets readers contribute their own finds.

Holding it all together is Phil Plait, site author and professional astronomer. No mere curmudgeon, Plait goes out of his way to point out the good astronomy mixed in with the bad and graciously acknowledges his own occasional mistakes. A crusader for accuracy, he's also clearly gratified that astronomy makes it into popular culture in the first place. "I just want people to love and appreciate astronomy as much as I do," Plait says.

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