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Astronomy Conspiracies (with Phil Plait)

Dean chats with old friend Phil Plait about doomsday predictions related to astronomical events like comets and asteroids, as well as the potential dangers of solar storms impacting Earth and satellites. They also discuss the possibility of alien life and the excitement surrounding current missions to explore celestial bodies like Europa, Enceladus, and Saturn. New episodes release every other Friday!

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Looking Up is transcribed using a combination of AI speech recognition and human editors. It may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.

Dean Regas: [00:00:00] Here at Looking Up, we like to ask the tough questions. You know, questions like, Is the moon made out of cheese? One, two, three. And, did the United States fake the moon landing? Liftoff! We have a liftoff! Well, we also answer tough questions on this show, and the answer to both of those questions is, absolutely not, it's not made out of cheese, and absolutely not, we didn't fake the moon landing.

But! Astronomy has had more than its fair share of wild hoaxes and conspiracies. And joining us today is an expert in both the real and fake discoveries of the space world. From the studios of Cincinnati Public Radio, I'm your host Dean Regas, and this is Looking Up. A

show that takes you deep into the cosmos or just to the telescope in your backyard to learn more about what makes this amazing universe of ours so [00:01:00] great. Our guest this week is Phil Plait, a former member of the Hubble Space Telescope team, author of Bad Astronomy and the brand new book Under Alien Skies.

So modern astronomy, or at least, you know, the astronomy we think of today is historically rather new. Like, it wasn't that long ago that our superstition ruled the roost. I mean, you know, everybody who had their superstitions about space. And I think the first one I kind of wanted to cover a little bit was doomsdays.

And the day it was comets were omens of doom without that power. The comet is out of my control. The pull of gravity will bring it crashing to earth any minute. So this is one of the things that new modern astronomers have to deal with is there's so many of these things out there. So many of these ideas that might have a little bit of truth, but not a lot of truth.

There's clickbait [00:02:00] headlines that say asteroid going to come really, really close to the earth and just barely miss the earth. As we continue to track this, keep in mind, we're going to have special coverage of this asteroid coming up in a matter of minutes. And then you read a little bit farther. And it says, oh yeah, that asteroid's gonna miss the Earth by 17, 200 miles.

But somehow, I still click on that article, don't you? You're like, oh my gosh, there's an apocalypse coming. The internet apocalypse is gonna happen. An event that could cause people to lose internet access for months or even years. I don't even know what that means, but I clicked on it. I don't know if you did, but I did.

People think the end of the world is coming quite often. I call this cosmophobia, this irrational fear of death from above. And there's no way to disprove it until after the date passes. That's your asteroid that whizzed past Earth here in the last couple of minutes. Coming up though, I have a special guest.

But one of the things that happens after the date passes and nothing happens... Another conspiracy comes around. Right now, end of the world predictions in 2012 [00:03:00] include a collision with Planet X or the Earth passing through the Milky Way Galaxy. So, oh yeah, well, we missed that one, but the next one, this one, the real one, I'm happy to say, as an astronomer that's been in the business for almost 25 years, I've lived through every single doomsday and survived them all.

You can't kill this astronomer, that's for sure. Sorry, universe. It's gonna take more than that. The James Webb Space Telescope has really been a big thing that's gotten people talking as well. We're finding really cool detailed pictures of stars and even some planets around stars. This is one of the biggest new discoveries.

These are called exoplanets. And, and so with these exoplanets now numbering more than 5, 000 of them that have been discovered, 5, 000 other worlds beyond our solar system, it gets you thinking about aliens. For that one, I say go for it. I say let your imagination go wild. Start thinking about [00:04:00] what life might be like on other planets around other stars.

And you know, actually, we're going to be talking to a guy that wrote a book about something like that. Hmm. That's good timing. I've got my microphone. Man, I hope we recorded that earlier part because it sounded like you continuously falling into a drawer full of silverware. That's what it sounded like.

Phil Plait, who I've known for a long time. He's he's known as the bad astronomer, very amazing debunker of hoaxes, superstitions. He is the most rational person that I've ever met. And he's also like. I mean, this is like a guy that worked on the Hubble Space Telescope, author of several books and also a host of Crash Course Astronomy.

So we're excited. Phil, hey man, thanks for joining us today.

Phil Plait: Oh, my pleasure. Thank you.

Is there, you know, you know, we're going to get into conspiracy stuff and I don't know what it is about astronomy. What do you think it is that astronomy and [00:05:00] conspiracies go together?

Well, you know, back in the day, and I'm talking 20 years ago, there are quite a few and they were popular.

There's a lot of stuff going around. The internet was new and you'd see a lot of astronomical or space based conspiracies. And I used to think, wow, you know, what is it about astronomy? Maybe it's the, it's, you know, the, the beauty of it, but there's also this, this aspect of it that only governments can kind of sponsor space flight and big observatories, something like that.

And so it makes it a little bit playing into this idea that government is doing something. I don't know, but as we've seen nowadays, flash, you know, flash forward 2023 conspiracy theories are everywhere about every topic you can possibly imagine. And, and so maybe astronomy just had a head start, but the idea that NASA faked the moon landings.

Or you know, there were cities on Mars or a giant face on [00:06:00] Mars. And some people who, there are claims that space travel is not even possible. It's actually literally impossible to go to space. Those started decades ago and they're still around. Not as popular as some of the bigger conspiracies now involving, you know, COVID 19 and these other things.

But they're still around and they still have legs. And I don't know why they are so appealing to people. But it, it strikes me as, as playing into a greater psychological issue that I don't have any, you know, expertise on. But when it comes down to the facts and talking about this sort of thing, yeah, I mean, these conspiracy theories typically are, are all wrong and based on nonsense.

Dean Regas: Well, I, I never thought of it that way, that we used to have a monopoly on conspiracy. Now we spread them out to everybody else. Oh, we did it. We spread it out to everybody else. Phil, we did it.

Phil Plait: Yeah. Congratulations. Astronomy went viral.

Dean Regas: Yeah. So, you know, there's all sorts of things about aliens. They're also sort of doomsdays. But let's look at the one that's kind of recent, is [00:07:00] the, the sun could send, you know, lots and lots of trouble our way. That the sun could erupt in a certain way that it would wipe out all of our satellites. They're calling it Internet Apocalypse. And, you know, so if a giant solar storm would hit Earth, Earth, our satellites are susceptible and could knock out systems.

What do you think about that kind of idea of you know, like an event like it would happen in the 18, I think it was 1859 ish that happened, a big solar storm, but now we have technology. So could this mess us up ?

Phil Plait: Ah, well. I have not seen this specific conspiracy theory, although there are tons of these that the sun's going to become a micro nova and somebody's predicting an exact date, you know, 22 years from now or something.

And they say it's going to happen on April 13th at 429. I'm like, okay, no, you can't predict what the sun's going to do an hour from now, let alone 20 years. So that sort of conspiracy theory stuff, that's nonsense. However. [00:08:00] Solar storms exist. You pointed that out. In 1859, there was a huge event called the Carrington event that was an extremely powerful solar flare and what's called a coronal mass ejection.

These are magnetic storms on the sun that blast out high energy light, like gamma and x rays, as well as subatomic particles that, you know, a huge wave of these things march across the solar system. Now, The sun does this. It's what it does all the time. They're usually not that powerful. 1859 was an extreme event.

And we've seen that it's happened in the past. There are records in ice cores, for example. We see that, yeah, the sun must have had a huge storm. And that happens, and there are smaller ones all the time. The sun has flares, and it has these coronal mass ejections. And they're a worry because we have satellites in space and when they get hit by these things, they can short out.

Another very large problem is that this can create huge electric currents in the [00:09:00] crust of the Earth. It induces a current in the Earth. And this in turn overloads the electric grids. And this happened in Quebec in 1989. And so the power grid can go down. And that's a, that's a big deal. You don't want this to happen.

And, not to, not to be too on the nose about it, in 2012, the sun did blast off an immense storm. That was probably on the same scale as this 1859 event. But it shot it off in a different direction. It was not aimed at Earth, so it didn't hit us. Had that hit us... It would have been really bad. We would have lost satellites.

There would have been power outages. It would have been pretty epic. So we do know that the sun does this. The question is, how often does it do it? And it doesn't look like it's, you know, every decade. It's like every century or something like that. But this is something to be concerned about. We have to harden our satellites.

We have to make sure the power grid can't get overloaded. Which is [00:10:00] something that's really difficult to convince politicians about. The good news is, we're going to more decentralized power generation. I have solar panels on my house. If the power grid goes down, I'm fine. If we had millions of more people doing this we, there wouldn't, they would get their own power, plus they wouldn't be drawing it from the grid, so the grid wouldn't get overloaded as easily.

So, there are ways around this, and, and I'm hoping that in the next ten years or so, things will be a lot better. The thing is, The sun goes through a magnetic cycle every 11 years and we are in the time now where it's ramping up to its maximum, which is in about 2025. So there will be more solar storms.

The question is, will they be big? Will they be aimed at us? Will there be trouble because of this? Every time there's a solar max, there's usually a couple of satellites that get damaged or something. So it's not typically a huge deal, but we just don't know. So, this conspiracy theory does have, like many of them do, [00:11:00] a kernel of truth to them.

But I would bet that if I dug down into the details, it would still be sort of a breathless, we're all gonna die kind of thing, which is just not the case.

Dean Regas: All right, so now you've heard probably every hoax, conspiracy theory that there is out there. Do you, Phil Plait, have one conspiracy you secretly wish were true?

Phil Plait: If any of them was true, it would be pretty amazing. You know, if NASA faked the moon landings, then clearly NASA has. A lot more talent than we even thought, because faking the moon landings would be harder than actually going to the moon. I guess, if I had to pick one, it would be anything involving aliens.

The 100 billion planets on which life theoretically could exist. If only 1% of that life is intelligent, there could be 1 million civilizations out there. And, and [00:12:00] this is the, the, the grand irony of conspiracy theories, right? I have been debunking UFO sightings for, I don't even know how long, 30 years. And it, it, it, I get accused so often, especially by big UFO people, of being in the pocket of, of NASA and how I secretly, you know, don't want this to be true.

And it's like, you guys, who do you think you're talking to here? I would love for there to be aliens coming to visit us. I mean, not necessarily to, you know, steal our water or blow up our cities or whatever. But the, the, the fact that, that aliens existed would be so huge and so wonderful for me and for everybody.

But, but specifically to me. that it doesn't make sense that I would go out of my way to say, you know, this, this alien spaceship, that's not what you saw. You saw Venus or swamp gas or an airplane or a meteor or a satellite or, you know, and I can go on and on. And the fact of the matter is these sightings that [00:13:00] we keep hearing about, they always either have mundane explanations.

It's a balloon or a wedding lantern or something like that. Or it's, it's just something we can't identify, but it doesn't mean it's aliens. And I would love it for there to be aliens! Yeah, take me! Let's go! But that's never the case. And, and so if, if it were true, great. But every single time I see this stuff, and even when the government is like, Ooh, we have secret files.

It's like, yeah, tell, you know, pull my other leg. We get this every year. There's some high intelligence official who has secret meetings with people in the government and they have, you know, they've admitted we have aliens. And it's like, okay. Show me, just show me, because you are the last of a long line of people who have made these claims without photos, without any evidence.

Nothing. So, give me something and maybe we can talk. Yeah, I mean, it is, it's in our interests. We would be so rich, Phil. I mean, everybody would be calling us for Alien, you know, because they'd want to talk to us about it. [00:14:00] Yeah, this is an astronomer's absolute dream. So, yeah, trust me, we want there to be aliens.

We want there to be faster than light travel. But the problem is, the evidence just doesn't point that way.

Dean Regas: Well, now, so getting to like this year, I know there's the, the, the, the things out there about, you know, UFOs and people seeing things and all that kind of stuff, but we're doing some actual missions to places where maybe life could happen, you know, these missions to the Galilean moons, for example. I don't know, what, what's your kind of take on the new missions and searching for life in these water worlds that we're finding all around the solar.

Phil Plait: I love this idea. We used to think that Earth was the only place that had life on it. Now, this is still true. As far as we know, Earth is the only place the only world that has life on it. But as we start to explore, we find that, you know, maybe there [00:15:00] are some other places and we've often turned to Mars.

And it's gone back and forth between, you know, maybe Mars has an alien civilization on it, and then, oh, it's dead and dry, and, oh, it actually has ice and water, and it's hard to say. And now we know that billions of years ago, when Mars was very young, it was maybe more like Earth today than Earth was.

Earth was completely inhospitable five, six, seven hundred million years after it formed, whereas Mars looks like, you know, it had water and a thick atmosphere and was looking pretty nice. And then we found out that Europa, one of many icy moons of Jupiter has an underground ocean, and Saturn's moon Enceladus not only has an ocean under its surface, but it's blasting water geysers into space.

And we've seen that those water geysers have... Interesting molecules in them that could be the precursors for life, not necessarily implying that there are little alien fishies swimming around under the surface of Enceladus, [00:16:00] but that conditions there are very, very interesting, and we should be looking at them.

So this idea of a mission to Europa... A mission to Titan Saturn's largest moon which has an atmosphere. And we're sending a, a, a helicopter there, a drone called Dragonfly that's gonna fly around on the surface. Sadly, it's not gonna go to the, to the North Pole where we see lakes of liquid methane there.

But it's gonna look around for, for signs of life as well as other interesting things on the surface. So, I love all of this. Let's go everywhere and see everything and, and figure out what's going on and answer... This oldest question we have, you know, are we alone?

Dean Regas: You're author of several books, and I want to talk about your latest one, Under Alien Skies. Can you tell me all about it?

Phil Plait: The elevator pitch for this book is what would astronomical objects look like if you were there? So, instead of just seeing maybe a grainy picture [00:17:00] of something on your computer monitor, what would it be like if you were standing on the moon, on Mars, orbiting Saturn, in the middle of a cluster of stars, or On a planet that has two stars instead of one and Earth has the sun, but there are a lot of planets out there orbiting binary stars like Tatooine from Star Wars.

And what would that be like?

Dean Regas: Oh man, I mean, I think that's like what The whole mission of NASA is, is to like, kind of take us there with our imaginations and using that data and, you know, we can't fly this there ourselves, but the imagining that, you know, what would be your, your go to place if you could travel to one of those alien skies?

Phil Plait: Well, yeah, I like Earth a lot. It has air and water and all my friends are here and all my stuff is here. So this is the planet for me. But if I had to travel anywhere that I talk about in the book. I think Saturn, [00:18:00] and it's funny, it's only a few hundred million miles away, you know, only. But you know, compared to, say, the nearest black hole, which is several thousand trillion miles away, it's actually pretty close. But, we know a lot about Saturn, and it's just a really, really interesting place scientifically, so that would fulfill sort of the scientist part of my brain.

But also the slack jawed, wondrous, awe inspiring, oh my god what am I looking at part of my brain would be saturated, overflowing, because Saturn is so gorgeous. The ring system, the moons, the planet itself. There's just so much to see. And actually writing that chapter in my book, the hardest thing about it was basically cutting it to 8, 000 words.

My editor was like, this is too long. And I said, oh, come on, it's only 25, 000 words. It's only half the book. Come on.[00:19:00] And Saturn is just like that. It's just so tremendous. So much, just the rings themselves. So much interesting detail and, and beauty to soak up. That it's not too hard for me to make that decision.

Yeah, Saturn. Oh, I'm totally with you. I mean, the, the Cassini mission out there, Saturn's just like brought us there. I, you know, just imagining a ring rise, you know, as you're on one of the moons and your rings are right there. Ah. Man, that would be awesome. So I'm glad to hear that that one's your, your number one.

Dean Regas: Yeah, you are one of the hardest working astronomers in the biz. We're so glad that you took the time to talk to us today. Phil Plait thanks so much.

Phil Plait: Thank you. I really appreciate it.

Dean Regas: So astronomers like me and Phil have a lot of fun with superstitions. They're unbelievably frustrating, but also We get together and kind of laugh about them too, because it's, you know, they're really good.

So, Looking Up With Dean Regas is a production of Cincinnati Public Radio. Marshall Verbsky is our show producer and [00:20:00] UFO pilot in training. And in fact, Marshall, this is Marshall's last show with us. The UFOs got him. He's gone. Well, hopefully they'll bring him back. But thanks Marshall for all you've done.

We'd love to have you part of the show again. And good luck in the future with the UFOs. And hopefully they're... They bring you back to earth at some point. Ella Rowen is our audio engineer and lighting director for fake moon photo shoots. Wow. I mean, they look realistic. I mean, I feel like I'm on the moon right now.

Good job, Ella. This is awesome. Our theme song is possible light by Ziv Moran. I'm Dean Regas and keep looking up.