Bad Astronomy is Actually Good Astronomy

Space. It’s fascinating. I’ve geeked out on space stuff since I was a kid. I had books and videos about the solar system, I built Lego space stations and spaceships, and of course I watched sci-fi movies and tv shows. In 1989, when the Voyager 2 space probe passed Neptune, I poured over newspaper clippings and magazine articles with full-colour glossy photos of the murky blue gaseous planet.

So when I heard that Hubble 3D was showing at the iMax theatre, I had to go. It’s only 45 minutes long but it’s filled with some amazing footage. Incredible scenes of space taken by Hubble and then turned into beautiful 3D models of galaxies, supernovae and stellar nurseries. Footage of astronauts doing slow-motion spacewalks to service the telescope as well as life on board the shuttles, and the training conducted four-stories underwater to prepare for them. If you’re even a little bit interested in space, I recommend seeing this.

Thanks to the internet, there’s now a myriad of new ways to geek out on space. Blogs, magazines, podcasts and twitter feeds are just the start. Perhaps one of the best things a space geek can do is subscribe to Phil Plait’s blog, Bad Astronomy. A scientist who worked on the Hubble Space Telescope program, has written two books about space and now has his own TV series “Bad Universe”, I think of him as the Carl Sagan of our generation. He’s famously written articles debunking popular myths like astrology and the ‘moon landing hoax’. And nearly every day, he posts interesting pictures or articles about space. But most importantly, he explains what it is you’re seeing, and why it’s so remarkable.

Here are just a few recent examples. Click each of the photos below to get Phil’s explanations. They’re very cool!


Donate Your Organs

My brother used to have a “Don’t take your organs to heaven, heaven knows we need them here” bumper sticker on his car. I respected his decision, but I didn’t agree with it. Something about the idea squicked me.

This was before I’d cemented my atheist beliefs and come to terms with the likelihood that there is no afterlife. I was young. I had naive questions, like “we don’t know what happens when we die, what if we do need our livers?”. I think a part of me was secretly hoping the vikings were right, and after my passing I’d have an eternity of drinking and feasting to look forward to.

That all changed, however, in my early twenties. My best friend went into hospital, needing open heart surgery to replace a faulty aortic valve. The plan was to use an artificial, mechanical valve that would do the job, but for a variety of reasons would be sub-standard. It would need to be replaced every 10 to 20 years, for a start, and could require him to take anticoagulant medication and have monthly blood tests. But, if that was the cost of saving his life, so be it. He was prepared for it, as best as anyone could be.

At the last minute, though, he got some great news: a donor heart valve had become available! The human valve was transplanted into him, and ever since he’s been a picture of health. Because of some dead stranger’s gift, he can live like everyone else. Organ donation changed his life.

The next day I went and signed up to be an organ donor. I don’t know if there’s an afterlife, but if there is I’m fairly certain we don’t need our corporeal bodies in it. What I DO know, though, is that there’s a urgent need for organ transplants. Mark Colvin, host of ABC radio’s PM news and current affairs program, wrote about it brilliantly on The Drum today. You can’t help be moved by reading it, and I hope you will click here and sign up to be an organ donor.

Who’s Afraid of Islam? America Is.

Artist rendition of the “Ground Zero Mosque”Can’t we all move past the whole “They’re different to me, I’m scared” thing?

Last month the Pew Research Center released a report showing that most Americans don’t know what religion their own President is. The survey found that nearly one-in-five Americans (18%) think Obama is a Muslim, up from 11% in March 2009. Nearly half (43%) say they do not know what his religion is. He is, actually, a Christian – a fact that only a third of adults (34%) correctly answered, down from 48% in 2009.

Well, he says he’s a Christian, anyway. While in Australia we don’t have a problem with an atheist Prime Minister, in the US it’s almost political suicide. As Bill Maher said in an interview on Jon Stewart’s Daily Show: “He of course has to SAY he is, because he’s running for President in the ‘United Stupid of America’”. Of course, a leader’s religion isn’t necessarily a big deal. Politicians should, ideally, be elected based on their policies, not beliefs. But there are times – fortunately not very often – when politicians will need to comment on religious topics. And a week after that survey was released, Obama did just that: he spoke out in support of what the media has dubbed the “Ground Zero Mosque”.

Which isn’t at Ground Zero.

And isn’t really a mosque.

It’s a 13-story building with an auditorium, theater and performing arts center. It has a gym, swimming pool and basketball court; a creche, a bookstore, a culinary school, art studio, and food court. It also has a September 11 memorial, AND a mosque.

But because it’s planned to be built 200m away from the site of the World Trade Center, it’s become a hotbed of controversy. With many opposing its construction complaining it’s an insult to the memories of those who died there. Even though, as Matt Sledge writes for the Huffington Post, “Muslim prayers are already taking place right on the edge of the construction site … Families are going there to pray – for the souls of the dozens of innocent Muslim victims who died on September 11”.

It’s been nine years and Islamophobia is still widespread in America. It’s well time to move on. The 19 hijackers on September 11 were no more Muslim than the Westboro Baptist Church lunatic, Fred “God Hates Fags” Phelps is Christian. They were a tiny, extremist element of an otherwise peaceful religion.