Sunday, April 25, 2010

Are Astronomers Weird?

About a month ago, not long after I hosted my first solo Sidewalk Astronomy session, I posted something on Facebook that got quite a few comments, and I’d like to go more in depth with it here. Obviously, if you set up telescopes in a public setting, especially alone, you invite questions to be asked. Usually I enjoy answering them, even if it’s something that should have been taught in grade school. Not everybody is interested in astronomy to begin with, and most people just can’t appreciate reading out of a textbook. They need to see through a telescope to let their curiosity come up with questions. That is why I put myself and my telescopes in public to begin with. I enjoy the questions that come from showing people the cosmos. Most of the time.

Better than 90% of the questions I’m asked are good ones, and of those, 10% are really good ones, meaning I don’t have a sufficient answer for them. But there is a certain percentage of people out there who want to talk about UFO’s and Area 51, or Nibiru and the Mayan calendar. They somehow equate telescopes to pseudo science. Or perhaps it’s the other way around. But whatever it is, I don’t like answering these questions for two reasons. I don’t know much about these subjects, and don’t feel like I can answer them adequately, and mostly I don’t know much about them because I feel they don’t deserve to be justified with an answer.

I don’t want to be rude to the people posing these questions, but I feel like they put me in a bad position. I wonder how many people walk by thinking I’m either some pervert peeping Tom, or a UFO hunting weirdo? I don’t appreciate being thought of as either, and I think answering the weird questions unfairly puts that label on me.

In the original Facebook discussion, my friend Joe said the he enjoys alternative discussions. Joe’s a gregarious guy, and I have no doubt that he does like hearing and weighing in on some odd subjects, just for the sake of discussion. In fact, Joe pointed out to me that Galileo was thought of as a kook in his day. Very true, but Galileo had the observations to back up his claims, easily repeatable with the newly invented telescope. Galileo makes the then-crazy claim that the Moon has mountains and craters? Here, see for yourself. Jupiter has moons orbiting it? Watch carefully for a few hours. Galileo was no kook, but a scientist fully deserving of recognition during last year’s International Year of Astronomy.

I’ve seen almost everything that Galileo saw through his tiny telescope, and in much better detail. I can assure you, he wasn’t crazy. Better yet, have a look through my telescope and see for yourself. That, my friends, is science. Rudimentary, but science nonetheless.

But the people asking about UFO’s or Nibiru aren’t offering any evidence, except maybe some TV show that likely put the idea in their head to begin with. The UFO people may have seen something strange that they aren’t sure about, but that doesn’t mean they saw an alien spaceship. I’ve seen a few things I can’t explain, but I’m not claiming to have seen aliens. Probably everybody who has stared at the sky long enough has seen something weird, unknown to them. Knowing the positions of the planets, and the major flight corridors in your area goes I think can go a long way in explaining almost everything that you might see.

Does this mean I don’t believe in extra-terrestrial life? No. I think life is probably abundant in our universe. Am I weird for thinking that? No. Four hundred years ago Bruno was burned at the stake as a heretic for suggesting that there may be innumerable worlds with life. In his day it was a crazy idea; now astronomers are closing in on finding worlds that may have life. In the next decade, we should have strong evidence suggesting that planets around other stars are indeed living worlds. In the absence of evidence in the next few decades, then maybe we will go back to the idea that Bruno was crazy, but for now his thinking is supported by the growing number of exoplanets discovered, and the advancements in detecting and studying those distant worlds.

I welcome questions of life in the universe along these lines, rooted in recent, repeatable observations. So why are the questions I get about alien life mostly centered on humanoid creatures flying around our planet abducting people? Come on people, I expect better than that. Bring your curiosity and questions and even your sense of wonder when viewing our universe, but leave the absurd ideas behind. I don’t like wasting time explaining that there is no giant planet about to come crashing through the inner solar system just because you saw it in some doomsday movie. It isn’t real. And if serious sky gazers happen to catch sight of one, I will look for it myself, and let everybody know if there is indeed a threat. But for now, I don’t want anybody thinking I’m some kind of weirdo just because I enjoy looking up, and want to know our true place in the universe.


  1. Hi Paul,
    Your post was very good and very funny at the same time. I really enjoyed it!

    I myself believe in this type of pseudo stuff but it's something that I keep to myself and it is completely separate from my love of astronomy. I try not to mix the two too much. Except for learning about the discoveries of possible life on other planets and stuff like that.

    A lot of people will naturally assume like you said in your post that if you're into astronomy you also MUST be into aliens and ufos and all things paranormal. Sure, some amateur astronomers got into astronomy because of Sci-fi and their love for aliens and ufos. But there are also plenty of others who don't believe in this stuff and that's plenty ok too!

    This is how I deal with it. People are going to think whatever it is they want to think. If you know the answer as to when Nibiru or Planet X is making a comeback or if there really is an underground alien base in Area 51 then great! There is nothing like learning a little bit about everything. You might even find someone who's actually quite interesting who knows a friend who knows another friend who had a real life encounter with an alien from the Zeta Reticuli system or who's father got mauled by Sasquatch! You never know!

    But if you don't know the answers to some of these perplexing questions don't beat yourself up on it. I myself don't know the answers. They are speculations at best. You do what you have to do with the answers from questions these people ask you. If you don't know at least you tried, right? And nothing wrong with trying!

    Good blog by the way. I am officially a follower! Keep posting! Love to read your posts. Thanks.

  2. I think there's a difference in believing something because somebody has observed something they can't explain and somebody who couldn't find the Big Dipper reading about alien abductions in a tabloid magazine. I'm not going to walk in the woods and claim to have found Bigfoot just because I hear a strange noise, you know? You need a frame of reference for these things, and if an experienced observer sees something strange, then it's worth a listen. But I got in a discussion last year about Nibiru with a girl on a friend's Facebook page. That was the first time I'd ever heard of Nibiru. I thiught it was unfair if this girl to waste my friend's time (and mine) just because she couldn't take our word that the astronomical community isn't talking about Nibiru because it hasn't been seen, most likely because it isn't there. My friend Chicago Astronomer Joe reminded me to keep a more open mind though, and I will try to do that next time I'm asked a weird question in public. Thanks for reading, Johany.