The Big Idea: Philip Plait

Here on Earth, we have a pretty decent view of the universe (when it’s not cloudy, or when there’s light pollution, or the sun is out, or…). But the universe looks different depending on where in you stand. Or so Dr. Philip Plait suggests, in his new book, Under Alien Skies.


As someone who quite often speaks to the public about astronomy, I get a lot of cosmic questions from people — honestly, mostly about black holes and aliens. But if I’m talking about specific astronomical objects, showing dazzling and mind-vaporizing Hubble or JWST images of nebulae or star clusters in a talk, for example, the question I hear the most generally falls under the category of, “Is this what it would look like if you were actually there?”

Good question, right? And while simple to ask, it’s deceptively hard to answer. The truth is, “No. Well, maybe. Sometimes. But not really. Kinda.” Worse, the more detail you try to give the harder this gets.

Telescopes use filters and digital cameras that sense light in very different ways than our eyes do, so right away the photos perforce aren’t how we’d see something if we were floating in space above it or in it or on it. Sometimes just the fact that we’re viewing them from far away changes what we see.

And, most importantly I think, while telescopes show us amazing views of these distant vistas, seeing a photo on a screen is isolated, an almost completely removed experience from being there, seeing and feeling and sometimes even hearing it for ourselves.

Under Alien Skies: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Bookshop|Powell’s

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The the complete text at: The Big Idea: Philip Plait

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