Mysteries of the Cosmos

By Phil Plait | February 2, 2009 1:26 pm

I think I’m recovered from being in Pasadena last weekend. I say "I think" because it was so cool that even the usual exponential decay of excitement after a wonderful event still runs strong.

The panel, called The Mysteries of the Cosmos, was all about the limits of what we know in astronomy. The panelists — Andrea Ghez, Mike Brown, Debra Fischer, and Saul Perlmutter — all study things at those limits: extrasolar planets, supermassive black holes, Kupier Belt objects, and the eventual fate of the Universe itself. I was the moderator, an honor I am still chuffed over.

The day of the panel was fun. Discover Magazine, aka The Hive Overmind, was one of the sponsors, and will have a full spread on the panel in an upcoming issue. They wanted still photos of of all of us, so I got to be a model. Full makeup (using an airbrush, which was partially awesome and partially bizarre), eyebrow trim, pimple spackling, the whole works. Then lots of photos of me looking dorky, happy, dorky, pensive, dorky, dramatic, and then, finally, dorky.

I was whisked down to do a short series of video Q&A; the panel was to be taped, and they wanted some background material. That was fun, and having Mike Brown there behind the camera making faces at me helped.

I then had a few hours off, and got some work done (no rest, ever, for the weary). Eventually the five of us were brought together for a splash picture for the magazine, done Vanity Fair style, which was fun. I don’t think I’ve ever posed on a ladder with another astronomer before. There was that time in the 80s when I needed the money, but I hardly think that counts…

Finally, it was time for the panel. I was surprised to find myself nervous! I give lots of public presentations, and I honestly haven’t been nervous to go onstage in years. I get excited, of course, but c’mon, butterflies in my stomach? Please! On the other hand, there were quite a few friends in the audience, and the Overmind was depending on me to not totally screw this up, so yeah, I was nervous.

Despite that — and one or two fairly minor flubs on my part — I think it went really well. The four panelists were relaxed, happy, and did a great job with the questions I tossed at them. We then went for an audience Q&A that lasted about an hour, and that was terrific. We had some fantastic questions, including several from little kids (like age 7 or so) that the panel handled wonderfully. My sense of the audience was that they really had a good time, got a lot of laughs, and learned a few things… which was precisely the point.

There were at least 500 folks in the audience, including some BAtweeps, some old friends who came to see me, Jennifer Ouellette and Sean Carroll, and at least one actress. Who would that be, you wonder? Why, I’m glad you ask:

That’s Brea Grant, from "Heroes", who is something of an astronomy junkie. I found out she follows me on Twitter, and haven’t let my brother-in-law forget it ever since (he’s a big fan).

Sadly, I didn’t take many pictures. There really wasn’t much time for it, and most of what I have isn’t fit to publish (people caught in the act of talking, or blinking, or out of focus). When the event is covered in Discover I’m sure they’ll have great photos… and in fact, maybe I’m happy with that. I sometimes take too much time getting pictures when I should instead simply be enjoying the moment. That happened many times over the weekend, and I’m just happy to have been there and asked to participate.

So, to Henry, Tricia, Jackie, Darlene, the folks from the NSF, Chuck, and of course Mike, Andrea, Debra, and Saul: thank you for everything. That was a fantastic day. I can’t wait to read the Discover article and see the video!

And hey– if you were there and got pictures, put links to them in the comments!

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff

Comments (48)

  1. Love that pic… and you BOTH look chuffed!

    They were really playing this panel discussion evening up at AAS a couple of weeks ago — I wish I could have hung in SoCal to see it… but had to get home.

    (p.s. is the Kupier Belt newly discovered?)

  2. j4yx0r

    You and the panelists were fantastic! We all had a great time. It was the perfect way to spend a Friday evening. PLEASE do more of these!


  3. TBRP

    The wife and I had a blast watching the panel. It was well worth the 2 hour drive to get there. I second the motion to have more of these!

  4. Man, wish I wasn’t stuck in Qatar. I would so sincerely love to go se Dr. Plait in all his glorious dorkiness, as well as go to a panel that features SCIENCE.

  5. Loved the panel, and Phil was an ideal moderator. Always great to see hundreds of people show up to learn about science on a Friday evening.


    @ Larian LeQuella,

    You’re in Qatar?! I know where it is, man, but isn’t that a rather drastic step to take just to get away from the creationist/woo-woo crowd in Florida? I mean, man, Canada would have sufficed! :-)

  7. Brent

    @ccpetersen: looks like the first Kupier Belt Object (KBO) was found in 1992 ( The Kupier Belt was in all my undergrad textbooks and I started in 2002. I’m not exactly sure what classifies an object as KBO as Pluto is an object in the Kupier Belt and it was discovered way before 1992. I’m guessing it took a while after Pluto to have the technology to resolve anything out there (on a somewhat related note Hubble optics correction took place in 1993, not sure when adaptive optics started becoming usable). Mike Brown from the panel has had quite a bit to do with the detection of KBOs.

  8. Cheyenne

    OK I just figured something out after looking at that picture…..(shudder)….particularly those canine cusps….

    If you happened to be a (dare I say it) UNDEAD VAMPIRE what would be the perfect job to keep a keen mind active during the night hours? Something to do outside when the sun isn’t up? And then have loads of data to work on indoors when the sun is up? Oh yeah – Astronomer! Phil probably even sees in different wavelengths from a mere mortal human….

    Overlord BA- Please do one of these panels in the midwest at some point! Want to attend.

  9. Davidlpf

    @Larian LeQuella, from hot and humid to hot and dry.
    @IVAN3MAN we do have woo-woo here.

  10. Davidlpf

    Oh, another cute younger woman all over the BA, this is just what we need for ego. Have you told PZ yet.

  11. hale_bopp

    You know, you can have more than one look at a time. I have seen you happily dorky as well as dorkily dramatic amongst other combinations.

  12. @IVAN3MAN, hehe not by choice. This is my AEF Deployment. Only 101 more days left here. And yes Davidlpf, it is pretty dry here, although we did have a lot of fog a couple days ago!

    I vote that Dr. Plait comes to Florida for his next panel. And not down in the dongly bit that gets all the attention, but in an area that NEEDS him, like the Panhandle. 😉

  13. Phil: You were awesome. I especially loved the question from the little girl who asked: “What would happen if the Earth were as small as Mercury.” (Answer from Mike Brown: “We’d look a lot like our moon.”)
    Here are some pictures from the event (including one of us).

  14. Davidlpf, yes, I know, every country in the world has its share of the “woo-woo” crowd, but not as much as the Bible Belt states of the U.S.!

    Larian LeQuella, you could do with cold beer over there, but I don’t think they allow alcohol in that country… or do they? 😉

    Talking of hot & dry/humid, over here in London, U.K., we have had 20 cm (8 inches) of snow — not much by Canadian standards, but a lot for the unaccustomed British! (Click on my name for the BBC News pictures.)

  15. Man, if only I could have been there. I’d love to travel around and go to all these events. It sure would make stalking you easier. 😉

  16. IVAN3MAN, we are allowed a ration of 3 beers (or other alcoholic beverages) per day. It’s expensive though (about $2.50 for carbonated water like Bud Light). And you speak true about the “bible belt”… With as obese as the US is getting, that belt seems to be getting HUGE! I also saw the snow on BBC News. Some of your countrymen are serving here, and I actually get something outside Faux Noise for news. And the Aussies show “Enemies of Reason” on their channel!

    Back off Jewel, he’s mine! I have already declared my man-crush on him. Although, if it came right down to it, I think he’d welcome your stalking much more than mine. 😉

  17. andyo

    I gotta keep updated on these things, I live down a few cities (really close, this is LA).

  18. Ummm… Brent… I know when the Kuiper Belt objects were found… I wrote about them in my books, etc… but I was asking about the so-called “Kupier” objects that Phil refers to in his blog entry.

    (Hint: i was just being too subtle in pointing out a typo)

  19. Alan in Upstate NY

    As long as people are taking “dibs,” put me down for Brea. Always like a pretty smile! Oh, wait, there’s also Jewel…

    At any rate, it sounds like it was a lot of fun. Wish I was closer to the left coast! (Although easier from here than from Qatar.) Boston or New York sound like great venues for something similar.

    And “Heroes” is coming up shortly. Nice to know Brea is an astronomy junkie.

    Clear skies, Alan

  20. mus

    way OT, but phil and everyone else really needs to update their google earth, look up the rovers on mars, click on the pictures, and fly into them.

    It. is. wicked.

  21. Hi Phil.

    It was a blast and it was great seeing you in person again. Not only was it a lot of fun, it was very informative.

    Here is a link to my Facebook Photo Album of the event with pictures of you, me, Brian, A, and Shermer: (I haven’t tried posting a Facebook Album link before, so I hope it is viewable by people not on Facebook.)

    Talk to you later.


  22. Kimpatsu

    Congratulations on a sucessful job well done, Phil. And mega-kudos for the pic with Brea, who is sooooo cool. Heroes is a great show!
    I am soooo jealous.
    Now I’d better stop howling, before I turn into a werewolf…

  23. jgrabyan

    It was a great panel, I enjoyed it immensely.
    I took some pictures, the only really good one is a picture of Phil and Brea from an alternate angle, about 2 seconds before this one was taken. It’s one of the 7 or so in this album:

  24. KC

    Brea Grant is teh HAWT!

  25. Don Snow

    Congratulations, Phil!

    I think having fun while doing science really gets it across.

    I think this article is great and thank you for sharing.

    I almost wish you’d do a panel in DFW, but I’d probably be at work.

  26. Ali_Cali

    I was there, and thanks, Dr. Plait, for being pleasant and talking with me for a little bit (even remembering some very old posts of mine). It was a nice moment to stand there with you and scan the crowd. I’m sorry to say that my wife fell asleep as soon as she arrived. She’s not that much into Astronomy, but at least I can get her to pick out Orion.

    I’ll look for more events in the LA area.

  27. BicycleRepairMan

    LOL @jgrabryans photo, is Phil checking some cleavage?

  28. @BicycleRepairMan:
    That’s the creepiest picture of Phil I have ever seen… oh wait, there was one on the Skepticdudes Calendar of Phil… My eyes still burn…

  29. Winter Solstice Man

    Hello Darlene! Who says hot babes don’t like geeks?

  30. Gary Ansorge

    Phil,Dude, if you’re gonna grow fur, make it a REAL beard/mustache(check your email for an example),,,

    Creepy? Ah, it’s just the toothiness of the smile that does him in. Note Brea: She has it right: less is more.

    Dang, I am SO envious,,,

    GAry 7

  31. Wow – great pic Phil! If she’s an astronomy junkie, that makes you her dealer! Or something. 😉

    Is the Mysteries of the Cosmos video/audio posted yet?

  32. Bill

    Beauty and the Geek

  33. davidlpf

    I thought astronomers looked up.

  34. Brent

    @ccpetersen haha, whoops I feel like a dope now, should have clicked on your website first

  35. Hey jgrabyan,

    I think you were the guy sitting in the same row as me. Were you sitting in between A and Shermer? If so, then that row went: Shermer, You, A, Brian, Rick, Me.


  36. jgrabyan

    @Derek: You are correct, sir. She and Shermer were having a conversation across me, and I had know idea who either of them were, heh. Those were some great seats.

  37. Joe Meils

    Once again, proof that Phil hangs around with “fast women”… LOL (I slay me!)

  38. quasidog

    ha Joe Meils.

    Love Heroes. They took it off TV because fools run the TV syndicates here .. so I have to watch them form another source. Unless its sport, or cheap game shows, or lame reality shows, it does not make television in Australia. Sci-Fi related shows just don’t last. Hence I rarely watch TV except for news and some sport .. and The Simpsons hehe.

    One more thing … Brea Grant is hawt :p

  39. Hi Phil,

    I wish I could have been there to hear it all. My interest in astronomy and astrophysics has only recently begun to blossom into a “need” for me, but I have always loved the sky and its wonders.

    If I may be so bold as to ask a favor of you (or anyone really knowledgeable in the subject of space travel), would you be so kind as to check out a recent blog entry of mine? It is here:

    I welcome any constructive criticism you might have, and would be deeply honored to hear what you think. (No weirdness or woo, I promise. I, too, am a skeptic who loves the stars.)

    Thank you so much in any case. Keep up the wonderful work you do. :-)

  40. So did Grant ran away from you really, really fast?


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