Liam McDaid

SCC Astronomy Coordinator

& Professor of Astronomy

Presenting at the Amazing Meeting 3, 2005

(Image courtesy of David Patton)

    Hi!  At SCC, I wear two hats.  I teach astronomy courses 60% of the time and am the Astronomy Coordinator 40% of the time.  If you think that's confusing, I'm with you - hey, it confused the IRS.  Using the old rule of "the longer the job title, the less important the role", I am quite unimportant as I have the longest job title in my department.  I also want to warn anyone who continues reading that I have a dry, almost Saharan sense of humor.  

If you are in one of my classes, I suggest you read the syllabus before you ask me a question about class management.  If you lost yours whilst experiencing a twenty car pile-up, they are posted here. 

If you are interested in the Observatory and public viewings, please go here.

If you are interested in any of the astronomy classes at SCC, please go here. (.pdf file)

If you are interested in other classes in our department, geology is here, and physics is here. (.pdf files)

How much do you know about astronomy?  I've made a page addressing 44 common misconceptions about astronomy here.

 

Who are you?

That's a tough question, even if you're a Vorlon.  I've been interested in astronomy since the age of five, went to Penn State where I majored in astronomy and minored in history and physics.  I then went to graduate school at New Mexico State, and was in the astronomy department first set up by the man on the left of this photo:

Me, Clyde and his wife Patsy

Meet Clyde Tombaugh, the discoverer of Pluto.  I actually shared an office with him and another grad student for a year.  I was a fan - Clyde died in 1996.  If you think this is part of why I maintain that Pluto is a planet (see the FAQ below), you're right.  I got my M.S. in astronomy in 1991.  I liked getting a masters degree so much that I got another one - in physics (1993).  I had planned to get three more, but found a job instead.

I am a Senior Scientist at SKEPTIC Magazine, and am active in the skeptic movement, both locally and nationally.  Critical thinking is about the only thing that keeps our soi-disant civilization from imploding into a black hole, so I encourage it in my classes (as my students quickly find out) and in my public outreach.  Below is a picture of me with Devin Shermer, daughter of Michael Shermer - the publisher of SKEPTIC magazine. 

Devin Shermer and me (Image courtesy of David Patton)

Here we were selling books at a lecture, and she was pretending that she hated having her picture taken.  Everyone's an actor in LA.  I am also fortunate enough to know Robert T. Carroll - author of the legendary Skeptic's Dictionary.  He was a philosophy professor here at SCC until 2007, which is how I met him.

 

FAQ

1).  Are you that Liam McDaid who is an Irish doctor, British artificial intelligence researcher, French mercenary, South African politician, Australian land baron, Canadian singer and base jumper, etc?

    No.  Although Liam is an obscure enough name that it confuses everyone in Sacramento - a former SCC president once called me "Leeman"- it is quite common in Ireland, the UK, Commonwealth nations, and other bits of Europe.  It is interesting that I am never asked to spell my first name in LA - thanks, Liam Neeson!

 

2).  What does an astronomy coordinator do?

    I run the Observatory here at SCC (find out more here) and the monthly Dark Sky Star Parties at several locations distant from city lights.  Another thing I do are astronomy presentations at local schools.  That's why I have a special page for teachers here.  (If you are a local teacher in Sacramento or know one who is interested in astronomy programs in their school please contact me or have them contact me.)  I also work out ideas for astronomy curriculum, student research projects and procure and maintain the astronomy department's equipment.  I sometimes even do astronomy shows or presentations globally.  I do love my job, as confusing as it sometimes is.

 

3).  Is Pluto a planet?

    Yes.  Before 2006, there was no definition for planet, believe it or not.  As we learned more about objects in the distant fringe of our Solar System, it seemed to be a good thing that Pluto was "grandfathered in" as a planet.  The key event that changed things was probably the discovery of Eris, which is allegedly larger than Pluto.  Nobody was interested in making Eris the tenth planet so the time seemed right to start nailing down the furniture, so to speak.  If you wonder whether the existing definition of "planet" is designed to exclude Pluto, you're almost right.  It also excludes bodies like Eris, and the largest asteroid - Ceres.

  The reason I take issue with the present definition of "planet" is that it is still arbitrary.  Using it, I could argue that Earth, Venus, and Jupiter aren't planets!  Since that would be silly, excluding Pluto seems equally silly to me.  Ultimately, most astronomers could care less about any of this.  The public and an occasional politician seem much more interested.  This may be because Pluto is the only planet discovered by an American in the Solar System.

 

4).  What about that thing in the sky that I heard about?

    If you are interested in seeing the sky from our observatory, please check out the schedule for the Open Observatory here.  If anything really big happens (new comet, exploding star, Jupiter gets stolen by aliens), special dates for viewing will be posted here as well.

Main SCC observatory telescope - 16" Meade LX 200

SCC Observatory Telescope

(Image courtesy of Forrest Newman)

 

5).  What about astrology?  Is it real?

    Astrology is many things to many people but one thing it is not is a science.  The few testable claims it makes have been tested and they failed.  The fact that so many people think there's something to it, in spite of all the evidence against it leads me to think it's a religion.  Probably the oldest religion on Earth.  I include Eastern astrology in my statement above, as it is simply a different astrological system that - when tested - also fails.  I have more information on my infamous 44 Common Misconceptions about Astronomy website both here and here.  If you are really interested in a thorough examination of astrology by an astronomer, go to Phil Plait's Bad Astronomy subpage devoted to it, which is here.  Phil's not really a bad astronomer, that's just the name of his first book.  He does think Pluto shouldn't be a planet, so I don't always agree with him.

 

6).  What was your research in?

    In astronomy, stellar spectroscopy.  In physics, modeling light scattering off of oddly shaped particles.  I don't do research anymore, as I enjoy public outreach and astronomy education much more - and always have. 

Sirius spectrum

A spectrum of Sirius taken at the SCC Observatory

 

Betelguese spectrum

A spectrum of Betelgeuse taken at the SCC Observatory

 

    Some might argue, particularly those with antiscience or religious or still religious axes to grind, that since I stopped doing research that means I'm not a "real" astronomer.  This is a silly argument even for a Monty Python sketch, but it does sometimes come up.  Here's the way I look at it:  If you got paid to do something, then you can call yourself that.  I have a friend who used to work in the film industry.  He was always being accosted by phonies who would say that they were "directors", "producers" or "actors".  His response to them would always be to ask something like "what have you directed?" or "what have you acted in?".  Their responses made it clear that they were not actors or such but simply trying to be 'in the business'.  My friend created what I call Adams' Rule of Commerce, which I stated above.  For example:  if you were ever paid to write, you can call yourself a writer.  At some point in my life I've been: an astronomer, a physicist, a lecturer, a writer, a planetarium operator, a professor, an astronomy coordinator, a consultant, a special assistant on a film and many other less exciting things.  Using Adams' Rule, I can claim any of those titles so I pick the one I like most: astronomer. 

     

7).  What about UFOs?

    If you're asking if they are alien spacecraft, almost certainly not.  Today, UFO "researchers"* focus mainly on government conspiracies and incidents that happened decades ago.  I don't see recent video that is anything more than blurry lights or fuzzy blobs.  No one does pictures anymore because they're so easily faked in the age of Photoshop.  To learn how to fake your own UFO pictures, go here.  Many people see things in the sky that they can't identify.  That makes it unidentified, but that doesn't mean it's an alien spaceship.  I have seen weird things in the sky (clearly, I look up a lot).  Not once, have I ever seen anything that was unambiguously an alien spaceship.  Steven Spielberg pointed out that with all the cell-phone cameras, camcorders, and other video equipment that have exploded in quantity in the last twenty years, one would expect an equally large increase in the number of sightings and visual evidence.  This hasn't happened.  Maybe light pollution is to blame. 

    As for alien abductions, it seems that was built on a house of cards according to recent exposÚs.  Many of the claims made about abductions from the 1990s on were dubious at best or even outrageous.  It would seem that many self styled abduction "researchers" did little investigating.  There are many other possibilities for these experiences besides aliens.  These things clearly happen to people.  The claim that they are happening in the world external to that person seems unlikely.

    I'm not saying there aren't aliens, I believe they are out there and my respectable annual donation to the SETI Institute backs up that belief.  I'm pretty sure that they are not visiting us now, or have done so within the last one hundred thousand years.  If anyone has real evidence to the contrary (please, no blurry pics or vids), I'd love to see it.  My email is below.

*  I put the word researchers in quotes because these folk don't do research.  They've already decided that UFOs are alien spacecraft and only look for data to confirm what they already believe.  That's not research, it's 'cherry picking' (formally known as confirmation bias) and it is not science. 

 

8).  Can I be an astronomer?

    Yes and no.  If you hate working hard and lots of math classes, astronomy will not be pleasant for you.  You'll need the math as you will be using it your whole career.  Astronomers also have great trouble finding work in astronomy - I know many astronomers who don't do astronomy as any part of their present job.  They also don't get paid a great deal of money unless they are research superstars or write very successful books.  Folks, astronomy is a science and science is hard.  Astronomy is interesting and exciting:  it is the sexy science.

Rigel spectrum

A spectrum of Rigel taken at the SCC Observatory (B stars are boring)

 

9).  Is that your bar in the background?

    No.  It belongs to someone who is part of a clearly more prosperous branch of my family.  McDaid is a common last name in County Donegal, Ireland which is where my five grandparents came from.

 

10).  Five grandparents?

    One of my grandfathers was an identical twin.  Twins are big in my family. 

 

Thanks for visiting!

E-mail me.

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