Sunday, January 29, 2012

Death from the Skies!

Death from the Skies! These are the Ways the World Will End...
© 2008 Phil Plait
326 pages


By anyone's standards, 2011 was a banner year for disasters, with Earth's ful inventory of catastrophes on display. Flooding, earthquakes, tsunamis, volcano eruptions, hurricanes, and tornadoes filled newspaper headlines all year. In the wake of all this, some might be tempted to look to the heavens for relief -- to the placid, twinkling stars above. Too bad that twinkling is probably a gamma-ray burst on its way to vaporize you.

The perils of the heavens are the subject of Phil Plait's second work, Death from the Skies, and in it he lists nine particular ways the universe might be trying to kill us, from relatively mild extinction-level asteroid impacts to the collisions of galaxies.  Although exposure to most of these sounds like nothing to laugh about, Plait's tone remains light throughout the book, until he discusses the total heat death of the universe. Part of the reason for Plait's levity is that these are not serious concerns;  considering the size of the cosmos and the timescale at which things happen, the chances of human beings in their present form being damaged by the collision of the Milky Way and the Andromeda Galaxy, or gobbled up by the Sun's swollen expansion, are virtually nonexistent.  And even if these things were a serious concern, there's nothing we can do to prevent them -- so why worry?  Asteroid impact and solar storms are likely to affect us, but their damage can be mitigated -- and even avoided.

While this is my first time reading Plait, I've long been a fan of him thanks to his blog (Bad Astronomy) and his frequent appearances on shows like Star Talk and the Skeptic's Guide to the Universe.  Plait is as entertaining an author as he is an in-person guest, almost chatting with the reader and  making frequent jokes. He's as sneaky as he is funny: while people may be drawn in by the book's colorful cover (and title) and engaged by his literary charisma,  Death from the Skies!  isn't superficial in the least. Along the way, Plait instructs readers in astronomy and cosmology. The stars are the source of many of these world-ending scenarios,  and one can't help but be impressed by the scale of their lives and their overwhelming importance to life as we know it.  The stars don't simply illuminate the skies and heat the planets in orbit about them; throughout their lives and especially in their death throes, they create the stuff of life. The very atoms that make up Earth have been forged in the heart of supernovas.

Death from the Skies! is one of the best science books I've read in a long time; anyone with an interest in the night-time sky should enjoy it. Expect to see his debut book (Bad Astronomy) read here at some point, because Plait is a blast.

Related:

  • Death by Black Hole (and other Cosmic Quandries), Neil deGrasse Tyson

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