Archive | Friday, 18:08, July 9, 2010

Book Review: Death From The Skies – by Philip Plait, PhD

Phil Plait has really outdone himself with his most recent book, in which he describes all sorts of realistic ways for the universe to do us in that dwarfs into microscopic insignificance the most twisted and ambitious fantasies of religious nutters who are horny for the Apocalypse™.

Not only does he achieve this, he goes into the details of how these events, all of them scientifically possible, could at the very least bring about the ruin of the world’s economy and infrastructure and at worst annihilate not just all life, but the Earth and the universe itself.

But does he talk over his audience’s head?

Certainly not.

Even this skeptophrenic blogger can understand the details he so carefully and with enviable wit and humor goes into. Throughout the book, he avoids gratuitous use of arcane jargon and facilely explains the terminology he does use that may be unfamiliar to some picking up an astronomy book for the first time. He never talks down to his readers, showing his skill as a scientist and science communicator by avoiding pedantry.

In those cases he uses mathematics, he does so in ways that are illuminating, not intimidating, that last, except to convey just how awesome…and awful, some of these cosmic disasters really are, or would be if the cosmos decided to severely b*tch-slap us with its might.

Nor does he engage in the fear-mongering that characterize similarly-themed popular works of catastrophist pseudoscience.

An important feature he uses to introduce each chapter is a vignette graphically detailing a fictional scenario of the sort of events the chapter describes, afterward giving brutal but clear detail of the science behind the event of discourse, noting the real (and in most cases incredibly unlikely) chance of occurrence of the cosmic smack-down, and where possible, what we can do about it.

Yes, in some of these scenarios he describes what we can do to prevent or mitigate some of these events, while conveying the dangers they pose if we do nothing. The first events he discusses are the easiest to deal with, asteroid and comet impacts, as well as the aforementioned preventive measures nicely explained even to a beginner, and moving up on that scale are solar flares and coronal mass ejections — the former being solar tornadoes and the latter hurricanes by comparison.

These last two, while we can’t prevent them, we can lessen the effect on our infrastructure and economy, and offset if not prevent their collapse and the fatalities that could result, say, in the dead of winter.

Some of these events are inevitable, given enough time, three in particular: the death of the Sun, the collision and merger of our Milky Way with the Andromeda galaxy, and of course, the demise of the entire universe literally uncountable years in the future. In the space of this review, I cannot overstate how mind-bogglingly far in the future it will be — to get a sense of it, buy or borrow the book! Phil puts it in much better terms than my Troythuluness can ever hope to.

The appendix at the back is useful, highly so, and shows the currently estimated probabilities of each of these things happening to us, with some shown as incapable of estimation beforehand, like our likelihood of being attacked by aliens, since for this we have nothing to base the estimation on.

That being said, he notes that the evidence that we are still here, despite the short span of time needed to colonize the galaxy by an ambitious and aggressive species, is a good indication that this currently has a probability very close to zero. If they were around, they would have found us and wiped us out already, which indicates either that they lack hostility and ambition, or they aren’t around to do us in.

The fact that we are here to speculate about it is telling.

Thanks, Phil (*whew*).

An example of the probability of anyone being killed by one type of event, the Gamma-ray burster, is given at about 1 in 14 million — I’m a lot more likely to be killed by a shark, and I don’t swim.

My only problem with the book, and this is just a nitpick, is the couple of typos I found in the text, and to be fair, I suspect that’s the printer’s fault, not Phil’s. It will probably be corrected in future printings, so it’s all good.

Overall, I found this book engaging, highly entertaining, and a welcome dose of astronomical reality in a veritable sea of similar-themed but crappy books written for the lowest common denominator.

My advice: Buy it..or borrow it from the local library!

You’ll learn some really cool things about the universe, not just how vulnerable we are, but how lucky we happen to be to exist and flourish on this tiny globe, spinning around a largish but typical yellow variable star that has a temper, the only place in the universe we know of in an incredibly hostile cosmos that harbors life.

Good job, Phil!