Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Death from the Skies! by Philip Plait

Death from the Skies: The Science Behind the End of the World..., by Philip Plait, Ph.D. Penguin, 2008. 326 pp. 978-0-14-311604-2.

... in which we learn about the many ways that the Universe is trying to kill us.

As a geoscientist, I am accustomed to working with time scales and sizes far greater than most people use. I'm used to thinking in terms of hundreds of millions of years, and thinking of things that are many kilometers below the surface of the Earth. However, topics related to astronomy quickly remind me of how ephemeral and puny the Earth really is! Written by the author of the Bad Astronomy blog and website, both of which are highly recommended for anyone with an interest in science and society, Death from the Skies! is a close look at various ways that the planet Earth is threatened by events in space. Covering topics like asteroid impacts, solar flares, supernovae, gamma ray bursts, black holes, aliens, death of the sun, galactic collisions, and the death of the Universe, this is not a book to be read by the paranoid, or the type who subscribe to conspiracy theories, or anyone with a poor understanding of statistics and scientific notation. Below: a gamma ray burst! Beautiful and really deadly. And extremely unlikely to affect us any time soon.

Dr. Plait starts off each chapter with a brief story of what it might be like to be on Earth while these events are taking place. They're grim stories, and really illustrate how powerless we'd be in most (but not all) of these situations. He then goes on to explain the mechanics of each event, and describes the likelihood of each event actually occurring in our lifetimes. Although astronomy seems like a topic that could be difficult to explain to a lay audience, Phil Plait does a fantastic job explaining the physics and math behind various astronomical phenomena. He has a real knack for analogies, so even people without much of a science background get a good idea of the points he is trying to illustrate. Despite the grim theme of the book, Plait actually writes with a great deal of good humor and enthusiasm for his topic. The humor and the well-described science of the book make it an easy read, even for people without much familiarity with astronomy or physics.

The only change I would make would be a slight change in the organization of the book. He explains scientific notation and its importance in the field of astronomy at the very end; I feel like it might have been more useful to have that explanation closer to the beginning, especially for people who haven't used scientific notation in many years. Of course, at some point, it doesn't really matter how much experience you have with it, because the human brain doesn't really comprehend the difference between 10^50 years or 10^100 years or 10^1000 years. At some point, it just becomes a really really big number in your head.

I highly recommend this book to anyone with a passing interest in astronomy... it's accessible for basically all levels, crammed with interesting details, and easy to read. I definitely felt like I learned a lot from it (especially about black holes [see below] and the end of the Universe), and what's more, I enjoyed learning it.

5/5 stars.

Everybody loves black holes!!!!!

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