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Book Review: DEATH FROM THE SKIES! by Phil Plait

Among science communicators, there’s an ongoing discussion on how best to reach people. There’s the Carl Sagan-route, full of awe and gentle wonder and turtlenecks, and there’s the Mythbusters-route, which relies upon explosions and goofy shenanigans to teach while entertaining. And now there is the Phil Plait-route, defined by educating the audience while scaring the pants off them.

Death from the Skies!Death from the Skies: These are the Ways the World Will End is a gripping, well-written follow-up to Dr. Phil Plait’s first book, Bad Astronomy. Those of you who have read Bad Astronomy — or who follow Phil’s fantastic blog of the same name — already know what to expect in DftS, and you won’t be disappointed. Phil excels at conveying complex scientific ideas in an easy-to-grasp manner. He’s the science teacher you wish you had in high school, who can relate to your frustration when the formulas get long and the Universe seems to ignore all those laws you learned in freshman Physics.

Of course, Phil’s knack for simplifying science is only half the battle, as a wise GI Joe once said. What really sets this book apart is the brilliant concept: death and destruction on a scale that makes Godzilla v. Mothra look just silly. I mean sillier. You get my point.

The Large Hadron Collider became the biggest science news story of 2008, purely because of a public misconception that it might bring about the end times. Other popular headline-grabbers this year: the Mayan calendar ending in 2012, at least two blockbusters involving the destruction of New York, and the lack of solar activity possibly signaling an incoming mini ice age. Obviously, this is the sort of topic that grabs attention.

The problem is, how do you capitalize off of society’s innate morbid curiosity without freaking people out about scenarios that are not very likely to occur? In DftS, Phil manages to present a believable scenario of destruction and explain the science behind it, without necessarily inspiring any new doomsday cults. Take, for instance, a gamma-ray burst (GRB). This is seriously freak-tastic stuff: a star a few trillion miles from Earth, like say Eta Carinae, dies. From our perspective, we see a pretty cool flash of light in the sky, and then a few hours later, 2/3 of the Earth is covered in a lethal dose of radiation. Phil uses this scenario to explain topics like black holes and the accretion disks surrounding them, neutron stars, the weird-but-true theory that an object’s gravity increases as it gets smaller while retaining its mass, and the penetrative power of muons (hint: don’t bother hiding from them less than 2,000 feet underground). Throughout the chapter he throws in things like, “To make this more clear: we are in no danger from a GRB, Eta or otherwise, in the near or even mid-term future.” And then he continues to scare the pants off everyone by speculating further. At the very end of the book, he includes a helpful chart showing the chances of each scenario happening. Death by GRB appears to be about 1 in 14,000,000 and there’s nothing you can do to prevent it anyway, meaning that you’re quite literally better off worrying about shark attacks.

So, I love the scary parts of the book, I love the care taken to put those scary parts into perspective, and I especially love the science — speaking as someone with basically no formal science education, I learned an awful lot about astronomy, physics, chemistry, and even biology. The breadth of information in the book pretty much guarantees that everyone will learn something. Probably something really terrifying, but something.

To balance that glowing review, just in case you all think I’m only saying these nice things because Phil is my pal, I’ll also mention that the book is not perfect. Now, I did read an advance proof that may not be exactly like the final version, but I feel I should warn you just in case: Death from the Skies is absolutely infested with puns. Puns made up by Phil, and if you know Phil, you know what that means. Luckily, most of them are bolded and set apart from the rest of the text as subheads, so if you’re prepared then you will know to glance over them as you read. Here are a few:

Current Events (about magnetic fields)
Sirius Danger? (about the star, and yes, he went there)
The Hole Truth (about black holes)
I’ve Fallen and I Can’t Get Up (no, seriously)
Pasta-ta (about black hole spaghettification)
Man Hole (about Phil’s trip to his favorite dance club)

I’ll stop there before your eyes melt.

Of course, I’m only (half-) kidding. Phil’s goofy sense of humor is why I love him, and it’s why scientists and laypeople alike enjoy reading about the Universe from his perspective. His love of science is infectious, and I’m optimistic that Death from the Skies will introduce a new audience to the wonders of astronomy. I’d like to give this book to all those people fretting about the various made-up ways the world might end (the LHC, the Mayan calendar, Godzilla, Armageddon), to open their eyes to what’s actually happening out there. Reading the book, what struck me above all is not just the specifics of what we know through science, but simply that we know at all. Death from the Skies will take you trillions of years into the future and beyond, using actual science to speculate about what will happen to our planet, our Sun, our galaxy, and our Universe. That is so very cool, and so much more satisfying than anything you’ll get from the vague predictions of your average Doomsday crowd.

DEATH FROM THE SKIES

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Rebecca Watson

Rebecca leads a team of skeptical female activists at Skepchick.org. She travels around the world delivering entertaining talks on science, atheism, feminism, and skepticism. There is currently an asteroid orbiting the sun with her name on it. You can follow her every fascinating move on Twitter or on Google+.

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27 Comments

  1. My Physics is almost non-exsistant, so I’m almost certainly wrong, but don’t gamma rays travel at the speed of light? Wouldn’t the normal photons and gamma rays arrive at the same time?

    If anyone knows why this is otherwise I’d love to know. Ta

  2. Carl Sagan was my first crush. Along with Gene Kelly. Now the Mythbusters make me all gooey. I’m guessing this is the natural evolution of my Understanding. Thanks Rebecca!

    I’ve been wanting to read that one! I was going to get it from the library but then thought I’d like to support the BA by actually shelling out the cash. Thanks for taking time for the review Rebecca!

  3. Just out of curiosity, how many skies are there? Anyone know?

    We say, “the sky is blue”, using the article ‘the’ instead of ‘that’ which would indicate the blue area above our heads is the only sky.

    But according to Phil’s title, there is more than one sky. So exactly how many are there? How are they differentiated? Are they bounded? Are they different sizes and shapes? Are they all blue?

    Are the various skies addressed in the book?

    Just curious.

  4. Umm, Rebecca, Eta Carinae is ~7500 light-years from the solar system, that’s more than just a few million miles. The distance from the earth to the sun is ~93 million miles (more than a few million) ~8 1/3 light-minutes

  5. Ah yes, the awe and gentle wonder and turtlenecks. . . I need to get me a turtleneck. And a Members Only jacket. Then I can get the trés 1985 white tie that David Goodstein wore in The Mechanical Universe. And for my grand finale, I’ll find a safari suit like the one James Burke wore in Connections.

  6. Skies vs Sky is of course semantic in nature not an indication of scientific property.

    The term skies can be used to differentiate between the portion of the surrounding me vibrant blue clear skies) and the portion of the sky surrounding you (turbulent and muddy).

    If it makes you more comfortable, you can use ‘heavens’ instead of sky or skies. ;-)

  7. @Rebecca:

    I knew there had to be some genius bit I was missing there. Of course, what he has missed is the paradise Earth becomes after we are all irradiated and become Incredible Hulks, and all the vegetables grow giant due to exposure to gama radiation.

  8. @wytworm: But what if we are already getting our superpowers? I got bit by a radioactive spider. I should be getting mine any day now. I gotta go throw up again.

    Of course, the only ones who get to be Incredible Hulks will be the ones who weren’t instantly vaporized by the Gamma radiation.

  9. @Rebecca: “How do you capitalize off of society’s innate morbid curiosity without freaking people out about scenarios that are not very likely to occur?”

    If I had a nickle for every person that I had to reassure about the Collider when it his the news, I could have retired. I know one woman whose mid-20’s daughter lost a few night’s of sleep over it until I explained to her Mom (my co-worker) what it was about and the negligible hazards involved. I also pointed out that if Stephen Hawking wasn’t going to lose sleep over it, why should she believe some newspaper reporter’s semi-hysterical coverage?

    Part of the problem is that people today don’t understand relative risk or basic statistics. They vaguely remember that someone once said “lies, damn lies, and statistics” and that’s about all their knowledge of the subject.

    At least it keeps the BA in skittles and beer by writing his books. :-D

  10. speaking of books. Has anyone read The Earth Abides? I just finished it…

    It’s an easily read story of a guy who survives the pandemic that wipes out nearly all of humanity. The story tells of his adventures in finding other survivors, and re-starting society. He deals with such [skepchick-related] issues as superstition of the children who were born after, and interacting with cult-like religious societies.

    Overall a pretty neat read. If you take 1 part The Hatchet and mix it with 1 part I Am Legend, combined with a healthy dose of skepticism, you end up with this book.

  11. Sounds like I’m going to enjoy DftS even more than I expected!
    Pre-ordered it about a month ago (arriving by Friday hopefully!) and just finished reading his Bad Astronomy book – I couldnt put it down!
    I see what you mean about the puns.. There were plenty to go around in BA too :)

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