For manic depressive, goth, or doomsday preachers, Dr. Phil Plait has the perfect gift for you. Plait has run the popular Bad Astronomy website for several years and just published his delicious new book on the planetary cataclysm: Death from the skies! These are the ways the world will end.
We live in a dangerous universe. As Plait says in the introduction to his book: “The universe is trying to kill you. It is also trying to kill me. It is trying to kill everyone. And it doesn’t even have to try very hard.” You will be surprised how nice it is to find out how you could die. After accepting that we are not even a molecule within a specification in a grain at the back of the universe, you can begin to understand the kinds of events that Phil Plait covers in this book.
Each of the apocalyptic scenarios described inside begins with a short fictional account of what an average person on this planet would notice and experience when one of these events begins and basically how it would destroy or nearly destroy us. Then he goes into some basic physics and cosmology to describe what would happen.
The chapters are short, to the point, and for the most part endlessly entertaining. Plait’s casual style that you may have seen in his Bad Astronomy YouTube clips flows well on the page. The book is written for the layman, so science and physics are on Earth and conveyed in the simplest terms, so even a basic foundation in high school science should help you understand the explanations.
While it’s a bit disturbing, it’s actually not too scary. Most of the events described, although they occur every day in the universe, have a very low probability of happening to the planet during our lifetime.
Some of the more interesting possibilities involve the death of stars and how that could impact us in a way that most people would never expect. For example, if a star in our celestial neighborhood went supernova, an extremely violent explosion at the end of the life of a star generally much larger than our sun, that could practically annihilate us.
Radiation from one of these blasts, even in the neighborhood tens of light-years away, would bathe us in enough radiation to destroy the ozone layer and trigger mass extinctions starting with the oceans down to you and your mother-in-law. The explosion itself is brilliant. In fact, in 1054 a star 40 trillion miles away went supernova and was brighter than the full moon in the sky for weeks, even visible during the day. Today, you can see the leftovers by looking at the Crab Nebula through a telescope or a good pair of binoculars. That one was far enough away to be pretty, but the explosion itself emitted 12 million times more light than our sun will emit in its entire lifespan of billions of years. These explosions are so tremendous that we can see them happening in other galaxies. Of course, they are child’s play compared to hypernovae.
Hypernovae are a relatively recent discovery. When a star goes hypernova, it emits a stream of gamma radiation so intense that one in our cosmic neighborhood could literally fry the planet like a burrito in a dirty microwave in the Village Pantry. We discovered these monsters by detecting gamma ray bursts. The gamma rays left astronomers scratching their heads for years until it was discovered that they were hypernovae that occurred in other galaxies.
That’s right, these things emit such an intense and powerful stream of radiation that we can detect them in other galaxies. Our card for getting out of jail free on these planet killers is that the explosions are focused on straight streams on opposite sides of the explosion, so not only would one have to happen in our galaxy to kill us, but the star would have to be just at the right angle to point that current in the direction of our solar system. The closest candidate to explode and do this to us is a star called Eta Carinae, but it seems like a few million or billions of years from reaching critical mass.
The interesting thing is that there is evidence that the planet has been hit by some of these phenomena before triggering mass extinctions and / or glaciations. In other words, we’ve probably managed to slip into the best time frame to have a few thousand years of good life on the planet. Or the other way of looking at it is that we probably only exist because we’ve managed to have enough time between cosmic disasters to evolve here.
Plait delves into several other interesting ideas, such as a small black hole that cuts through the solar system and practically eats the planet for lunch. Very possible, but unlikely. Statistically, it is estimated that our solar system probably only walks near a black hole 2 or 3 times during the life of the sun.
The book even covers the alien invasion. I assumed this chapter would be given with a bit of skepticism, but it actually approaches it logically by proposing a scenario that seems relatively plausible if you make the logical assumption that the universe is teaming up with life and other advanced civilizations. And no, the invasion doesn’t start with a little green man buzzing Billy Jim Joe Bob in a cornfield.
In the later chapters, Plait covers more sober and solemn ideas, such as what happens when our sun enters its death rattle if there is a slim chance that the human race will survive that long.
I think there are two orders of readers who would really enjoy Death From the Skies. First would be anyone with a passing interest in astronomy. Second, anyone who enjoys reading about apocalyptic scenarios. If you like both, you will enjoy it.
If there was a weakness for me, it is the opening chapter that details the impact scenario of a large asteroid or comet. While it will certainly be a fun and interesting way to die, it has also been done to death in movies and in the media in recent years so there wasn’t much new to cover for me personally and it probably is. . the driest in the book. However, there were some very interesting proposals on how to warn it even with the technology we have today, given a few years of warning.
For those who think that even something as frequent as asteroid impacts is unlikely, there is a sobering view of this.
A few years ago, a large asteroid, named Apophis, was discovered and appeared to be on a collision course with Earth in 2029. Apophis is just over 1000 feet in diameter. Doesn’t sound bad, right? As long as you’re not standing around, everything should be fine. Well, keep in mind that the asteroid or comet that hit Siberia in 1908 and washed away hundreds of square kilometers of forest was probably the size of a school bus. That was 100 years ago and that forest is still practically dead. For those unfamiliar with it, it is sometimes referred to as the Tunguska Event.
In 2004, scientists estimated up to a 3% chance of Apophis hitting the planet. A small but remarkable probability. Honestly, if they told you there is a 3 in 100 chance that a building would explode tomorrow, would you choose to hang out there?
There was an initial relief when it was discovered that there was virtually no chance of a collision in 2029. This quaint little planet killer will be very close, however. In fact, it will pass closer to the planet than most of our orbiting communications satellites.
And now for the bad news. Apophis’s orbit around the sun intersects Earth’s all the time. When an object like this gets too close, our gravity will alter the asteroid’s orbit. If Earth’s gravity distorts the orbit in the right way, things could get ugly. Basically, we can’t predict to the inch how close the asteroid will get to the planet, but if it takes the right path across Earth, passing through what astronomers call “The Keyhole,” it will simply alter the orbit of Apophis. enough to hit us head-on in 2036 when it orbits the planet. And the really bad news is that Bruce Willis will probably be dead by then and won’t be able to help us. That leads to even worse news: we won’t be able to kill Bruce Willis again!
In reality, there are many “locks” through which it could pass and cause the 2036 impact. Astronomers estimate the chances of this happening to be about 1 in 45,000. It sounds small, but still, in my opinion, it is too great an opportunity to simply ignore it.
You have a good day! You may only have 28 years to live!
Death From the Skies is highly recommended reading.
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