Review by John C. Snider © 2009
We’ve all read the nightmare scenarios: a massive asteroid is going to slam into the earth unless a team of hastily-gathered astronauts can land on it and blow it to smithereens; the sun belches out a particularly energetic tongue of solar material that threatens to boil us in our own juices; or a rogue black hole comes sauntering through the solar system and sucks up the earth like it was the last slurp of milkshake in the bottom of the glass. Sure, it’s scary fun, but how realistic are these imaginings? For that matter, how likely are they? How will the world end, anyway?
Dr. Phil Plait to the rescue, if by “rescue” you mean telling us with geeky glee all the different ways the earth could be cooked, vaporized or shattered. That’s the opening premise of Death from the Skies, the follow-up to his first book, the urban-legend-debunking Bad Astronomy (an extension of his urban-legend-debunking site BadAstronomy.com). Plait is a professional astronomer who parlayed his love for blogging and explication to the masses into a paying gig as a pop-science writer and skeptical advocate. While Death from the Skies has a cheesy title, and while most of the chapters open with detailed, hair-raising descriptions of, for example, exactly how you’d die from a massive meteor strike, he also describes, using words that everyday people can understand, the science behind it all. What’s more, Plait points out when he’s indulging in extrapolation where the science is less solid or more controversial.
And to answer T. S. Eliot, the world ends more or less with a bang, scorched to a crisp when the sun swells into a red giant billions of years from now. It’s the universe that ends with a whimper, expanding at an ever-increasing rate (or so astrophysicists currently believe), growing cooler and cooler until, a squintillion-bajillion-zippityzillion years from now the last star burns out and all matter – down to the last photon – fades literally into nothingness. That’s pretty profound, really. The vastness of space might be our enemy (in terms of prohibiting us from exploring even the tiniest fraction of the universe), but it is time that will be our nemesis, the cosmic clock running up years in numbers that would humble the darkest ruminations of H. P. Lovecraft. If it’s any consolation, humanity (including any post-human offshoots) will long since have ceased to exist.