For manic depressives, goths, or doomsday preachers, Dr. Phil Plait has got just the gift for you. Plait has run the popular website Bad Astronomy for a number of years and has just released his delightful new book of planet wide cataclysm: Death From the Skies! These are the Ways the World Will End.
We live in a dangerous universe. As Plait puts it in his book’s introduction “The universe is trying to kill you. It’s trying to kill me, too. It’s trying to kill everybody. And it doesn’t even have to try very hard.” You’ll be surprised how enjoyable it is finding out how you might die. After you come to terms that we are not even a molecule inside a spec on a pimple on the ass of the universe, you can start to wrap your head around the type of events Phil Plait covers in this book.
Each of the doomsday scenario’s described within starts with a brief fictional account of what an average person on this planet would notice and experience as one of these events starts and basically how it would destroy or nearly destroy us. He then goes into some basic physics and cosmology to describe what would happen.
The chapters are brief, to the point, and for the most part endlessly entertaining. Plait’s casual style that you may have seen in his YouTube clips from Bad Astronomy flows well onto the page. The book is written for the layperson, so the science and physics is down to Earth and relayed in the simplest terms so that even a basic grounding in high school science should help you breeze through the explanations.
While a little bit disturbing, it’s not really too frightening. Most of the events described, while happening every day in the universe, have a very low chance of befalling the planet in our lifetime.
Some of the most interesting possibilities involve the death of stars and how that could impact us in ways most people would never expect. For instance, if a star in our celestial neighborhood were to go supernova-an extremely violent explosion at the end of a life of a star generally much bigger than our sun-that could pretty much wipe us out.
The radiation from one of these explosions even in the neighborhood of dozens of light years distant would shower us with enough radiation to destroy the ozone layer and trigger mass extinctions starting with the oceans on up to you and your mother-in-law. The explosion itself is bright. In fact, in 1054 a star 40 Quadrillion miles away went supernova and was brighter than the full moon in the skies for weeks, even visible in the daytime. Nowadays, 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 just be pretty, but the explosion itself put out 12 million times more light than our sun will put out in it’s entire lifetime of billions of years. These explosions are so tremendous that we can see them occurring in other galaxies. Of course, they’re child’s play compared to hypernovas.
Hypernovas are a fairly recent discovery relatively. When a star goes hypernova it puts out such an intense stream of gamma radiation that one in our cosmic neighborhood could literally fry the planet like a burrito in a dirty microwave at the Village Pantry. We discovered these monsters by detecting Gamma Ray bursts. Blips of gamma rays had astronomers scratching their heads for years until it was discovered that they were hypernovas occurring in other galaxies.
That’s correct, these things put out such an intense and powerful stream of radiation that we can detect them in other galaxies. Our get out of jail free card on these planet killers are that the explosions are focused out in 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 correct angle to point that stream in the direction of our solar system. The closest candidate to go boom and do this to us is a star called Eta Carinae, but it seems to be a few million or billion years from reaching critical mass.
The interesting part is that there is evidence that the planet has been hit by some of these phenomenon before triggering mass extinctions and/or ice ages. 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 to look at it is that we probably only exist because we’ve managed to have enough time between cosmic disasters to evolve this far.
Plait goes into several other interesting ideas such as a small black hole pounding through the solar system and pretty much eating the planet for lunch. Very possible, but unlikely. Statistically, it’s estimated that our solar system probably only wanders near a black hole 2 or 3 times over the lifetime of the sun.
The book even covers alien invasion. I assumed this chapter would be given with a little grain of salt, but he actually approaches it logically proposing a scenario that seems relatively plausible if you make the logical assumption that the universe is teaming 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 sobering and solemn ideas such as what happens when our sun goes into it’s death rattle if there’s even a slight chance that the human race would survive that long.
I think there are two orders of reader that would really enjoy Death From the Skies. First would be anyone with even a passing interest in astronomy. Second would be anyone who enjoys reading about doomsday scenarios. If you like both, you’ll enjoy this.
If there was a weakness for me it’s that the opening chapter that details the large asteroid or comet impact scenario. While, it certainly will be a fun and interesting way to die, it’s also been done to death in movies and in the media over the past few years, so there wasn’t a lot new to cover there for me personally and is probably is the most dry of the book. However, there were some very interesting proposals on how to avert it even with the technology we have today, given a few years warning.
For those that think that even something as frequent as asteroid impacts is still unlikely, there is a sobering view of this.
A few years ago, a large asteroid, dubbed Apophis was discovered and it appeared to be on a collision course with the Earth in 2029. Apophis is a little over 1000 feet across. Doesn’t sound bad, right? As long as I’m not standing in the vicinity everything should be okay. Well, keep in mind that the asteroid or comet that hit Siberia in 1908 wiping 100s of square kilometers of forest flat was probably at most, about the size of a school bus. That was 100 years ago and that forest is still pretty much dead. For those that aren’t familiar with it, it’s sometimes referred to as the Tunguska Event.
In 2004, scientists were estimating as much as a 3% chance that Apophis would hit the planet. A small but noteworthy probability. Honestly, if you were told that there was a 3 in 100 chance that a building was going to explode tomorrow, would you choose to hang out there?
There was initial relief when it was found that there was virtually no chance of a collision in 2029. However, this quaint little planet killer will be coming very close. In fact, it will pass closer to the planet than the majority of our communications satellites in orbit.
And now for the bad news. Apophis’ orbit around the sun intersects the Earth’s all the time. When an object like this comes too close, our gravity will alter the orbit of the asteroid. If the Earth’s gravity distorts the orbit in just the correct manner, things could get ugly. Basically, we can’t predict to the inch how close the asteroid will come to the planet, but if it takes just the right path by the Earth, passing through what astronomers call “The Keyhole,” it will alter the orbit of Apophis just enough to pound us head on in 2036 when it orbits back around by the planet. And the really bad news is that Bruce Willis will most likely be dead by that time and unable to help us. That leads to the even worse news: we won’t get to kill Bruce Willis again!
There are actually many “Keyholes” through which it might pass that will cause the 2036 impact. Astronomers are estimating that the chances of this happening are about 1 in 45,000. Sounds small, but still, in my opinion, much too large a chance to simply ignore.
So Have a nice day! You may only have 28 years to live!
Death From the Skies is highly recommended reading.
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