Sooner or Later, We're Gonna Have a Really, Really, Really Bad Day

"Children are our hope for the future."


"What does it contain, then?"


"Besides you, I mean!"

Death gave him a puzzled look. I'M SORRY?

Terry Pratchett


Bad Astronomy Blogger Phil Plait has written one of the most fantastically, outrageously, manically, humorously depressing books I've ever read, and I'm almost certain I mean that as a compliment. Death From The Skies provides a veritable smorgasbord of potentially deadly astronomical delights, each more exotic than the last. It's like having every Discovery Channel "The Sky Is Falling" special you can think of all packed into a single, 326-page volume. But there's a twist.

It's not sensationalistic.

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As you might expect, if you've ever read Phil's work, sound science is the order of the day. This isn't a "the sky's falling and we're all gonna die RIGHT FRIGGIN' NOW" book; it's a "the sky's falling and the worlds gonna end in billions of years" book. With carefully calculated odds for each event. If you're morbid enough to wonder, the odds of astronomical death are, for the most part, astronomical. At the low end, Phil calculates that there's a 1:700,000 chance that an asteroid impact will kill you (or me, or him). At the high end, he figures that there's about a 1:1,000,000,000,000 likelihood that we'll die when (or, more accurately, just before) a rogue black hole eats the planet. He also throws in a few things that we can be pretty sure won't kill any of us - like, say, the universe ending - but are definitely going to happen someday.

Discussing some of the more exotic scenarios - like objects disintegrating way, way, way, way off in the future when their protons evaporate - might seem to be a bit of a stretch, but it actually makes sense for Phil to talk about them. Death From The Skies, you see, isn't really a book about things that are going to kill us. It's a book about a selection of really cool astronomical topics disguised with a title and dust jacket right out of 1950s pulp sci-fi, or more recent supermarket shelves.

My daughter's reading it right now, so I just hope the disguise holds up for another couple of hundred pages. She's into really cool ways that things can go wrong at the moment, (I think that goes along with being almost 12), but it looks like there's a really good chance that she might learn some actual science this time.

And if you're looking for an entertaining way to learn some basic astronomy, or just for a resource to keep around so you can reality-check the next "OMG THE WORLD'S GONNA END TOMORROW!!!1!!!1!!!ELEVENTY!!!" news story or TV "documentary" you watch, this is a book to keep around.

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For that matter, how can you tell if it's a rogue black hole or just another Goth wearing black makeup?

... there's a 1:700,000 chance that an asteroid impact will kill you...

So, of the six billion-plus humans currently riding on this planet, 8,571 will be killed by asteroid impacts?

By Pierce R. Butler (not verified) on 18 Feb 2009 #permalink

I read Phil's book -- I checked it out from the Hannibal library a few weeks ago. It's a good one, a nice balance of science and readability. I've long been a fan of Plait's web efforts, and it's nice to see his writing in real print.

Some of the government stimulus money should be going to science writers whose audience is the general public!

That could just as easily resolve into a one-in-twelve chance of a single asteroid killing 100k, Pierce (causing a tsunami or something, I guess, I haven't got a chance to read Phil's reasoning yet). And all points in between.