If you aren't reading Phil Plait's Bad Astronomy blog
over at Discover magazine, you should be. His writing is an awesome example of how real science can be just as awe-inspiring, cool and interesting as the "science" that underlays our most exciting and captivating science fiction stories.
Are you a fan of disaster movies? Then, Death from the Skies
is for you. In this short volume, Plait uncovers the real science behind a host of truly dreadful end of the world scenarios from asteroid impacts to the eventual, but certain, heat death of the universe, putting each in cosmic perspective in terms of the scope of the catastrophe and its likelihood of occurrence. What makes this exploration so much fun is Plait's own enthusiasm for the subject. He manages to strike a delicate balance between his appreciation for the creativity of science fiction and the scientific rigors of his profession (Plait is a PhD in Astronomy and a well known skeptic and debunker of all things astronomically ridiculous) which prevents Death from the Skies
from becoming either too sensationalist or statistically boring and mundane. The result: we have very, very little to personally fear from any of the disasters outlined in the book. The genius is that while Plait puts the odds in context (some of which are so small they really may as well be zero), he still writes in such a way that makes the discussion of the forces and power involved in these events exciting and fascinating.
Each chapter opens with a creative vignette that gives a human perspective to the discussion of the disaster to follow, which gets your survival instincts and adrenaline thrumming. Plait paints a realistic scenario for the playing out of the event and its impact on human life, giving in a bit to theater, but in an enjoyable way that manages to peak your interest for the scientific discussion to follow. The sheer magnitude of these disasters defies the imagination and Plait does an admirable job of providing some jaw-dropping statistics in ways that don't make your eyes glaze over - mostly because he puts them in every day context by providing some appropriate analogies that still leave you gazing at the wall for a good couple minutes as you try and wrap your mind around it.
The overall feeling you get after reading Death from the Skies
is one of absolute wonder. The universe is an incredibly hostile place for beings as sensitive and delicate as we are and Plait paints a devastatingly realistic picture of how tenuous life's grasp on Earth really is, but he balances it well by pointing out that if the universe weren't so, we probably wouldn't be here anyway. A well-known saying in astronomy is that we were literally born from the death of stars, which forged the heavier elements that come together to form life, and Plait makes active use of this reference throughout his work, extending the description to form an interconnected web that creates a multibillion year cycle of creation and destruction that happened precisely to create and maintain life on our little planet. He also does a magnificent job of putting time into perspective, noting that though our history may seem "long" to us, it is a literally insignificant drop in the bucket compared to the life of the Earth itself, which is also just a drop in the galactic bucket, which is in turn....you get what I mean. Plait also manages to hold on, in spite of such vast proportions and epic time scales, to the human perspective, relating everything back to us; what a supernova half the galaxy away means to us, what the supermassive black hole lurking at the heart of our galaxy means to us and so on. Death from the Skies
is a fun read that will put the universe and our place in it in perspective, while at the same time teaching you rock solid astronomy and physics, probably without you being even aware of it.