June 2, 2020

Review: Death from the Skies! by Philip Plait.


Author and astronomer Phil Plait has a secret to share; the universe is out to kill you. It turns out that general feeling of paranoia we all feel at one time or another is indeed warranted; from meteors to black holes to alien invasions, the cosmos will eventually “get” us. In his latest book, Death from the Skies out recently from Penguin Books Professor Plait (of Bad Astronomy fame) engagingly takes us through the realm of cosmic catastrophe, whacking humanity again and again with his “what if?” dramatic intros.

The author also lends his own expertise to each scenario, giving probable odds of any given event actually happening and what, if anything, can be done about it. And hey, it’s just a plain old fun read! Here’s a short list (with spoilers) of ways humanity could find itself exterminated. Hollywood take note…

Killer Asteroid: OK, so Hollywood already knows about this one. Killer NEO’s (Near Earth Objects) have been subjected to so many bad movies and TV mini-series, it’s a wonder that a killer rock turned scifi critic hasn’t annihilated Hollywood already. As the good Doctor rightly points out, Bruce Willis strapped into a nuke is probably the worst thing we can do in terms of asteroid deflection, but this is one hazard that we could potentially do something about. The key, like any prevention, is early detection. Simply put, if we knew about an incoming rock years in advance, we could actually move it out of harms way via gravity tractor (John Deere, are you listening?) or gift wrap it in nice reflective material and let the Yarkovsky Effect do the work for us…

Coronal Mass Ejection: With solar cycle #24 now underway, I actually worry about this one the most. A really big CME hasn’t happened since the beginning of the Golden Age of wireless; as Mr. Plait points out, we’re long overdue. We stand the risk of this every eleven years when the Sun amps up, and I’ll bet that 99% of the public is totally unaware of the danger. And it won’t just fry your shinny new Blackberry; a large CME directed smack at Earth could knock down electrical grids across the board. If it happens when the systems are at their max, such as the winter or summer months, that could be a double whammy.   And to think, our sun is a tame star! During the CME event of 1859, some telegraph operators actually got zapped by their equipment! Unfortunately, not much can be done to avert this threat, beyond adding redundancy (which costs money) to our systems and keeping a close eye, such as the GONG network, on our star. The good news: a super-flare probably won’t spell the end of mankind. Unlike…

A Nearby Supernova: A supernova within about 25 years of our solar system would spell a bad day for the Earth. Ozone depletion via highly energetic gamma- and x-ray particles would be the least of our worries as the entire biosphere is sterilized by intense radiation. The good news? The author notes that no nearby supernovae candidates lurk in our galactic neighborhood, although he does go on to point out in a later chapter that we are also changing our environs as we revolve about the galactic disk. I was interested to see that the nearest supernova candidate is the star Spica, 260 light-years distant in the constellation Virgo… Sirius, at about 7 light years distant (yes, in the kill zone) runs the risk of becoming a Type IA millions of years from now when it becomes a Red Giant and begins dumping material on its white dwarf companion.

Gamma-Ray Burst of Doom: This is the most exotic way to go, and is begging for a Hollywood script. The sad thing is, if any of the bursts that we currently witness went off in our neighborhood (like say our galaxy) there isn’t much we could do about it! The best hope is that it’s perhaps deep in one hemisphere, so the entire planet isn’t treated to the radiation roast. A gamma-ray burst detected in 2008 would have been briefly visible to the naked eye, even from a distance of 7.5 billion light years!  On average, a burst can be seen every other day or so some where out in the universe. Two progenitor sources are known: extremely massive Hyper-novae, such as Eta Carinae about 8,000 light years distant, and merging pulsars. Again, not the kind of neighbors we see in our galactic region. Still, Phil points out that we don’t exactly know which way the Eta Carninae beam may go…just what is that pretty purplish glow in the sky? Could it be…Cherenkov radiation?

Death by Black Hole: This one is the most bizarre. Although the author notes the odds of a massive black hole lurking near our solar system is vanishingly small, it’s also something that we could do absolutely nothing about. It’s weird to think that a black hole could swallow our entire civilization whole, and the only remains to say we were ever here would be TV transmissions of The Bachelor and American Idol… or is the possibility all that remote? Ardent followers of this space will remember the recent news article about an unexplained nearby source of high energy electrons

Alien Invasion: Another beaten to death theme that the author gives a fresh twist. Remember the fashionable, Cold War sediment that advanced space faring aliens must be peaceful, otherwise, they would have long ago annihilated themselves? The pendulum of thought has swung yet again back to evil, malevolent invaders from space. The author rightly points out that evolution generally favors the victor, and a truly paranoid species might seek to nip any competition in the bud. His favored mode of destruction is self replicating Von Neumann Machines, but I can think of other cost effective methods. How about simply beaming us instructions for advanced, super technology? (Here’s how you make an anti-matter ray, kiddies…) all that would be left is to then sit back, and watch us destroy ourselves. Sort of a galactic prime directive in reverse!

The Ultimate End of Life, the Universe, (and the Blogosphere): The last three chapters are devoted to what will, one way or another, ultimately do us in…the death of the Sun, and then the universe itself. Or lack of it. For this, the author draws heavily off of (and references) Fred Adams & Greg Laughlin’s excellent The Five Ages of the Universe which we also read (in a pre-blog life) a few years back. The very fact that we seem to live in an “open” universe, with no discernible end, has some very bizarre implications. As the clock keeps ticking, stars will wink out, black holes will decay via Hawking Radiation, and even baryonic matter itself may come to pass.

Scared yet? This book is meant to give us a cosmic perspective, and does so in an engaging way. The author does evoke the principle of mediocrity, noting that we owe the very reason that we’re still here to begin with to the fact that our corner of the cosmos is currently, well, boring!  Read Death from the Skies, and keep watching the skies for that killer space rock with our name on it… and be glad we all share this tiny chunk of time and space together.




  1. Enzo Mother says:

    This is horrible taht does not even look like a black hole

  2. Ashley says:

    i don’t get it, if a black hole is a dead star,
    what if the moon dies?

  3. webmaster says:

    Hi Ashley,
    If I understand the above question correctly, a black hole devouring our Moon would have dire consequences for the Earth, as it would surely alter our orbit or possibly eject us from the solar system entirely. Space:1999, the next generation, anyone?

  4. Shane Hutchins of Coldwater Michigan says:

    @Enzo Mother, Your an idiot, theres nothing that looks more like a black hole than that hole right there^^


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