"Our sense of wonder grows exponentially; the greater the knowledge, the deeper the mystery."

-- E.O. Wilson

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Tuesday, June 30, 2009

"Death From the Skies"

A Bad Astronomer (...and Punster)

Phil Plait is an astronomer and writer who runs one of the most popular (and award-winning) science blogs on the Web, "Bad Astronomy." When I stumbled across his book "Death From the Skies!" in my local library I was so put off by the National Enquirer-like title and cover (...I can only imagine that the publisher was trying to appeal to a teenage audience???), I almost ignored it, but luckily did relent and check the volume out.
The writing is interesting, lively and fluid, even playful (especially for a book basically informing us that we're all eventually doomed!), touching upon much science, but at a level that the astronomy amateur or even lay reader can readily follow. To a total novice, unfamiliar with modern day physics the topics and content may seem almost unreal, and thus some background in the physical sciences is helpful.
For wordsmiths the writing is peppered with puns and word-plays (who knew physics could be so funny), almost to the point of sometimes taking away from the seriousness of what is being discussed. Lots of facts and figures here as well, and lots of science, but amidst much cleverness and wit. Plait's passion for his subject rings through on every page.
Each chapter is well-written with somewhat stand-alone material (that need not be read in sequential order), covering a variety of basic cosmological subjects: the sun (and its death)/stars/galaxies, asteroids, supernovae, black holes, gamma rays, the possibility of alien life; all with an aim of showing how these might be agents for our world's demise in the distant future.

I likely enjoyed chapter 4 on gamma rays the most, if only because much of the content was new to me (chapter 9, "The End of Everything" is a particularly fun read as well). Chapter 6 on alien existence was possibly the weakest in my view. I'd fall in the camp that thinks probabilistically there are 1000s (maybe millions) of planets with advanced life (that may differ tremendously from us), but Plait seems to downgrade that possibility with what I think are weakly parochial or myopic arguments, while granting too much seriousness to what many perceive as an infinitesimal possibility that we Earthlings might be alone in the Universe. But we won't settle that debate here.
The very last chapter (epilogue) reviews the probabilities that any of the scenarios outlined will actually bring about the world's end, with an asteroid at 1 in 700,000 being the best bet... if that helps you to sleep better at night.

Richard Feynman was fond of saying that he wasn't absolutely certain of anything, but he just held beliefs based on the preponderance of the evidence. My one concern with Plait (and many scientists for that matter) is that he actually believes that much of what he states (the underlying science) is certain (because it currently seems so) when in fact, especially in the sort of time-frames he is discussing, our understanding/beliefs of physical law, the Universe, and life could change in unforeseeable ways, no matter how 'certain' they may seem at this moment. All black-and-white "facts" are actually strongly-held and supported 'beliefs,' still subject to possible, even if unlikely, change --- what we currently view as 'modern' science, will, 1000 years from now, no doubt appear very primitive and naive. Some folks worship God, and some worship empiricism, but both do so at the risk of putting blinders on to the extent that they accept/assume any human logic as 'certain.' But so much for philosophical quibbles...

If you already like Plait's blog you will almost certainly enjoy this book where he has the freedom to write more extensively on his subjects. If you're unfamiliar with him but interested in astronomical matters this book is a fine place to start. But a warning: for those of you with a long-term, 6 billion-year-or-so horizon, this could be a verrrrry gloomy, depressing, scary read given what it foretells... but as long as you're more short-term in your outlook (say the next 10,000-or-so years), feel free to give it a whirl! For the price of admission you'll get both some laughs and some chills, along with a healthy dose of science. (I just hope that for his next publishing effort Plait selects a more adult title and cover! ;-)



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