Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Death From the Skies!

You can't beat a title like that for a book, exclamation point and all.

Everything under this wave of sound was stomped flat. Trees that were ablaze a moment before from the heat of the explosion were snuffed out, then torn into millions of splinters. The expanding ring of pressure, already dozens of miles across, screamed past the location of Mark's disintegrated house and continued moving, greedily consuming buildings, trees, cars, people. Before it was over, the shock wave circled the Earth twice...

This is the scenario for a relatively small meteoroid slamming into Earth -- about seventy yards wide -- laid out by author and Philip Plait in his can't-look-away true-to-life collection of cosmic disaster scenarios, Death From the Skies. Subtitled These Are the Ways the World Will End, Plait focuses his Astronomer's eye on the types of dangers lurking within (and outside) our solar system and explains all the ways that the universe seems out to get us. There's space debris of all sizes, sun spots, gamma rays, supernovae, black holes, exploding stars... all the stuff of science fiction brought down to Earth in tidy, horrifying packages that are as entertaining to read as they are hard to believe. But it's all possible!

Spawned by the wave of sub-atomic particles, a thick layer of smog began to form in the air, and within days the sky was a dank reddish-brown color over the entire planet. Any hardy plant that had managed to stay alive thus far suddenly found the sunlight and temperature dropping... which was bad enough, until the acid rain began...

Plait lays out a scenario for each possible catastrophe, then backtracks and explains the science in great detail but in very approachable language. Then he includes real examples of known or observed phenomena that correlates with the particular subject at hand, and finishes off with the likelihood of it happening here on Earth. The most frightening aspect to all of this is that it's all pretty much out of our control. Astronomers observing massive sun spot activity and the resulting dangers for Earth would have barely eight minutes to respond and warn the public. And in that time nothing could be done to stop the destructive power that could cripple the entire power grid for half the planet in a matter of seconds anyway.

Just a few weeks after the first trouble began -- and its position still 300 million miles away -- the black hole's gravity as felt on Earth is equal to that of the Sun. Earth no longer orbits one star: it is enthralled by two: one living, one dead. Within a few more days, the black hole's influence is far stronger than the Sun's. Grasping the Earth with invisible fingers, it tears us away from the Sun, bringing us closer to the collapsed star. As we approach, the gravitational tides from the black hole begin to stretch the Earth...

Like a horror show or an accident where one can't help but steal a glance, Plait dangles the disaster like a carrot at the beginning of each chapter before calming us down with the rational, sometimes amusing, explanations. The likelihood of most of these things happening, not just in our lifetimes but ever, may be very slim. Plait's point is that the dangers are nonetheless out there, and if they're going to happen, this is what it would look like.

To any teen who's ever seen a movie or read a book where an asteroid is threatening to destroy the planet and wondered if it were possible, or doubted the science in such fictions, or really wanted to know what would happen when the Earth finds itself on a collision course with the powers of the universe, this is the book for them.

Honestly, I would have loved to have gotten this for Christmas when I was a teen. Instead I got Jonathan Livingston Seagull. 'Nuff said.

Death From the Skies

These Are the Ways the World Will End...
by Philip Plait, Ph.D
Viking 2008

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