Look out, it’s "Death from the Skies!"

So if you are one of those who have wandered over to my blog from time to time, surely you know of the Bad Astronomer. He’s not “bad” in the “good vs. bad” sense, more like “badass.” Well, actually, Phil Plait became known for his book and website, “Bad Astronomy” which debunked popular astronomy myths and misunderstandings. He has continued to be an advocate for science, astronomy, and skepticism, and in 2008 came out with his second book, Death from the Skies! I finally got a chance to read the book earlier this year, and I’m just now getting around to writing my thoughts on this excellent book! I blame grad school.

To start off, it has a crazy, scary cover, with monster-movie type font and all. I can’t even say the name of the book without slipping into a dramatic tone of voice. You may get funny looks while reading it in public, but that just opens up for conversation about how cooool science is!

Each chapter in the book covers some doomsday scenario involving an astronomical event, from asteroids, to gamma ray bursts, to the end of the universe itself.  The chapter begins with a short story of mayhem, destruction, and death.  It reads like the summary of a disaster flick, and some passages seriously gave me chills.

The active group of sunspots fades away… Just as things on Earth start to settle, and people are able to bury the dead, another group of ugly sunspots begins to build on the star’s surface.

You can almost hear the ominous music.  If you are going to read this book, don’t read it alone in your apartment late at night unless you don’t want to be able to sleep… like I did. Or at least read until you get the comforting parts.

What can be comforting about massive extinctions and the end of everything we know?  Well, unlike most disaster shows you see on TV, Phil goes into the actual science behind these events, and then the probabilities that these things will actually happen to us in the conceivable future.  Lest you forget, the author actually has his PhD in astronomy.  One thing I can tell you about the astronomy program at UVa, you learn a little bit of everything in astronomy, and you really get put through the paces.  Armed with that knowledge and his own fantastic ability to make science accessible, Phil writes a book that terrifies AND teaches.  By reading this book, you will cover stellar life cycles, relativity, astrobiology, cosmology, and more.

This was the first popular astronomy book I’ve picked up in years.  I used to read astronomy and physics books voraciously, but at some point in college, I got tired of reading about what I did for work when it was my fun time.  For a return to the genre, this was an excellent pick. Though it’s been some time since I passed my astronomy qualifying exams, I still remember how most things in astronomy work.  However, Phil goes into such fascinating detail that I was never bored.  Not to mention, his method of explaining concepts in a way that is accessible and without confusing jargon is admirable.  For example, I could probably still trace out the evolutionary path of a star of a given mass and talk about the various stages well enough.  However, explaining this process to a student or layperson can be tricky, and yet the explanation of this in the supernova chapter is so physically intuitive, that I think I’ll take that to my next lesson.

The science is accessible, the scenarios are terrifying, and the tone is overall conversational and entertaining.  As readers of the BA blog know, there will be many, many puns!  Most of them are in the chapter subheading or footnotes, but watch out! One might smack you in the face from out of nowhere…

So for astronomers, astronomy enthusiasts, and anyone who is tired of those doomsday “science” shows that have very little science, go get this book.  There is something for everyone, no matter what level of scientific literacy you have.  Heck, this book would make a fantastic extra credit project for an introductory astronomy class!  My only criticism… no color pictures! We love pretty pictures in astronomy, and many of the black-and-white pictures in the book would benefit from having their color versions in one of those glossy center insert sections.

Seriously, go read it! And soon we can rock out to Geo’s musical version…

And of course, this week… Carnival of Space #102 presented by the Spacewriter!

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