Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Oh My Stars and Garters...

It was a long time ago that I stumbled onto Dr. Phil Plait's website, Bad Astronomy, which I found after searching for a review of the movie The Core. Ever since then I have been reading his blog regularly, and I even went out and got his book. His first book, Bad Astronomy, was a collection of misconceptions and mistakes propagated about space and by extension, physics. For anyone who knows someone who believes in the moon hoax, I highly recommend it. Now he has written a new book, called Death From the Skies.

I went out and bought it, having waited for it ever since Phil began pimping it on his blog. It's a book that goes over the number of ways things outside of earth's sphere can kill us. I know that "things outside of the earth's sphere" technically means space, but let's face it, it's not the void that going to kill us, it's the stuff inside the void [/nitpick]. Provided we don't manage to do the job ourselves, the book points out that the earth will be destroyed eventually, in some scenarios sooner, rather than later. The book's cover (pictured below) has a great movie poster look to it alright, but the really good stuff lies beyond the dust jacket.


As you might imagine, a book about how the earth will end is largely speculative, but there are some interesting things to contemplate. While unlikely, what exactly would happen if a black hole suddenly showed up in our solar system and headed straight for the earth? Allow me to sum up the crux of Plait's conclusion: We die.

However that short sentence doesn't do Phil Plait's explanation justice. What he does, is go over it all in brilliant detail, explaining the strange and elegant physics of this hypothetical event. There is something about his writing, a quality I find difficult to describe, that makes everything abundantly clear very quickly. He doesn't seem to struggle to explain things, and every thing is usually transparent to the reader.

In fact his description of the death of a star made it easy to imagine a perspective from a seat inside the star watching in awe as the scaffolding falls around you. His descriptions, sometimes rather poetic, bring life and color to that deep black void in our minds that we normally reserve for space.

To be clear, it's not a perfect book. It's great, certainly, but there were some improvements that could be made. For one there was a typo I managed to catch- a minor one where he states about the bending of space, "It's actually incredibly difficult to describe the shape of the space being bent because we live in those dimensions..." I'm pretty sure he meant because we don't live in those dimensions. [Edit:There is no typo, I misunderstood the intent of the statement. Sorry.]

Aside from that minor typo, which isn't really a criticism more than it is a testament to how difficult it is to churn a book out without errors, there are two other items. He has some amazing images in the book, some of which I assume are artistic renditions, but are amazing nonetheless. Tragically, none are in color, and they lose quite a lot of their potential impact. Plait should know something about potential impacts, hell, the book is full of them! It was probably a decision based on the cost of printing in color and the sale price of the book, which I was foolish enough to buy from the bookstore instead of Amazon. What can I say? I don't like to wait, and I payed the tax.

My final criticism: The book is too damn responsible. It tries so hard not to start a panic that it gets to be a little old. I get it. The sky is not in fact falling. I like that he goes over the low odds, but it sometimes snaps me out of my apocalyptic fantasy. I approached the book like a horror story, it doesn't get you good and scared more than you get yourself good and scared. It's hard to watch a movie like Halloween and have the Micheal Myers character constantly pull off the hockey mask and remind you, "I'm just an actor!" Of course I understand the need to express the likelihood of the various events, but this is a case where less just might be more.

Beyond that I highly recommend it, and it should be a pop-science staple. It's really very much in the same league of astronomy books that make you realize not only your littleness, but the majesty all around you. The title of this post- if you're a comic book fan you might recognize it- comes from the X-Men character, Beast. It's his trademark exclamation. Well, I came across its possible origin a while back and it kept popping into my head. From Hans Christian Anderson:
"It’s really a pleasure now and then to become a mere nothing, especially when a man is as highly placed as I am. And then to think that we all, even with patent lacquer, are nothing more than insects of a moment on that ant-hill the earth, though we may be insects with stars and garters, places and offices!" -Ole the Tower Keeper.
Phil Plait reminds us of this humble truth: That life may be fragile and fleeting position in an eternal universe, but you certainly can't beat the view.


  1. Wow, thanks for the great review! I appreciate it.

    And that's no typo. I mean we live in those four dimensions (including time), so when they get bent we can't see it. We can't step outside of our Universe and perceive it that way.

  2. Oh crap! I guess I missed that. Excuse me a moment, will you? There's some egg on my face.

  3. Nice review.

    Minor nitpick: His name is Hans Christian Andersen, not Anderson :-)
    The "son of" suffix is -sen in Danish and Norwegian, as opposed to -son in English and Swedish.


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