16 September 2009

Death From the Skies!

Philip Plait, PhD
Grade: A

Death from the Skies! Oh sweet Lord, we're all gonna die. How?, you might be asking. The answer is easier if you ask, What in the universe is not trying to kill us? The answer is nothing, nothing wants us to live; everything in the universe is out to get us.

I repeat, we're all gonna die.

(Here’s what I took from each chapter, these are by no means meant to be summaries. The ratings express in general how terrifying I find being around for it to be. It’s a scale of 1-5)

Target Earth: Asteroid and Comet Impacts

Apophis. I want you to go write that name down right this minute. Why? Because on April 13 2029, Friday the 13th and I am so not making that up, Apophis will pass closer to earth than some of our satellites. That’s right, Apophis may get closer than the T-Mobile satellite powering your future wrist-phone. And while it may miss us this time around, if it passes through the wrong spot, it will most certainly hit us in 2036. That’s nine years to try and move a rock big enough to basically set the planet on fire. Yay.

This was my favourite chapter as it was the easiest to actually wrap your mind around. B612 Foundation: I can haz Science? Also, thanks for the “There’s not even enough time to worry” there Dr Plait, I think I shall begin right this minute. Put that in your metaphorical pipe and smoke it.

Paragraph of Dissension: When did an asteroid/comet hit become the accepted theory for dinosaur extinction? Back when I was studying on dinosaurs there was still a lot of disagreement over what caused what and when. Now I turn around and everywhere is all “Yeah, dinosaurs got knocked off* by an asteroid, where have you been?” I’ve been doing very important things! Also, admittedly, the last time I was really into dinosaurs was when Jurassic Park came out so that’s nearly twenty years. I concede that a lot can happen in that time.

*Please note that getting knocked off by an asteroid is totally different than getting knocked up by an asteroid.


So “death” by sunburn isn’t so much death by sunburn as it is “total collapse of the world’s economies and perhaps even civilisation” by sunburn. Strangely, in light of later chapters I found this oddly comforting. The wave of radiation from the sun would be mildly annoying here on earth. At the ISS we get the Fantastic 7 – yeah, you know that bit at the beginning of Fantastic 4 before things got interesting, that’s pretty much what would happen to the ISS crew. Only quite likely way less cool. The crew actually have a special place they hide to avoid getting mutant powers. This is why I could never be an astronaut.

Actually, a solar phenomenon is what brought down SkyLab (I’d mark this as “Things I did not know” but that list grew extensively during this book), the solar flare caused the earth’s atmosphere to puff up then drag it down. One can only presume it happened in slo-mo while SkyLab’s partner screamed “Nooooo!”.

He also brings up a good point. I remember all through school learning that Sol was only an “average sun”. Not huge, not tiny, just kind of there. Dude, even an “average” sun is a pretty freaking awesome sun.

FYI: Looking at the sun with the naked eye = not as bad as people have been telling you. I’ve done it while watching a sunrise (although admittedly, the sunlight is going through a lot more atmosphere then and not quite so bad for you). Look at the sun directly through any kind of helpful magnifying equipment = boil the fluid in your eyeball. Let’s not do that, kay?

The Stellar Fury of Supernovae

The awesomeness of this is somewhat tempered by the fact that it is really unlikely to happen to us. Here in our solar system. That’s not to say we might not go exploring at some point in our future and be very very unlucky.

Also learned that all the elements as we know them had their start in supernovae. That’s kind of cool. Also, also learned that supernovae is the plural of supernova. Even my spell-checker recognises it.

Cosmic Blowtorches: Gamma-Ray Bursts

Aw shit. I don’t care how “unlikely” Plait says this is, next to black holes *shudder* this is the absolute scariest thing I can imagine happening. Later chapters are pretty scary, but totally mind-boggling and as such, don’t carry the same shazam! Also, massive stars, black holes, twin beams of death, this is totally how they should have destroyed Romulus. Supernova, shmupernova.

We’re talking about an event occuring 100 light years away. A place so far away it takes light, something that travels so fast it took us thousands of years to notice it travelled at all, 100 years to get here. And that event is powerful enough heat roast you and instantly destroy our ozone layer. Three cheers for gamma-ray bursts! May you always be so terrifying.

The Bottomless Pits of Black Holes

ad infinitum

Just go read this chapter. If you’re too tight on money to buy it, see if you can convince Amazon to help you out with the ‘Look Inside’ feature. Note: spaghettification may be my new favourite word. Also note: I’ve had black hole based nightmares for the last three days.

This did cause me to think of two questions:

  1. Can planets orbit a small black hole? I know that galaxies can (and do) but it seems that with a sufficient source of matter to feed the black hole, a planet could conceivably orbit it as one might a star. Since the black hole will be giving of light, this planet could also conceivably support life. This would have the added benefit of making it the coolest form(s) of life ever, and the winner of every ‘rough childhood’ storytelling game for all time.

  2. Could a sufficiently large star swallow a sufficiently small black hole? It seems that this should be possible, but given the nature of black holes may be a total nonsensical statement. If it is, I apologise – but then again, can a black hole cannibalise another black hole? What happens when two black holes meet?

I totally should have gone into astronomy. Stupid archaeobotany.

Alien Attack!

Plait makes much of, if there is suitably intelligent life out there, theory states that we should have met them by now. Sure, but maybe we’re the first to advance to this stage. Also, given the Drake Equation (which he doesn’t explain, maybe he just assumes everyone is familiar with it. I was, but I’m special like that) it’s quite likely that given the other variables, life could evolve countless times, just not in time to meet each other. Both myself and my great-great grandparents existed. But we never got to meet each other. (NOT an insinuation that alien life will be descended from earth life, or vice versa. Just an analogy. A bad one actually.)

I’m only going to leave you with this: either we are alone in the universe or we are not. Both ideas are overwhelming.

The Death of the Sun

This would be way more scary if we weren’t going to have a lot of prep time when it happens. I give it two skulls because the fact that it won’t happen in my lifetime is balanced out by how pants-wettingly terrifying it would be if it did.

Bright Lights, Big Galaxy

That black hole sitting at the center of our galaxy? Worrisome. That black hole sitting at the middle of the Andromeda galaxy? You know, the one that will one day merge with ours in an apocalyptic scenario that makes me weep? WTF? We’re gonna get eaten by another galaxy? The Milky Way is going to eat another galaxy? Either way, I’m very disappointed in you Milky Way. Eating your own kind... bad galaxy, bad.

The End of Everything


I could not wrap my head completely around this chapter. Moments of lucidity were punctuated by the knowledge that I had no grasp whatsoever of the scale of what was eventually going to happen. That’s how the universe is supposed to work. I do however, love Plait’s venturing that we might get an ‘infinite do-over’. Was that meant to be reassuring?

What, Me Worry?

I harbour a fantasy where I had gone into astronomy or astrophysics or some other ‘astro’ related field. In my fantasy, I spend a lot of time looking at stars, doing math and discovering heretofore unknown laws of the universe. Yes, in my fantasy I am Albert Einstein. What I did not imagine was that I would spend any portion of time contemplating doomsday scenarios and worrying about being hit by a giant rock.

Part of me wants to move to another planet. This will not, however, solve the problem of black holes, gamma ray bursts, supernovae, asteroids, or well virtually anything. In fact, moving may in fact increase my risks. So I shall stay here on earth and keep an eye to the heavens. When the day comes, I shall be aware... not that I can do much about it...

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