Rebecca's Reviews > Death from the Skies!: These Are the Ways the World Will End...

Death from the Skies! by Philip Plait
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Aug 27, 09

bookshelves: nonfiction
Recommended to Rebecca by: Author's blog
Read in August, 2009, read count: 1

I'll be honest with you -- I like pop science books, magazines and blogs even when I know the subject. (Read: they are about astronomy*.) Part of it is reading to see how others explain a subject, which helps me learn things. Part of it is that the narrative for explaining the science to others is different than the research narrative -- while I could easily find out plenty on stellar evolution of a solar-type star -- how the temperature and size and mass changes -- and climactic models of the Earth with increased stellar flux and work out 'what happens to the Earth as the Sun ages', most pop science books will focus on that if they talk about the Sun. Plus, it makes my job easier when I brush back my astronomer headband and put on my skiffy-writer hat.

Death from the Skies! (yes, the exclamation point is in there) is basically a book written by an astronomer about all the ways that astronomy can kill us. It ranges from things most people know about (asteroids, supernovae), more obscure things (gamma-ray bursts, mini black-holes, collapse of the vacuum), to things that are inevitable but not going to happen in our lifetimes (death of the Sun, collision of the Milky Way with Andromeda, the fate of the Universe). Dr. Plait spells out exactly what bad effects this will have on our poor Earth -- gleefully, even -- but he's careful to note exactly how likely it is. (Though he does note things like 'sun turns into red giant' are certain, but that none of us will be killed by this, unless we are planning on living for billions of years.)

I did have some quibbles with the science in the Death of the Sun chapter. Mostly about outer planets' satellites**. Dr. Plait notes that as the Sun turns into a red giant, it will be getting a lot brighter***, and that this will spell bad news for a lot of things, including the many moons of the outer solar system. See, most of the jovian planets' moons are made of an ice/rock mix that does fine as long as things stay below freezing, but would turn into the Solar System's Biggest Comet if heated up†. My quibble is that Dr. Plait states they will be completely vaporized, while I note that many of them have differentiated -- much like how the Earth has a rocky crust and mantle and a nickel-iron core††, some of these moons have ice mantles and rock cores. While a moon that's well-mixed might carry off the rock as the water ice vaporizes, a differentiated moon might keep the rocky core intact even with the surface boiled off.

I know, pick, pick, pick. This is a minor detail in one chapter, though. Overall, I really liked this book. (Also, the cover for the softcover edition is awesome.) It also gave me some fun ideas about stuff to write fiction about, and offered a few new analogies to use when teaching and answering questions. (I'll add it to 'What If the Moon Didn't Exist Voyages to Earths That Might Have Been' on my list of 'sources to answer odd questions'.)

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* Except deep cosmology, relativity and black holes, for which I still consider myself an rather educated layperson on. Mostly because reading the 'Ask an Astronomer' questions on those make me cringe. I'm competent enough to know the basics, and to teach them, but the devil's in the details.

** Since 'stuff that orbits other planets' is kind of my field.

*** And bigger -- the red-giant Sun from Earth would be the size of a dinner plate held at arm's length, and the daytime temperature would be enough to melt the Earth's crust, and the only reason the Earth wouldn't be engulfed by the Sun is that the Sun is shedding mass like someone on one of those reality weight-loss shows my little brother likes, and this pushes the Earth out to an orbit that is merely 'rock-meltingly hot' rather than 'inside the Sun'.

† I actually recall some papers that noticed water vapor orbiting around red giants, which the authors attribute to something like our Solar System's Kuiper Belt (aka Pluto and friends) getting their surfaces boiled off.

†† Yes, I can explain How the Heck We Know That.
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