40 of 42 people found the following review helpful
on October 18, 2008
The author reviews just about every disaster of global proportions that this old universe has in store for us. This includes everything from impacts with space rocks, solar magnetic storms, gamma-ray bursts, and the ultimate fate from the expansion of the universe itself. While these and others are serious scenarios, the author maintains a cosmic wit as is demonstrated even in his section subtitles. For example, there's "Sirius Danger?," "The Hole Truth," and "Sunrise Sunset" which is of course followed by "Swiftly Flow the Days Millennia Eons." By the way, if you wade through all of the cosmic disasters (speaking of which disaster itself is derived from the Greek for 'bad star') you'll find in the end that you have learned a bit about almost every topic that I teach in my introductory astronomy classes. Note that there are not any color photographs, but you can find lots of those online or in any standard astronomy text. I'm sure that by only including black and white images, it helped keep down the book cost, which makes this volume reachable to a wider audience. I highly recommend the book as an enjoyable weekend read which can lead you to think, learn, and perhaps realize that there can be lots gained from analyzing doom and gloom scenarios, especially if you apply scientific reasoning, which includes critical thinking.
24 of 26 people found the following review helpful
on September 4, 2009
If you are looking at this review and considering buying Death from the Skies!, that probably means you have some interest in astronomy--if you do, I promise you will love this book. It is probably the most engaging non-fiction book I have ever read--I couldn't put it down. Phil Plait uses teaser stories at the beginning of each chapter, describing what it would be like to experience the various cosmic threats he covers. These are incredibly effective at grabbing your attention. Each time I read a new teaser, I couldn't stop myself from reading the rest of the chapter. In addition, the chapters, though they are packed with science, are very accessible and full of wit. Plait has a great sense of humor, and a gift for clear explanation. You do not need any kind of background in astro, physics, or math to get what he is talking about. I took a lot of astro in college so the concepts in the book were already familiar to me, which may have helped me to plow through the book quickly, but I don't think that sort of background is crucial. Anyway, I was an art history major, so it's not like I am some great expert on astronomy. If you are interested, you will be able to get what Plait is talking about.
This book has really reawakened my interest in the cosmos--I've started reading more astro and doing stuff like watching Jupiter and its moons as they change positions each night, stuff I hadn't done in ages. In addition, the book gave me a sense of perspective on Earth's place in the universe. There are some very thought-provoking ideas here, especially in the chapter about the end of the universe, which gets a little philosophical (in a good way). Plait also has a lot of good, practical stuff to say about risk assessment and what we can or should actually do about the threats he covers. This is a great strength of the book, reminding us to think before we give in to terror (and not just terror from the skies).
If you are reading this review and have any interest in astronomy, I can tell you without any reservations: get this book. You are in for a great ride, one that is plenty rewarding.
And to Phil Plait: write another one soon!!
20 of 22 people found the following review helpful
on October 26, 2008
The book is quite a roller coaster ride that takes you through all the many ways that the universe can kill us. Yet, the author, Dr. Philip Plait masterfully explains the many concepts with wit and humor rarely encountered in todays popular science books. Even those who have a decent background in astronomy can find facts and information that are absolutely novel to their thinking. Plait echoes the spirit of Sagan with an approach that allows any lay reader to understand the ridiculously difficult concepts that must be simplified but not dumbed down. Moreover, the science in the book represents our very latest understanding about the cosmos. One very important fact that must be mentioned from the book is that there are many ways for the universe to kill us, but the two that are most likely to disrupt our lives are fully preventable and mitigable. There is absolutely no excuse for our ignorance regarding the next near Earth asteroid, or major coronal mass ejection/giant solar flare from destroying all that we've worked so hard to accomplish. This is the ultimate and greatest message of the book.
15 of 16 people found the following review helpful
on August 31, 2009
Anyone worried about looking out their bathroom window to discover the birds gone along with an overwhelming stillness should not read this book. If you notice all the trees around you suddenly begin to smoke, don't bother running away. If just after sunrise you notice rocks begin to melt, don't bother turning on the air conditioner.
If any of these possible scenarios do not alarm you and you are looking for a laugh-out-loud read about the different ways the world could end, then this book is for you. Astronomer and author, Dr. Philip Plait enlightens us with many more scenarios describing what would happen to our planet just before biblical catastrophes such as the Sun dying, asteroid and comet impacts, gamma-ray bursts, black holes, and more.
Expect to get educated as well with terms any layman can understand but appreciate: "The Sun is about 93 million miles away. If you could build a highway and drive there, it would take over 170 years. Even an airplane would take two decades to fly to the Sun if it could."
Plait's "Death from the Skies" is a blast (pun intended).
12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on November 17, 2008
I can't praise this book enough! This gifted author, a renowned astronomer, discusses the various ways in which our world could end due to catastrophes of a cosmological/astrophysical nature. In order to do this, he must explain the scientific principles involved and relate them to the ways in which we could meet our end - in morbid detail. For all of these events, probabilities are given regarding their possibly occurring during our own lifetimes, as well as whether any are actually preventable. The prose is simply outstanding; it leaves the reader breathless! The author's passion and excitement for his subject matter are quite contagious. Not only is the writing style clear and authoritative, but it's also immensely accessible. Using wit, humor, excellent analogies and everyday language, the author weaves each potential disaster tale in such a way that both general readers and scientists alike can relish them. Reading this book is the most pleasant way that I can think of for learning of human-race-annihilating disasters. This book can be enjoyed by anyone!
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on July 24, 2011
If you aren't reading Phil Plait's Bad Astronomy blog over at Discover magazine, you should be. His writing is an awesome example of how real science can be just as awe-inspiring, cool and interesting as the "science" that underlays our most exciting and captivating science fiction stories.
Are you a fan of disaster movies? Then, Death from the Skies is for you. In this short volume, Plait uncovers the real science behind a host of truly dreadful end of the world scenarios from asteroid impacts to the eventual, but certain, heat death of the universe, putting each in cosmic perspective in terms of the scope of the catastrophe and its likelihood of occurrence. What makes this exploration so much fun is Plait's own enthusiasm for the subject. He manages to strike a delicate balance between his appreciation for the creativity of science fiction and the scientific rigors of his profession (Plait is a PhD in Astronomy and a well known skeptic and debunker of all things astronomically ridiculous) which prevents Death from the Skies from becoming either too sensationalist or statistically boring and mundane. The result: we have very, very little to personally fear from any of the disasters outlined in the book. The genius is that while Plait puts the odds in context (some of which are so small they really may as well be zero), he still writes in such a way that makes the discussion of the forces and power involved in these events exciting and fascinating.
Each chapter opens with a creative vignette that gives a human perspective to the discussion of the disaster to follow, which gets your survival instincts and adrenaline thrumming. Plait paints a realistic scenario for the playing out of the event and its impact on human life, giving in a bit to theater, but in an enjoyable way that manages to peak your interest for the scientific discussion to follow. The sheer magnitude of these disasters defies the imagination and Plait does an admirable job of providing some jaw-dropping statistics in ways that don't make your eyes glaze over - mostly because he puts them in every day context by providing some appropriate analogies that still leave you gazing at the wall for a good couple minutes as you try and wrap your mind around it.
The overall feeling you get after reading Death from the Skies is one of absolute wonder. The universe is an incredibly hostile place for beings as sensitive and delicate as we are and Plait paints a devastatingly realistic picture of how tenuous life's grasp on Earth really is, but he balances it well by pointing out that if the universe weren't so, we probably wouldn't be here anyway. A well-known saying in astronomy is that we were literally born from the death of stars, which forged the heavier elements that come together to form life, and Plait makes active use of this reference throughout his work, extending the description to form an interconnected web that creates a multibillion year cycle of creation and destruction that happened precisely to create and maintain life on our little planet. He also does a magnificent job of putting time into perspective, noting that though our history may seem "long" to us, it is a literally insignificant drop in the bucket compared to the life of the Earth itself, which is also just a drop in the galactic bucket, which is in turn....you get what I mean. Plait also manages to hold on, in spite of such vast proportions and epic time scales, to the human perspective, relating everything back to us; what a supernova half the galaxy away means to us, what the supermassive black hole lurking at the heart of our galaxy means to us and so on.
Death from the Skies is a fun read that will put the universe and our place in it in perspective, while at the same time teaching you rock solid astronomy and physics, probably without you being even aware of it.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on January 16, 2010
As a person who is lucky enough to write horror books for a living, I thought I knew "scary." Maybe I do, but not on the same level as Plait. Holy crap. DEATH FROM THE SKIES is absolutely terrifying -- a dozen ways for the world to end. Real ways, and some that are mathematically inevitable. That's right, someday all of this that you see here will vaporize. And yes, that includes your Smurf figurine collection. Sorry about that.
DEATH FROM THE SKIES taught me more about astronomy than any other source has. The clever way Plait lays out information keeps you engaged, informs you, teaches you, then hits you in the stomach with just how much unstoppable power is out there. The book is suitable for pre-teens all the way up -- even flat-earth Grampa would dig it. You don't have to know a damn thing about space, stars, astronomy, etc. (because I sure didn't, I know that now) to love this one. Some of the best science writing of all-time.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on September 4, 2009
The first sentence of DEATH FROM THE SKIES reads: "The Universe is trying to kill you." Beginning with that warning, astronomer Philip Plait lists the many ways that humanity might be obliterated from existence. His litanty of exits includes asteroid/comet collisions, solar flares, supernova, gamma ray bursts, black holes, alien attack, slow sun death, universe extinction. Plait's book is a good news/bad news tome. The good news is that most of the scenarios he lists are of a very low order of probability of occurring anytime soon. The bad news is the same as the good news, which means that some events could happen in our lifetime and we on earth would have no warning or even if warning is possible, there is little we can do to avert the danger. One of the many salient points that Plait makes is the difficulty of determining whether life on earth is unique to the universe or is as common as pebbles on a beach. He mentions the Drake Equation, which is a formula devised by an astrophysicist that mathematically suggests that life must exist Up There in planets in the billions. The problem, he notes, is that given the immense age of the universe, one would think that any ET would have found the means to make their presence clearly known. If life on earth is truly unique, then humanity has the awesome responsibility to propagate our kind. Plait does not dismiss the dangers of any of the potential Life Extinguishing Events of his book, but he does suggest that we ought not to take for granted that our 4.5 billion year history of galactic good luck will continue for another and equal time. Humanity then has the potential to leave this green mudball we call earth to visit the heavens, so that even if one or more of the catastrophes described occurs, humanity can continue anew somewhere else. He admits that it would take tens of thousands of years to settle just this solar system, but the knowledge that we are not bullet proof might be the spur we need to pay attention to those like Plait.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on December 19, 2009
Readable to a general audience, but never speaks down to it's readers. Fascinating for me, as a non-scientist. This book is both terrifying and calming, as Plait tells us all of the ways the universe could kill us, but probably won't... yet.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on May 3, 2009
While reading this book, I wondered how one person could possibly know all this stuff in such depth--the area of scholarship seemed so vast. But in the acknowledgements, Phil Plait graciously points out that he was helped along by a list of fifteen other scientists, so the reader can be certain the information is backed up with a lot of expertise.
Each chapter deals with some spectacular aspect of the universe, and the material is often simplified with easy-to-understand analogies--important, when you're dealing with numbers that are incredibly large or small. You won't feel like you're taking a course in astronomy, yet you will get a basic understanding of all the "juicy stuff" we've learned in the last century or so--in a fun and exciting way. Imagine what Galileo and others like him would have given just to read a single chapter, yet we can buy the entire novel for a pittance.