Why I Got Religion – A Book Review of Philip Plait’s Death from the Skies!

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Death_from_the_Skies_300I’m normally an optimistic person. I regularly practice a “can-do” philosophy. It’s fun. It’s generated its share of success. It’s something I demand from everyone working with me. I can’t stand the lamentable “first you are born, then you die” way of life found too often among naysayers, doomsdayers and, in general, soothsayers of gloom. “There’s always hope!” I’ll shout from the highest mountain. Give me a “no-win” scenario and I’ll find the loop hole. It’s just the way I am. Deal with it.

So, when I say, “Philip Plait’s Death from the Skies bluntly stripped all hope from me,” you’ll know just how significant a statement that represents. As I turned each page, I could feel the aura of confidence increasingly gush from my persona. In each of the nine ways Plait so precisely labels “these are the ways the world will end,” the finality of that phrase – “the world will end” – depressingly sinks into the psyche. We’re talking the end, folks. Not merely the end of our individual lives or the end of our country, but the end of world. Period.

Science fiction? No. I can tell you from first-hand experience as a trained astrophysicist, these are all too real destinies. In short, there’s no escaping. All those precious heirlooms you saved to hand down to your grandkids? They’re gone. All those selfless non-profits you so altruistically supported? They’re gone, too. All the accumulated wisdom, knowledge and culture of mankind? It’s gone. Worse, it doesn’t matter. Everything’s gone.

The face of certain death reveals one’s true character. Knowing an approaching asteroid means your demise lays only days away, how would you react? Would you eat, drink and be merry? Would you put your affairs in order? Would you carry on in disbelief? Would you rack your brains looking for an escape route? Or, would you gather with those close to you and accept the inevitable?

Reread that last paragraph with all the intensity you can, then answer this question: Do you understand why man has religion?

Enough philosophy, let’s get to the meat of the book. Above all, Plait writes with the spark of a gifted storyteller and with the ease of your favorite high school teacher. He begins each chapter with a short piece of fiction showing the particular disaster de jour he’ll be discussing in the chapter. In doing so, he immediately creates nine (there are nine chapters) concept pieces his agent no doubt has already taken to the nearest Hollywood studio. It’s also entertaining for the reader and reminds me of a similar trope I used to describe an indescribable artifact of ancient astronomy (see “Antikythera Mechanism,” AstonomyTop100.com, March 11, 2009). Plait, who writes the popular Bad Astronomy blog, employs this technique to draw in those humanities majors whose entire scientific education can best be summed up in the phrase “Open the pod bay door, HAL.” It not only works, it works deliciously. You just want to dive in and find out what he’s really talking about.

And when you do turn the page from science fiction to science fact, Plait delivers aplenty. He’s honest (which us optimistic folks might find disturbing), accurate (which we students of astronomy find most satisfying) and easy to read (which comes in handy after a long day of rigorous work). You don’t need a degree in physics and astronomy to appreciate his points (although, admittedly, having one made the reading more fun). As you peruse the book, you’ll learn not to worry about such things as the Earth being boiled to nothing as the dying Sun consumes our planet. Despite being a low likelihood event to begin with, we probably won’t even last that long – the expected collision between the Milky Way and Andromeda Galaxies occurs billions of years before the Sun dies. As Homer Simpson would say, “Woo-hoo!” followed upon sudden realization and “D’oh!”

Travel through Plait’s tome and learn all the amazingly awesome ways our little blue home will find its end. The good news, one of these does not immediately kill anyone. A Coronal Mass Ejection (which sounds like something you should talk to your doctor about) only wipes out our power grid and potentially depletes our ozone later. We’ll die later from either frostbite or skin cancer. The better news, one of Plait’s event’s is almost 100% preventable! We can get all the governments in the world together and blow up or push away any asteroids capable of impacting the Earth. (Did I say “get all the governments in the world together”? That’s why it’s “almost 100%.”) The best news, you’re more likely to get eaten by a shark than to die from a supernova or gamma-ray burst and everything else is so far in the future there’s no way anything you own will still be under warranty anyway, so don’t worry.

In the end, though, prevailing theory suggests the universe will come to its conclusion in a cold lifeless vacuum (unlike we can find more Dark Matter). After reading that final chapter, it’s like, “oh, what’s the point.” It’s almost enough to throw in the towel, or, in my case, decide never to wash the dishes again. But, just as you’re about to quit work and join a monastery, Plait surprises us with this nugget: Perhaps, after every single proton has decayed into the dark randomized silence of forever, some here-to-for unexplained – undiscovered? – quantum reality asserts itself and, as with the Big Bang that launched our universe, a new singularity event occurs, creating a new universe and spawning a new cycle of life.

What do you know? In the end, hope still prevails.

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