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Death From the Skies – You May Only Have 28 Years to Live
For manic depressives, goths, or doomsday preachers, Dr. Phil Plait has just the gift for you. Plait has been running the popular Bad Astronomy website for several years now and has just released his wonderful new book on planet-wide cataclysm: Death from the Sky! These are the ways the world will end.
We live in a dangerous universe. As Plait says in the introduction to his book, “The universe is trying to kill you. It’s trying to kill me. It’s trying to kill everyone. And it doesn’t even have to try very hard.” You’ll be surprised how comfortable it is to find out how you could die. Once you come to terms with the fact that we’re not even a molecule inside the glasses on the pimple on the ass of the universe, you can start thinking about the kind of events that Phil Plait covers in this book.
Each of the doomsday scenarios described begins with a short fictional account of what the average person on this planet would notice and experience when one of these events begins and actually destroys us or nearly destroys us. He then goes into some basic physics and cosmology to describe what would happen.
The chapters are short, to the point and mostly endlessly entertaining. Plait’s casual style that you may have seen in his YouTube clips from Bad Astronomy lends itself well to the page. The book is written for the layman, so the science and physics are brought down to Earth and conveyed in the simplest of terms, so even a basic high school science background should help you get through the explanations.
While it’s a bit unnerving, it’s not really too scary. Most of the events described, although they happen every day in space, have a very small chance of hitting the planet in our lifetime.
Some of the more interesting possibilities include the death of stars and how that might affect us in ways most people wouldn’t expect. For example, if a star in our celestial neighborhood goes supernova—an extremely powerful explosion at the end of the life of a star generally much larger than our sun—it could pretty much wipe us out.
Radiation from one of these explosions even close to a distance of tens of light years would shower us with enough radiation to destroy the ozone layer and trigger mass extinctions starting from the oceans to you and your mother-in-law. The explosion itself is bright. In fact, in 1054, a star 40 quadrillion miles away went supernova and for weeks was brighter than the full Moon in the sky, even visible during the day. Today, you can see the remains by looking at the Crab Nebula through a telescope or good binoculars. That one was far enough away that it was just pretty, but the explosion alone emitted 12 million times more light than our sun will emit in its entire billion-year lifetime. These explosions are so awesome that we can see them happening in other galaxies. Of course, they are child’s play compared to hypernovae.
Hypernovae are a relatively recent discovery. When a star goes hypernova, it emits such an intense stream of gamma rays that someone in our cosmic neighborhood could literally fry a planet like a burrito in a dirty microwave at the Village Pantry. We discovered these monsters by detecting gamma ray bursts. Gamma-ray bursts left astronomers scratching their heads for years until they were discovered to be hypernovae occurring in other galaxies.
That’s right, these things emit such an intense and powerful stream of radiation that we can detect them in other galaxies. Our get-out-of-jail-free ticket on these planetary killers is that the explosions are directed in straight streams on opposite sides of the explosion, so not only would one need to happen in our galaxy to kill us, but the star would also have to be at just the right angle to direct that flow in the direction of our solar system. The closest candidate to bloom and do this to us is the star Eta Carinae, but it seems to take several million or billion years to reach critical mass.
Interestingly, there is evidence that the planet was affected by some of these phenomena before it triggered mass extinctions and/or ice ages. In other words, we probably managed to enter the best time frame for several thousand years of good life on the planet. Or another way to look at it is that we probably only exist because we managed to have enough time between cosmic catastrophes to evolve this far.
Plait goes into a few other interesting ideas such as a small black hole slamming into the solar system and almost eating a planet for lunch. Very possible, but unlikely. Statistically speaking, it is estimated that our solar system probably strays close to a black hole only 2 or 3 times during the lifetime of the sun.
The book even covers an alien invasion. I assumed this chapter would be given with a bit of a grain of salt, but he actually approaches it logically by proposing a scenario that seems relatively plausible if you logically assume that the universe merges with life and other advanced civilizations. And no, the invasion doesn’t start with a little green man humming Billy Jim Joe Bob in a cornfield.
In later chapters, Plait covers more sobering and solemn ideas such as what happens when our sun enters its death throes and whether there is even the slightest chance that the human race will survive that long.
I think there are two lines of readers who would really enjoy Death from Heaven. The first would be anyone with even a passing interest in astronomy. Another would be anyone who likes to read about doomsday scenarios. If you like both, you’ll enjoy this one.
If there was a weakness for me, it’s the opening chapter detailing a large asteroid or comet collision scenario. While it’s sure to be a fun and interesting way to die, it’s also been done to death in movies and media over the past few years, so it wasn’t much new for me personally, and it’s probably the driest in the book. However, there have been some very interesting suggestions on how to prevent this even with the technology we have today, given several years of warning.
For those who think even something as frequent as asteroid strikes is unlikely, there’s a sobering take on it.
A few years ago, a large asteroid named Apophis was discovered and appeared to be on a collision course with Earth in 2029. Apophis is a little over 300 feet in diameter. Doesn’t sound bad, does it? As long as I’m not standing around, everything should be fine. Well, keep in mind that the asteroid or comet that hit Siberia in 1908 and wiped out hundreds of square kilometers of forest plain was probably the size of a school bus at most. That was 100 years ago and that forest is still pretty much dead. For those unfamiliar with it, it is sometimes referred to as the Tunguska Event.
In 2004, scientists estimated a 3% chance of Apophis hitting the planet. A small but worth mentioning probability. Honestly, if you were told there was a 3 in 100 chance that the building would explode tomorrow, would you choose to hang out there?
Initially, there was relief when it was discovered that there was virtually no chance of a collision in 2029. However, this quirky little planet killer will come very close. In fact, it will pass closer to the planet than most of our communications satellites in orbit.
And now the bad news. Apophis’ orbit around the Sun intersects Earth’s all the time. When such an object gets too close, our gravity will change the asteroid’s orbit. If Earth’s gravity skews the orbit just the right way, things could get ugly. Basically, we can’t predict exactly how close the asteroid will come to the planet, but if it goes the right way past Earth, passing through what astronomers call the “Keyhole,” it will alter Apophis’ orbit enough to hit us upside the head in 2036 when it orbits back around the planet. And the really bad news is that Bruce Willis will most likely be dead by then and won’t be able to help us. This leads to even worse news: we won’t be able to kill Bruce Willis again!
There are actually many “keyholes” it could go through that will cause an impact in 2036. Astronomers estimate that the chances of this happening are about 1 in 45,000. It sounds small, but still, in my opinion, too great a chance to simply ignored.
So I wish you a nice day! You may only have 28 years left to live!
Death from Heaven is highly recommended reading.
For all reviews and opinions visit www.deviantknowledge.com
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