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Book Review: DEATH FROM THE SKIES! by Phil Plait

Posted in Skepchick by Skepdude on October 14, 2008


Among science communicators, there’s an ongoing discussion on how best to reach people. There’s the Carl Sagan-route, full of awe and gentle wonder and turtlenecks, and there’s the Mythbusters-route, which relies upon explosions and goofy shenanigans to teach while entertaining. And now there is the Phil Plait-route, defined by educating the audience while scaring the pants off them.

Death from the Skies!Death from the Skies: These are the Ways the World Will End is a gripping, well-written follow-up to Dr. Phil Plait’s first book, Bad Astronomy. Those of you who have read Bad Astronomy — or who follow Phil’s fantastic blog of the same name — already know what to expect in DftS, and you won’t be disappointed. Phil excels at conveying complex scientific ideas in an easy-to-grasp manner. He’s the science teacher you wish you had in high school, who can relate to your frustration when the formulas get long and the Universe seems to ignore all those laws you learned in freshman Physics.

Of course, Phil’s knack for simplifying science is only half the battle, as a wise GI Joe once said. What really sets this book apart is the brilliant concept: death and destruction on a scale that makes Godzilla v. Mothra look just silly. I mean sillier. You get my point.

The Large Hadron Collider became the biggest science news story of 2008, purely because of a public misconception that it might bring about the end times. Other popular headline-grabbers this year: the Mayan calendar ending in 2012, at least two blockbusters involving the destruction of New York, and the lack of solar activity possibly signaling an incoming mini ice age. Obviously, this is the sort of topic that grabs attention.

The problem is, how do you capitalize off of society’s innate morbid curiosity without freaking people out about scenarios that are not very likely to occur? In DftS, Phil manages to present a believable scenario of destruction and explain the science behind it, without necessarily inspiring any new doomsday cults. Take, for instance, a gamma-ray burst (GRB). This is seriously freak-tastic stuff: a star a few trillion miles from Earth, like say Eta Carinae, dies. From our perspective, we see a pretty cool flash of light in the sky, and then a few hours later, 2/3 of the Earth is covered in a lethal dose of radiation. Phil uses this scenario to explain topics like black holes and the accretion disks surrounding them, neutron stars, the weird-but-true theory that as an object’s gravity increases as it gets smaller while retaining its mass, and the penetrative power of muons (hint: don’t bother hiding from them less than 2,000 feet underground). Throughout the chapter he throws in things like, “To make this more clear: we are in no danger from a GRB, Eta or otherwise, in the near or even mid-term future.” And then he continues to scare the pants off everyone by speculating further. At the very end of the book, he includes a helpful chart showing the chances of each scenario happening. Death by GRB appears to be about 1 in 14,000,000 and there’s nothing you can do to prevent it anyway, meaning that you’re quite literally better off worrying about shark attacks.

So, I love the scary parts of the book, I love the care taken to put those scary parts into perspective, and I especially love the science — speaking as someone with basically no formal science education, I learned an awful lot about astronomy, physics, chemistry, and even biology. The breadth of information in the book pretty much guarantees that everyone will learn something. Probably something really terrifying, but something.

To balance that glowing review, just in case you all think I’m only saying these nice things because Phil is my pal, I’ll also mention that the book is not perfect. Now, I did read an advance proof that may not be exactly like the final version, but I feel I should warn you just in case: Death from the Skies is absolutely infested with puns. Puns made up by Phil, and if you know Phil, you know what that means. Luckily, most of them are bolded and set apart from the rest of the text as subheads, so if you’re prepared then you will know to glance over them as you read. Here are a few:

Current Events (about magnetic fields)
Sirius Danger? (about the star, and yes, he went there)
The Hole Truth (about black holes)
I’ve Fallen and I Can’t Get Up (no, seriously)
Pasta-ta (about black hole spaghettification)
Man Hole (about Phil’s trip to his favorite dance club)

I’ll stop there before your eyes melt.

Of course, I’m only (half-) kidding. Phil’s goofy sense of humor is why I love him, and it’s why scientists and laypeople alike enjoy reading about the Universe from his perspective. His love of science is infectious, and I’m optimistic that Death from the Skies will introduce a new audience to the wonders of astronomy. I’d like to give this book to all those people fretting about the various made-up ways the world might end (the LHC, the Mayan calendar, Godzilla, Armageddon), to open their eyes to what’s actually happening out there. Reading the book, what struck me above all is not just the specifics of what we know through science, but simply that we know at all. Death from the Skies will take you trillions of years into the future and beyond, using actual science to speculate about what will happen to our planet, our Sun, our galaxy, and our Universe. That is so very cool, and so much more satisfying than anything you’ll get from the vague predictions of your average Doomsday crowd.




Astrology in retrograde

Posted in Bad Astronomy by Skepdude on October 3, 2008

I was called by MSNBC reporter Helen Popkin yesterday because she was doing an article on astrology. And she stumped me with a simple question: “Have you heard,” she asked “about the idea that electronics tend to fail when Mercury is in retrograde?”

Uh. What?

I hadn’t heard of this little piece of nonsense, but according to Ms. Popkin, sure enough, some astrologers say that technology tends to fail more when Mercury is in retrograde — that is, when its apparent motion in the sky switches from an eastward direction to westward. Since, astrologically, Mercury controls communication and technology, when it’s in retrograde things get screwed up. That’s why Hubble is malfunctioning, and why the LHC is having woes.

Yeeeeeeah. Oooooookay.


Meet the Flat Brainers!

When it comes to science, the rule of thumb is that we should always challenge everything, in order to make new discoveries and advance our knowledge. After all, if we were to sit around content with the knowledge we have, there would be no drive towards the unknown. Nevertheless, there are certain scientific facts that are so well established, that they just can’t be challenged, unless by a brilliant genius who sees what everyone else misses. Read this carefully : An average Joe, with no training in the field he’s seeking to reinvent has just as much chance of succeeding as an ID proponent has to make sense. And those are pretty slim odds.

One of those well established facts in science is that the Earth is round, not flat. That was established eons ago. There are countless photos, videos and what have you to demonstrate that. Anyone who’s ever set foot on a plane has seen with their very own eyes the slight curvature of the earth’s surface. Yet, as unbelievable as it may sound, there are still people out there who think this whole round Earth thing to be nothing but a vast, world-wide conspiracy. They still believe the eart is flat, infinite and 9,000 kilometres deep (about 5,600 miles) and get this, it stretches infinitely horizontally! You can’t make this stuff up. You can only whole-heartedly believe it.

Flat earth theory is still around. On the internet and in small meeting rooms in Britain and the US, flat earth believers get together to challenge the “conspiracy” that the Earth is round.

“People are definitely prejudiced against flat-earthers,” says John Davis, a flat earth theorist based in Tennessee, reacting to the new Microsoft commercial.

Why are people so fascinated with the idea of a “conspiracy”? How many of these so-called conspiracies can the world governments have going at the same time anyway? The UFO proponents cry conspiracy. The flat earthers cry conspiracy. Almost any thing can be imagined and the lack of evidence blamed on a governmental conspiracy. These folks believe in their weird hypothesis precisely because they can’t find any evidence to back it up. Talk about weird! String theory has got nothing on these nuts!

Prejudiced? Of course I am prejudiced against flat earthers. They are,at the worst complete idiots, and at the best, self deluded, hallucinating, mentally ill people. There is a certain egotistic trend with all such people. They seem to think to be in on something that the general public doesn’t see. They seem to think they’re smart because they have “uncovered” these hidden secrets that “normal” people were never meant (and thus they are better than normal people) to uncover. To me they are like little boys pretending to be superheroes and getting that instantaneous gratification.  All the guys out there know what I’m talking about.

“Many use the term ‘flat-earther’ as a term of abuse, and with connotations that imply blind faith, ignorance or even anti-intellectualism.”

Blind faith…check! Ignorance…check! Anti-intellectualism…Double check!  The fascinating thing however, is that they blame us, the sane ones, of blind faith, ignorance and anti-intellectualism, because you see we aren’t smart enough to see through the veil that the world governments have woven over our eyes. But they can! And they have no evidence to back it up. And that is precisely how they know they’re right. You get the (il)logic there?

“I came to realise how much we take at face value,” he says. “We humans seem to be pleased with just accepting what we are told, no matter how much it goes against our senses.”

And he offers a perfect example of accepting what we are told at face value…himself!

Mr Davis now believes “the Earth is flat and horizontally infinite – it stretches horizontally forever”.

“And it is at least 9,000 kilometres deep”, he adds.

And here’s another, slightly different take:

James McIntyre, a British-based moderator of a Flat Earth Society discussion website, has a slightly different take. “The Earth is, more or less, a disc,” he states. “Obviously it isn’t perfectly flat thanks to geological phenomena like hills and valleys. It is around 24,900 miles in diameter.”

I see it’s either infinite or 24,900 mile disc. I guess they both think the other is part of a conspiracy to hide the true “truth” about our beloved planet.

What about all the photos from space that show, beyond a shadow of doubt, that the Earth is round?  The space agencies of the world are involved in an international conspiracy to dupe the public for vast profit,says Mr McIntyre.

John Davis also says “these photos are fake”.

Of course, the folks at NASA are all millionaires and getting richer by the day.

And what about the fact that no one has ever fallen off the edge of our supposedly disc-shaped world?

Mr McIntyre laughs. “This is perhaps one of the most commonly asked questions,” he says. “A cursory examination of a flat earth map fairly well explains the reason – the North Pole is central, and Antarctica comprises the entire circumference of the Earth. Circumnavigation is a case of travelling in a very broad circle across the surface of the Earth.”

Oh the humanity! The poor, poor humanity!

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