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Death From the Skies – Readable honey

Posted in Skepdude by Skepdude on February 11, 2010

Yes I’m very late to the game, and yes it’s quite a cheesy title I know, but upon finishing reading Phil Plait’s excellent book I felt deliciously satisfied, if that makes any sense. If you’re gonna read just one science book this year, make sure it is Death From the Skies ; hell if you’re gonna read just one book this year, make sure it is DFTS. (Amazon had the paperback for only $6.40! Good deal, worth every penny!)

I mean where else are you gonna get a book that starts by telling you that the Universe wants to kill you? Isn’t that what we’re  all looking for in a book anyway? This gem is not a work of fiction, but it is stranger than fiction. I mean what did he say is going to happen to the Sun? What did he say will happen to the Universe? This can’t be true, but aparently it is.

I’m not gonna spend too much time doing a real review, I just wanted to give Death From the Skies many, many thumbs up. If I had to use just one word to describe it, I’d say this: It’s beautiful. Really, really beautiful.

<Skeptical Heresy> Phil Plait may have what it takes to be this generation’s Carl Sagan </Skeptical Heresy>

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Book Review: DEATH FROM THE SKIES! by Phil Plait

Posted in Skepchick by Skepdude on October 14, 2008

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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.

DEATH FROM THE SKIES

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Plait’s Death From The Skies – Want A Copy?

Posted in Podblack Cat by Skepdude on October 6, 2008

CLICK HERE TO GO TO THE ORIGINAL ENTRY AT “PODBLACK CAT”

 

Yes, it’s been released. Here’s a photo I got of Michael Stackpole enjoying his copy – but mine has been edited, ha ha ha!

And I’m thinking I might just donate my copy that I got (ah, Amazon.com, you are so nice to send on zippy post!) mine to whoever wants to send in what we judge to be the best idea for a new shirt logo and slogan to the Skeptic Zone Podcast…

First, check out the range of shirts and things we already have featured on Zazzle!

Then, go have a listen to the second episode of the Skeptic Zone, that was just released – at the Official Skeptic Zone Site and here’s the iTunes Link For Subscription.

It’s kind of a mini-episode, featuring on the Skeptics in the Pub over in Sydney, with Rachael, Richard and a lot of the skeptic gang enjoying a good time. There may or may not be references to ghosts wearing ‘Choose Life!’ 80s shirts and perhaps the Goodies. I cannot give too much away.

As for giving away what I think about Plait’s book? Well, from my first read that has taken me from writing much over the past day or so – bugger space. Save me from prions: progressive neurodegenerative disorders suck far, far worse than black holes and at least in your last few minutes you can actually think ‘cool!’ if it really was the highly unlikely cannibal galaxies. ‘Death From the Skies’ is probably better for Arthur Dent than a big guide with ‘Don’t Panic’ written in large, friendly letters on the cover. Because it actually does show why ‘don’t panic’.

I first gave a copy of Plait’s first book, Bad Astronomy, to a student who completed an investigation into moon hoaxes as a part of her submission to a skeptic report writing contest. The amount of detail she went into led to her asking on Dr Plait’s BAUT board about the Van Allen belts.

His response: “…they were in the belts for just a few minutes. Inner, outer, it doesn’t matter. Since they weren’t in them for long, they didn’t get a lethal dose of radiation. Elevated levels, yes,; lethal, no.If you sat in the belts long enough, you’d die from radiation, but that would take hours or days, so it wasn’t a concern for Apollo. As I like to tell people: of course the van Allen belts are deadly– there’s no air in them!”

That same sort of matter-of-fact breakdown is evident in Death From The Skies: These Are The Ways The World Will End and in fact I think it’s a little better this time around. It reminds me more ofTrick Or Treatment: Alternative Medicine On Trial in the breakdown of chapters.

Since Bad Astronomy was published, I’ve been quietly moving the few rare copies that I can find left, into the ‘horoscope’ section of the bookstores I go into (there’s all sorts of things you can do with multiple copies on the shelves – I’ve had Lynne Kelly’sSkeptics Guide to the Paranormal fit quite nicely next to the latest Sylvia Browne and the like – another book that deserves your support and a republish!). I would therefore suggest that ‘Death From the Skies’ would go quite nicely next to anything by a certain William E Burrows regarding “Teh deadly space!!” and does fit neatly on a shelf in any of the young teen reference sections in the bookstore. I’ve done enough poking around the bumper editions by DK Publishing, Usborn, Wiley and the like to see that, like Bad Astronomy, it can certainly get a good audience.

Anyway – I’m donating mine, start sending in some suggestions for t-shirt logos and slogans (you can get an idea of our style already, from the picture I have here of Plait holding one) – to richard (at) skepticzone.tv and we’ll see about the winner on a future ep!

And you can catch Plait talking about his book on the THIRD episode of Skeptic Zone, next week! Head to www.skepticzone.tv to prepare for your downloading pleasure.

By the way – last call for the Linneaus Legacy Blog carnival at podblack at gmail – it’ll be out on Monday!

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