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You wouldn’t expect a book with the subtitle “These Are The Ways The World Will End” to be particularly cheery, but it is. Philip Plait is most known for his blog (and book) Bad Astronomy, and he’s also just become the president of the James Randi Educational Foundation — and if you’re familiar with either, you can guess that his writing style is precise, clear and informational, but also accessible and fun.
The book looks at the various ways the universe can, at a minimum, kill all life on Earth — starting from asteroid hits, and going up through the inevitable death of the universe. After opening with a brief fiction piece describing what we would see in the event, Plait goes over all the science as to what exactly would happen and why… and why it’s not something we need to worry about. In most cases — like with a star going supernova — there’s nothing close enough to Earth to have any major catastrophic effect.
In a way, it’s reassuring; it’s always good to know what things can happen and how. Information is perhaps the greatest calmative; we fear what we don’t know. And Plait goes out of his way to make sure that we DO know… at least for the stuff that anyone knows about. After all, the Universe is still pretty mysterious, and there’s lots of stuff no one knows all about, like, well, black holes for one. Or dark matter. Or the beginning of the universe. But there’s enough we DO know that we can at least see what happens with all those things.
Plait has a good sense of humor, too — but he never lets it in the way of science. The chapter on a potential alien attack might not be the biggest threat to existence, but aside from a few jokes and sci-fi references, he seriously explains why we probably don’t have to worry.
Plait is a great writer — he doesn’t oversimplify things and throw out important concepts for the ease of understanding while inadvertently creating an imperfect model, and he doesn’t have a colossal ego that can get in the way of enjoyment. Plait doesn’t want you to know how smart he is, he just wants to share information that’s interesting. His accessibility makes him a great pop-sci writer, but he knows the science enough to provide a depth that is often missed in pop-sci writing. Plait is great reading for anyone interested in astronomy and he doesn’t require any pre-reqs.