Death from the Skies!: The Science Behind the End of the World, by Philip Plait (Penguin Books, 2008)
Death by Black Hole: And Other Cosmic Quandaries, by Neil deGrasse Tyson (W. W. Norton & Co, 2007)
A couple of weeks ago I had a 15%-off coupon from Barnes & Noble that was about to expire; with that and a gift card I had laying around an emergency trip to the bookstore was clearly in order. I was browsing the science section and noticed a book I had been intending to read: Death From The Skies, by astronomer (actually “Bad Astronomer”) and blogger Phil Plait. Since I frequent his blog, as well as the forum associated with it, I was aware the book had been out for some time. As a bonus, I also noticed a book by astrophysicist, Hayden Planetarium director, and TV personality Neil deGrasse Tyson with a very similar title, Death By Black Hole, nearby on the shelf. Oddly, even though Tyson’s book came out the year before Plait’s, I had somehow missed hearing any mention of it. Naturally, I bought them both.
As I mentioned, I was looking forward to reading Death From The Skies for some time. The paperback version seems to have three subtitles associated with it. The cover’s subtitle is “The Science Behind the End of the World,” whereas the title page states the subtitle is “The ways the World Will End…” Finally, a note states that the hardcover’s subtitle is “These Are the Ways the World Will End.” Regardless, the three subtitles will give one a general idea of the purpose of the book. Plait discusses the various ways the universe might cause the end of world, which run the gamut from fairly local phenomena (at least by astronomical standards) such as by impact with a large asteroid, through universe-wide catastrophe. Plait gives good explanations on the various odds and timescales by which these events may (or will) happen without sounding sensationalistic.
Readers who have only a modest background in science or mathematics will find find the book easy to understand. Plait keeps the mathematics and unexplained technical jargon to a minimum. I must confess that before I started reading it I had some fear I would dislike the book. Plait’s blog is written in a very informal style that is peppered with pop-culture references and neologisms that I find off-putting when overdone. However, the book is free from these, whether by author’s design, or by editorial handling. In either case, the book remains informal and breezy without becoming overly twee.
Death By Black Hole, by Neil deGrasse Tyson, has the single subtitle “and Other Cosmic Quandaries.” Despite the rather similar-sounding name, Tyson’s book is very different than Plait’s. Death By Black Hole is actually a collection of essays that were written for Natural History magazine, and were then collected and edited for updates and continuity. The essays are grouped in sections by subject material and range from a variety of topics such as the ways we understand science or how science interacts with culture, in addition to essays that might be thought of as pure science. Only one section, titled “When the Universe Turns Bad (which contains the eponymous essay),” deals with end of the end-of-world (or universe) scenarios that are similar to the subject matter of Plait’s book.
The style of this book reminded me very much of a series of books by Stephen Jay Gould that were also collections of essays written for Natural History (although in his case the subject matter was largely biological), except that Tyson has less of a tendency to wander than Gould, and tends to get right to the subject matter of each essay without too much diversion. If one enjoyed reading Gould’s books (as I did) then the reader will also probably like this one.