Death from the Skies!

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How will the world end? When Hollywood answers that question, the result is often terrifying but completely unrealistic. But the realms of reality can be even scarier than fiction, as astronomer Phil Plait deftly illustrates in Death from the Skies!, which comes out in paperback this week.

Each chapter begins with a movie script-ready scenario of Armageddon. Before delving into the topics of solar flares and coronal mass ejections, for example, there comes the story of a cold winter made worse when an event—prefaced by sunspots but not yet named—knocks out power for half the planet. Without heat, thousands die, and entire countries are driven bankrupt by the catastrophe. Having hooked his reader thusly, Plait then goes on to describe in easy-to-understand language what had caused the disaster, including how we know that such things happen and whether or not we should be scared.

Topics include gamma-ray bursts, black holes and even alien attacks. And a chart near the back of the book handily sums up the risk of each event, level of damage and whether or not we could prevent such things from happening. The most likely scenario is being hit by an asteroid, though we might one day be able to prevent these strikes. Near impossible in our time, thankfully, are the deaths of the sun or the universe. Most worrisome, though, might be the supernovae, which if one occurred close enough to Earth could lead to a mass extinction.

This book should be on the shelf of every disaster flick screenwriter. Perhaps we would then get movies with plots that are even more terrifying for the possibility that they could really happen.

"The Universe is vast beyond imagining, and wields mighty forces," Plait writes. And for the events in his book, "it's not a matter of if, it's a matter of when." Scary, indeed.

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