Welcome to the end of the world

By Phil Plait | October 20, 2008 11:44 am

So you wanna know how the world will end? Fire? Ice? Fire and ice?

I won’t reveal any secrets, but I do have permission from the publisher to post an excerpt from the introduction to Death from the Skies! Enjoy.

Death from the Skies!
Philip Plait, PhD
Viking Press, 2008

Introduction (excerpt)

The Universe is trying to kill you.

It’s nothing personal. It’s trying to kill me too. It’s trying to kill everybody.

And it doesn’t even have to try very hard.

The Universe is an incredibly hostile place for life. Virtually all of it is a vacuum, so that’s bad right from the start. Of the extremely few places that aren’t hard vacuum, most are too hot for chemical reactions to do very well – molecules get blasted apart before they can even properly form. Of the places that aren’t too hot, most are too cold – reactions happen too slowly to get interesting things to occur in the first place.

And of the very few places that aren’t in vacuum, too hot, or too cold – and we only really know of one: Earth – there are all manners of dangers lurking about. Volcanoes blast megatons of noxious chemicals into the air, spew lava for miles, and cause vast earthquakes. Tsunamis rewrite huge sections of coastlines. Ice ages come and go, mountains pop up and change the global weather system, whole continents get subducted into the glowing rock of the mantle.

And those are just the local problems. Earth still sits in the incredibly hostile environment of space, and all kinds of disasters might befall us from there – literally.

But then, that’s what this whole book is about.

The Universe is a violent place. Stars explode. Stars like the Sun can die in milder events, but die just the same. Whole galaxies collide, igniting fireworks on a cosmic scale. Asteroids impact other planets; could they hit us?

When we launched telescopes into space, we equipped them with cameras that could detect ultraviolet light, X-rays, super high-energy gamma rays. We saw a Universe that seemed actively trying to destroy us. Exploding stars are phenomenally dangerous, blasting out vast amounts of killing force and energy. Black holes are everywhere, lurking throughout the galaxy, devouring anything that wanders too close. Flashes of high-energy light from distant points in the Universe whisper of powers terrible and gross, enough to fry entire solar systems that get in the way.

The Earth seemed to be the center of the Universe for much of mankind’s history. Now, however, the Earth seems fragile and impossibly small, a remote speck of dust lost in a Universe of frightening size and age.

In reality, the Universe cares not at all if we live or die. If a human were magically transported to any random spot in the cosmos, within seconds we’d die 99.999999999999999% of the time. At best.

Yet, despite all that (and quite a bit more still unsaid), here we are. Billions of years in, countless times around the Sun, sitting at the crosshairs of dozens of cosmic weapons… our planet endures. Life not only survives, it thrives. Numerous setbacks have occurred, for sure, but life itself continues on. As small and fragile and soft as humans are, we’ve managed so far.

Of course, we haven’t yet seen everything the Universe can unleash on us. A single asteroid impact could take out half of humanity without even breaking a sweat. A solar flare could wipe out our economy in seconds. And a nearby gamma-ray burst… well, that’s bad too. Very bad.

I love astronomy. I’ve devoted my entire life to it, to telling others about it, to writing about it. Astronomy is awe inspiring, it’s beautiful, it provides philosophical perspective and holds the secret answers to so many of our most profound questions.

And I have no doubt whatsoever that astronomical events can kill us. In some cases, our study of astronomy can actually save us. In other cases it provides us with information about what might kill us, though unfortunately without giving us any ideas of how to stop it.

And in many of those cases, there isn’t much we could do anyway.

In this book, I won’t hold back. The reality of a nearby gamma-ray burst puts the sweatiest fundamentalist religion’s Armageddon prose to shame, dwarfing it to mundanity. I will go over, in loving detail, the Earth’s atmosphere ripped away, the oceans boiled, and all life sterilized down to the base of the crust.

But during all that, I will remind you that there is no star nearby capable of creating such a burst; and even if there were, the odds of it going off any time soon are tiny; and even if it did, the odds of it being aimed our way are tinier yet.

But it’s still fun to think about “What if…?”

While you’re reading this book, you may feel like you’re watching a horror movie at the theater: it’s fun, jolting, and maybe even terrifying. During the scary parts you may want to turn away, or hide your eyes, or spill your popcorn, but I’ll make sure the actual facts of the case are there to calm you down a bit after.

Of course (he says, chuckling low and with evil intent), there is a big difference: eventually the movie is over, you leave the theater, and laugh at the scary ride.

You can’t do that in the real world. There are dangers out there, and we can’t avert our eyes from them. But as you read this book (hopefully with your eyes open) you’ll learn just what the dangers are, and more importantly what they aren’t.

What horror movie is still scary once the lights are on?

And you always have to keep in mind that we’re still here. The Universe is a dangerous place, but again, we’ve gotten this far. We may just make it a while longer.

Or we may not. I have to be honest. The Universe is vast beyond imagining, and wields mighty forces. For nearly all the events depicted here, it’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: DeathfromtheSkies!

Comments (38)

  1. Chris

    1st thing, looks like you forgot to close a tag or something, BA! the rest of the page loads up with huge font. :)

    secondly, I absolutely love the intro and can’t wait to get my copy of the book!

    Oh and the movie Aliens still scared me, even with full lights. Didn’t help I was around 9 when I first saw it…

  2. Chris

    er…font tag. I put the html brackets around the word font in my above post.

  3. rob

    guess i will have to build a new home below the base of the crust, so i won’t be sterilized by gamma ray bursts.

    wait, maybe if i hold a copy of the book in my lap, that will protect me from sterilization? probably won’t fend off stray black holes though.

  4. Of course, none of that is as scary as thimerosal and gay marriage

    *thread highjack epic fail!*

  5. JoeyJoJoJr

    Phil, Congrats on the new book. Looking forward to reading it. After reading this blog entry, I have to show you a post I made on 10/14 on the RRS forum (keep in mind I have never read an excerpt from your book until just now):
    “I agree completely. Another way I like to look at it is this: Think about the billions of light years of empty space, with its vacuum and radiation, super novas, gamma ray bursts, etc. . Being anywhere in 99.999999999999% of it would be instant death to any unprotected human. Yet here is the theist, living in the thin film of atmosphere on the surface of this small rock we call Earth, shouting “The universe was created for me!!!!”.”

    Looks like I was off by three decimal places, oh well, lol.

  6. Love the style! I can only imagine getting a book on tape (CD) as read by Dr. Plait! I’d buy the book again for that!

  7. James

    Fire and Ice…a great Pat Benatar song.

    Better watch out Phil, with all you listed as to the things that are trying to kill us, and despite that we are still here, I can hear some religious fundamentalists using that to try and further their case that “someone must be watching over us”!

    I must have a copy of this book, its going to be a great read! I’m going to put it on my desk for the kids to check out too.

  8. DadaGuru

    Congrats Phil! My copy should be in the afternoon mail!

  9. firemancarl

    Cool! Can’t wait to get it!

  10. I have it on the highest authority that the world will be swallowed up by a man-made black-hole.

    Curse you, LHC!


    Congratulations on your new book!

  11. Stuart Greig

    “it’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when” Copyright Charleton Heston, Armageddon 1998


  12. Andy Beaton

    Good book, but jeebus, is it ever depressing when you sit down and think about it.
    Especially those poor amateur astronomers excited by the supernova that will kill them all.
    Makes me want to go and watch Armageddon so I can laugh off our impending doom.

  13. Armageddon made me cry.

    When I realized Liv Tyler wasn’t going to get naked, I bawled like a baby! 😛

  14. Miranda

    Fire and ice … an even better Robert Frost poem …

  15. Daffy

    “The Universe is trying to kill you.
    It’s nothing personal. It’s trying to kill me too. It’s trying to kill everybody.”

    This reminded me of dialog from the book Catch-22:

    “Why don’t you want to fly any more missions?”
    “Because they’re trying to kill me.”
    “Yossarian, they’re trying to kill everyone!”
    “What difference does THAT make?”

  16. Tometheus

    Billions of years in, countless times around the Sun, sitting at the crosshairs of dozens of cosmic weapons

    So which is it? “Billions” of times around the sun (years) or “countless” times around the sun? Last time I checked, billions were still countable 😀 (That sentence is both redundant and contradictory! You should write religious books!)

    I just got a new Amazon gift card.. hmm.. I wonder what I could spend it on.

  17. Thomas Siefert

    To Tometheu: Try and count to a billion….

    I won’t be waiting. 😉

  18. Anchor

    No, Phil, the universe isn’t “trying” to do anything, or kill anybody.

    But you knew that already, right?


    Everything is in italics…what gives?

  19. So what are your thoughts on the new Discovery Channel show about how the world will end? Personally I’m sick of “science” shows which are all about scare-mongering and making people feel uneasy about things they have no control over (which is why I stopped watching Nova which seems to always have to play up that angle nowadays), and I’m a bit dismayed that Neil DeGrasse Tyson attached himself so visibly to that project.

  20. Elmar_M

    Sure there are not quite a few 9s missing behind that comma? I think that given the size of the universe and the chance of a habitable place out there somewhere, the chances of survival should be even smaller.

  21. Davidlpf

    And I feel fine.

  22. Thomas Siefert

    So you wanna know how the world will end? Fire? Ice? Fire and ice?

    Fire and ice? = Lukewarm water?

  23. Robert Krendik

    Hmmm, fonts changed.
    Anyways, love the book already!

  24. Protesilaus

    I don’t know if this helps you but your “/em” tag after “Death from the Skies” isn’t closed and its throwing off the “/font” tag after it.

    This should fix the rest of the font on the page.

  25. Protesilaus

    That should at least fix the comments after my post.

  26. Protesilaus

    Err, damn them parsing of my HTML skills.
    This at line 136:
    <p><font size=+1><em>Death from the Skies!</em</font><br />

    Should be:
    <p><font size=+1><em>Death from the Skies!</em></font><br />

  27. MarkH

    As I’m reading this post Apocalypse How is on Discovery Channel HD LOL.

  28. JosephW

    “The Universe is an incredibly hostile place for life. Virtually all of it is a vacuum, so that’s bad right from the start.”

    Isn’t that actually a good thing if you happen to be living? If the universe was slam full of matter I think our chances of survival would go down considerably. More comets, more hot gas, more exploding stars, more everything to kill us even quicker.

  29. famulus

    Wow. Dr. Plait, you write fine prose. Really. I can’t wait to read the rest.


  30. Tucker

    Man that sound *awesome*

  31. I am an amateur astronomer and a professional bookseller. I love this book and will be promoting it enthusiastically!

  32. FrankZA

    Regarding the 99.9…9% comment… I predict that will be incorrectly interpreted and used by the odd creationist to “prove” that we must have been created. Anyone want to bet?

  33. Grand Lunar

    Me want the book! Me want the book!

    I gotta stop putting of my ordering of the book and get to it! Before the world ends…

    BTW, IIRC, the 9th Doctor used the same phrase of the title of this post to Rose in the episode entitled, what else, “The End of the World”.

  34. StevoR

    FrankZA Said: October 21st, 2008 at 12:42 am :

    “Regarding the 99.9…9% comment… I predict that will be incorrectly interpreted and used by the odd creationist to “prove” that we must have been created. Anyone want to bet?”

    I’m broke enough already & the odds aren’t that good. 😉

    Dr Phil Plait, the bad Astronomer, Thankyou! Thanks for writing your book(s) & the blog & thanks for writing so well!

    I haven’t read the book yet – haven’t yet got my copy – but I will & I trust you & yeah I liked the intro! :-) ;-D 8)

    As to your question :

    “What horror movie is still scary once the lights are on?”

    Well that depends on the person and on a lot of subjective & contextual factors now doesn’t it?

    Personally, the remake of ‘War of the Worlds’ (yeah the Tom Cruise / Dakota Fanning version) left me with the chills even afterwards w lights on & even seen off my fairly small TV .. For some reason that scene with the burning train … Shudder!

    Also ‘Cabin Fever’ stopped me sleeping and kept me scared, Aliens and others too .. Then again maybe I’m more imaginative or plaincowardly than many -but after reading the “Lord of the Rings” as a kid I was seeing the balrog in the shadows for months afterwards. (Lo-oong time pre-movies & all.)

    Then again in quite a different way altogether there’s one movie that still scary (& rings all too true) today & that’s Al Gore’s ‘An Inconvenient Truth” … 😉 , :-(

    But I’ll leave y’all with one final true example – when I was a boy one of the first movies I ever saw was “Star Wars : Return of the Jedi” which my Mum took me too and saw with me. I loved it & was an instant convert to SF – but my mum? *She * had nightmares about Jabba the Hutt for several nights thereafter! 😉

    So there’s one unlikely but true case. Who woulda thought! 😉


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