Washington Post favorably reviews my book!

By Phil Plait | January 6, 2009 3:00 pm

This is cool news: on page 15 of Sunday’s Book World insert, the Washington Post gave my book a really good review! It’s online, too. You have to register at the site, but it’s free.

Here’s an excerpt:

Plait, a popular astronomer and blogger, describes each doomsday scenario with glee — for instance, how humanity could be roasted by the sun in its red-giant phase, crushed into spaghetti by the gravitational force of a black hole or blasted to smithereens by an incoming asteroid. Yet for all that, his book is strangely comforting. The sun will begin dying about 1.1 billion years from now, but it won’t explode (it isn’t big enough), nor will most stars in our neighborhood. If aliens were going to come, we would probably have seen them already. The eventual death of the universe is so many years away that it’s nearly inconceivable.

That was one of my big points: this stuff is fun to think about, but in reality the odds of anything actually happening to wipe out the Earth are really low.

Plait rolls through these explanations in the same easy way that makes his “Bad Astronomy” blog for Discover magazine so popular. Occasionally the more inquisitive reader might be disappointed by the superficial nature of some of the physics explanations… Nevertheless, the decision to avoid scary equations does render this work comprehensible and engaging for the neophyte.

… which was part of the point. I want this book to have a wide appeal, so calculus might be out! I actually considered an appendix with some math in it, but decided it wasn’t necessary for a book like this, and in fact most of the calculations I needed were already done in papers too complex to explain, or from things that are easy to find online.

Anyway, I’m pleased with the review. Almost all the reviews or notes I’m getting back are favorable, in fact, which makes me glad; I would expect some hate mail, but I literally have had none. And I’m still waiting to hear from Two Large Print Venues who were planning on doing a review of the book as well. I’d cross my fingers, but duh.


Comments (42)

  1. Congratulations! My 12 year old daughter also gave you a favourable review: “That was a fun book. I think this guy is an even bigger geek than you dad!” And trust me, that’s high praise! This is from a 12 year old that demanded a Periodic Table of Elements for the holidays.

  2. Davidlpf

    What you wrote a book, what is it called.

  3. DrFlimmer

    My personal review is quite similar ūüėČ

    I just read it after getting it for Christmas. It was not as funny as “BA” (I guess it wasn’t meant to be, since the content should not be funny at all ūüėČ ) but it was really great and I enjoyed reading it! Thanks a lot!!

  4. Jake

    Registration is not required to read the review online, FYI.

  5. Gary Ansorge

    Ah, the Wash. Post,,,aren’t they the folk who busted Tricky Dicky?
    They are one of the last, REAL, journalistically oriented, mainstream media and one of the few I respect.

    Good review.

    GAry 7

  6. sandswipe

    You sound pretty disappointed about the deluge of good reviews. I’m sorry I can’t help you out- loved it, made the drive to Fermilab a lot more interesting last november- but if I ask around I’m sure I could set you up with some hate mail.

  7. TheWalruss

    Fox News has an article about “Five Ways the World Could End” – it’s right up on Digg!!!
    “Some think it’s also possible that we could create our own black hole right here on Earth.

    Last year, a flurry of lawsuits accompanied the firing up of the Large Hadron Collider outside Geneva, Switzerland, from people worried it could create a mini-singularity that would gobble up the planet.

    Fortunately, the machine broke down after a few days. The end of the world will have to be pushed back to next summer at the earliest.”

    WHUT??? I’m unsober and couldn’t be bothered read the whole article, but most Fox News readers won’t know the difference between Snark (with a big S) and honest journalism, so now they’re celebratic the LHC accident because it saved the planet!

    I figured this was a good place to post my aggravations…


    Oh yea – ps. AWESOME BOOK!!!

  8. Congratulations in your favorable review.

    Can’t wait for reading your book!


  9. That’s awesome and a well deserved review. The book is excellent and ranks, IMHO, right up there with ‘The First Three Minutes’ and ‘The Collapsing Universe’ (by Weinberg and Asimov, respectively).

  10. Lawrence

    Read it in the Book Section on Sunday (still love the feel of print – especially in the morning). I was really impressed with the review.

    Need to finally get my own copy!

  11. kuhnigget

    Just finished my copy a couple days ago. I loved the last section on deep time. Really mindblowing. I suspect the way that sort of stuff affects me is the closest I’ll ever have to a religious experience. Well, that and that time when me and …uh, never mind.

  12. Gary Ansorge

    “,,,that time when me and ‚Ķuh, never mind.,,,”

    Gee, was that you next to the Stage,,,oops,never mind,,,

    GAry 7

  13. Knurl

    Congatulations Phil!

    Science books that the general public don’t feel intimidated by are something essential these days. Most people are not very good at any math past 1+2=3, plus they really just want conceptually simple stuff. Even “The Quest for SS433” by David Clark was past what non-sciency people want. I haven’t had the (cash) opportunity to get a copy of “Death” yet, but give it time.

    On the other hand, If you wrote something on the level of “The Milky Way” by Bart and Priscilla Bok or “Stars and their Spectra” by James Kaler, I’d be inclined to sell my cats to a restaurant in order to afford it.

    I’m not a scientist or mathematician – my field is information systems. I can handle stats and the first semester calc, so “Galactic Astronomy” by James Binney and Michael Merrifield is a bit of a stretch. But guys gotta have hobbies to research and stuff and keep ’em busy. Right?

  14. Knurl

    Well, The History Channel just did it again. “Earth’s Black Hole”. An explanation for The Bermuda Triangle? *Facepalm*

  15. WillC

    I know this might not be appropriate to ask on this blog, but have there been any negative reviews of the book?

  16. Davidlpf

    No such thing as bad review of the book, now move a little over to left right over the trap door.

  17. Rodney

    And why shouldn’t they?

    It was a damn good book.


    BTW: So was “Bad Astronomy”.

  18. Aeryn

    FYI: I got BOTH your books for Christmas, along with my very own green laser pointer for impromptu astronomy lessons. I love having geeks for friends.

  19. BigBob

    “comprehensible and engaging for the neophyte”
    Nobody calls me a neophyte and gets away with it. Better watch your mouth Mr Post.

  20. Tomas


    congrats, I’m really glad to hear that the book ingenerally well received. I, literally, just finished reading it (on a train back home and I just got back from the station). I have to say I’m one of those who’d like to see more science (math and physics) info but I agree that it isn’t that hard to look it up online. Besides, as a physics major, who’s taken a year long course on stellar evolution (life & cycle), I found it really intriguing to read your version on star’s life without all the crazy TD and QM details and equations.

  21. Harry

    There is one little thing in the book which I didn’t like:
    The units – no problems with miles for me, but I still have to convert Fahrenheit to Celsius (or Kelvin) while reading, which somewhat ruins the immediate “now that’s hot” effect. Having SI units in parenthesis for your non-US readers would have been great.

  22. Ginger Yellow

    “Yet for all that, his book is strangely comforting… If aliens were going to come, we would probably have seen them already.”

    How is that comforting?

  23. mk

    but in reality the odds of anything actually happening to wipe out the Earth are really low,/blockquote>

    What?! You have just removed the best reason ever for building a USS Enterprise-like space ship or getting Lunar/Martian outposts set up so the human race can go on forever! Dammit!

    Seriously though, congrats! Despite all the snark, I really do love your site, your skepticism, your thinking (most of it!). Looking forward to getting my copy of “Skies” soon.


  24. mk

    Shoot! Blew it with the HTML. My bad.

  25. Shannypez

    Hey! When are you going to be a guest on ” The Daily Show”. If Neil Degrasse Tyson can be on then you should too. Get that agent to work will ya?

  26. Jim Shaver

    Sorry about the lack of hate mail, Phil. For my part, I just got Death From the Skies for Christmas (or was it HumanLight?) this year, so I’m a little behind schedule. First I plan to read the book, then I’ll get busy with the hate mail (unless I happen to like it, that is).

  27. Charles Boyer

    I can’t wait for the movie version.

    Will it be Bruce Willis or John Malkovich that plays you, Phil?

    Too bad that Don La Fontaine, the voice behind the movie trailers has died. “In a world that doesn’t know what’s about to hit them….Death…From the Skies!”

  28. Tomas

    I really have to agree with Harry on this one. I personally believe that not only should SI unit conversions be provided, all figures should really be in SI (with imperial equivalents) in any literature of this sort. Nonetheless, I see the merit in the argument that the book was primarily for non-scientific readers who (in the US) might feel uncomfortable about SI.

  29. Tomas, the problem with US readers though is if you give them an inch… er…

  30. Gary Ansorge

    I happened to scan thru that History show last night,,,heard one “explainer” say “,,,Black holes eat everything and it’s hard getting anything back out,,,”

    “Hard? HARD???? What part of Impossible didn’t they understand?

    GAry 7

  31. Cheyenne

    Yeah, I’m hoping for a Daily Show appearance too. Need more smarty scientists out there.

    Also Phil – If you travel through O’Hare you should be glad to know that your book is in (at my last count) at least 3 of their bookstores. That’s pretty sweet. They don’t have the floorspace of a full sized Barnes and Noble so you know they are picking out the highest movers.

  32. I received a copy of the book for my birthday. 50 pages in, I’m hooked. It’s a great read!

  33. Chris A.

    What’s that old maxim of publishing? “For every equation you include, you lose ten percent of your audience.” What’s never been clear to me is whether that means that ten equations guarantee zero sales, or whether the number asymptotically approaches zero sales (i.e. each equation eliminates ten percent of the total potential audience, or ten percent of who was left after the previous equation’s inclusion). :)

    BTW Phil, caught you on NGTV’s Hubble program last night. Nice job. (Wish I could say the same for the graphics department who insisted on promulgating the false impression that Hubble produces “fly-through” views of deep sky objects. No wonder so many people think that Hubble gets great images by actually traveling to its targets. -sigh-)

  34. Wendy

    I just finished Death From The Skies! It was awesome! Your style of writing has a way of really reaching out to the readers and engaging them (good quality for a blogger to have!)

  35. Elba Kunsman

    Will your new book be formatted for e-readers anytime soon? Your first book is available for the Amazon e-reader and I thank you for that.

  36. José

    There’s still something about the cover that makes me too embarrassed to buy it. I think I’m afraid someone will glance at it and think I’m buying a copy of Dianetics. Can the paperback cover have a picture of a giant puppy floating in the clouds? Or maybe a baby dressed as a pumpkin?

    Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to run to the store to buy some condoms, adult diapers, and aardvark pornography.

  37. José

    And if you really wanted hate mail, you should have described the horrible effect an asteroid impact would have on Eucharist crackers.

  38. José

    I just finished the book. My favorite chapter had to be Vengeful Zeus! All in all, it’s not nearly as good as Kevin Trudeau’s Natural Disasters “They” Don’t Want You To Know About.

    OK, maybe I still haven’t read it.

  39. I finished the book. I must say that it was not as entertaining as the first book “Bad Astronomy”. I also think there were too many footnotes, to me they were distracting*

    I hope the next book will be “Bad Astronomy II”. I am looking forward to that….

    *Isn’t this distracting?


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