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Best non fiction I've read this year,
This review is from: Death from the Skies!: The Science Behind the End of the World (Paperback)
This is an outstanding book which is rather let down by its exclamatory title and its cover, both of which I suspect have caused a lot of people to assume that it is some kind of self-published scare mongering or a graphic novel. In fact this is a very well written popular science book which probably taught me more about astronomy, astrophysics and cosmology than any other single book I've read, written in a way which is entertaining, accesible and comprehensible without oversimplifying or coming across as patronising. Plait's own interest in and passion for the subject is evident in every word and I found my own interest similarly piqued. Although the subject matter is very different, Plait's style is reminiscent of Ben Goldacre's writing in Bad Science (which I also rate very highly). Both manage to convey a breathless enthusiasm for their work, and an eagerness to share it with a wider audience.
Each chapter in Death from the Skies! considers a particular astronomical event. There is a chapter devoted to solar flares and sunspots, another to comet and meteorite impacts but also black holes, gamma ray bursts and, ultimately, the end of the universe itself. What makes the book stand out is that each event is not described in the abstract, but by considering what - in theory - would be the effect of such an event on the earth. The mechanism or cause of each event is explained, along with whether it could be prevented or mitigated and how likely it is. For many of these events, of course, the author makes entirely clear that there is no immediate threat to humankind. Many will never happen, are impossible to prevent or are inevitable but will happen only long after the earth is already dead. The premise of looking at ways the world might/will end is really just a hook to hang the excellent science writing on.
Plait's other book Bad Astronomy: Misconceptions and Misuses Revealed, from Astrology to the Moon Landing Hoax (Bad Science)is also an interesting read, and there is relatively little overlap between that book and Death from the Skies!