Thursday, October 08, 2009

Book Review - Death from the Skies!

It sometimes amazes me how much more literate I become without the distraction of my computer and the internet. In the past day, I plopped down and read all of Phil Plait's Death from the Skies! (and still had time to make dinner, watch some anime, sleep and do various other tasks).

My main impression is that this book belongs on the toilet. Not in that "flush it" kinda way, but the way this book is laid out lends itself to reading in small chunks. It's broken into 9 chapters + an epilogue. At 307 pages, that averages out to just over 30 pages per chapter. Not terribly long, but to make it even more chunk-worthy (and I don't mean that in the "blowing chunks" kinda way), each chapter is broken into sub sections that are generally only 1-3 pages.

That in and of itself doesn't mean that it must be read in small sitting, but there's another feature of this book that I think lends itself to it: It's somewhat redundant. Many topics that appear in multiple chapters are reexplained. Having an astronomy background, the first time was enough. I didn't need the second or third time. Yawn. I can see how this would make the book more approachable to someone without any background, but at the same time, why not just say "as discussed on page XX"? But perhaps that's just the internet generation in me, where you don't repeat information, you just hyperlink to it.

Indeed, certain topics pop up repeatedly with explanations being repeated almost verbatim, even using the same analogies. For example, let's look at 2 instances where "degeneracy" pops up:
"...degeneracy, which is similar to electromagnetic repulsion: if you try to squeeze too many of the same kinds of particles together (regardless of charge), they resist it."

"[Degeneracy] is similar to electrostatic repulsion - the idea that like charges repel - but instead it's a property of certain subatomic particles where they resist being squeezed too tightly together. Degeneracy will occur if you try to pack too many electrons together, but it also affects neutral particles like neutrons."
Another example is trying to figure out distribution of objects around the observer. An example is given on page 111 of being in a field of insects; If you're in the center, you'll see roughly the same number in all directions, but if you're off to one edge, looking towards that edge, you'll see less and looking towards the far edge, you'll see more. This exact same notion appears on page 326 taking a full paragraph to reintroduce. It even includes a footnote saying "Yes, this is the same analogy used for GRBs in chapter 4. Glad you noticed! the principle is the same, so I recycled it."

So again, I think this works fine if it's been a few days between those pages, but seeing them back to back within a few hours just insults ones intelligence. There's more examples of this, especially in the first few chapters, but past chapter 4, it tends to get a bit better.

But enough about these trivial stylistic issues. What of the content?

When the book was finished, I felt oddly dissatisfied. Not because it's not well written. Not because the science isn't good. But because the science is good.

The book stars off with a dire proclimation:
The universe is trying to kill you.

It's nothing personal. It's trying to kill me too. It's trying to kill everybody.
Holy magikarp! A quick look at the titles of the chapters confirms it: Asteroids, supernovae, black holes, and Gamma Ray Bursts! Oh my!

But because Phil is doing the good science, he puts it all in perspective; There's (almost) nothing to worry about! The only (possibly) imminent threat is that of an asteroid collision. And even then, he pegs the odds of that happening in the average lifetime at 1:700,000! The rest are so ridiculously improbable or so far in the future and unavoidable that it's not even worth making a bad sci-fi movie over.

Yawn.

So the science is good. But that doesn't mean that Phil didn't hit one of my major nitpicks: In chapter 9 - The end of everything, he has the shortest sub-section in the entire book with the heading: "A Very Brief History of the Universe". I'll quote the section in full:
In the beginning, there was nothing.

Then there was everything.
*Twitch*

The whole "nothing" bit irks me. Especially since in the following sections, Phil goes on to explain how we can't really describe the universe before the Planck era. We can't say there was "nothing". There was likely "something", we just can't quite describe it. I expect this section was intended at humor, but what a misconception to feed.

That and the Big Bang was an "explosion".

*Twitch*

Why Phil!? Why?!

Of course, to be fair, in the course of the book, Phil lets us know about one of his pet peeves: Calling the Sun an "average" star. I'm sorry (although I'm pretty sure I qualified my terms well enough there that Phil shouldn't gripe too much).

Another note: I picked up the paperback version of the book. I like the cover a lot better. And it was cheaper. Cheaper is good.

One thing I did notice is that the pictures were somewhat low contrast. Not to the point you couldn't get the important details, but the full majesty of them was certainly lost. Of course, full color glossy prints barely do justice to entire galaxies when they're squished down to only a few inches on any side, so I hope anyone reading this that picks up the book will take the time to google the images and really appreciate them.

8 comments:

Eta Carinae said...

I was planning to buy the paperback. I also have an astornomy background, so now I don't know if I should buy it! :)

I agree with you that describing the Big Bans as an explosion and feeding that krass misconception of "in the beginning there was nothing" does no good to our cause. Coming from Phil I am disapointed.

GeorgeRic said...

The complete universe is stacked in mankind's favor. You are writing only about the material portion.
A hundred and sixty-six years ago Edwin Abbott wrote 'Flatland ' so that any logical person would understand that contiguous dimensional worlds allows any thinking person to geometrically know how Christianity's' spiritual world could be right beside ours. Now 'Techie Worlds' examines Christian phenomena: Trinity, Resurrection, Judgment, Soul, and finds that Abbott's concept provides mechanistically for those phenomena. This is the approach science uses: establish understandings of the real world by testing facts in the context of the theory. With such logical understandings, thinking people can accept Christianity's teaching of love without bending their intellectual integrity. 'Techie Worlds' gives pause to Moslems and pagans by showing how and why the Trinity is. It explains realities that profit all mankind.
'Techie Worlds' is available at amazon.com.
GeorgeRic

Jon Voisey said...

You should really look into the Anthropic Principle George. It completely demolishes the claim that the "universe is stacked in mandkind's favor."

Additionally, you're reading far too much into Flatland. The point was that there could be additional dimensions we cannot see. How you go from that to there are and that it is inhabited by a supernatural, omniscient, benevolent creator who pokes his head into our dimension and then disappears back into them without any real trace, is beyond a logical leap.

Flatland can also be taken as indictment of religion showing that people are apt to ascribe supernatural causation to things that they simply can't understand. The point has apparently been lost on you since you have blindly made that mistake.

And yes, you must still sacrifice intellectual integrity to accept Christianity's teachings because, even though additional dimensions are possible it does not imply they are probable and the evidence for them, or the existence of anything in them like what you suggest simply does not exist.

Wayne said...

I wouldn't be too harsh on this book, it is intended for a general audience, after all. I'm a space physicist and I found the book very entertaining and I wasn't bothered by the things you mentioned. Of course, I didn't read it all in one day, either, or with a mind towards reviewing it.

Tony B said...

I bought the hardcover when it came out and I liked it but after the first couple of chapters I didn't care anymore. An asteroid hitting us or the sun expanding I enjoyed because those are problems that might have solutions. A gamma ray burst or nearby supernova, we are SOL if they affect us. Just as the book went on it seemed more far fetched. Not that I don't believe these things can or will happen, I just don't feel any threat by something that we have no control over.
My background is Aerospace Engineering, so I know about space(craft, travel), but not necessarily astronomy.
Overall I did like his book, and Bad Astronomy (Which I liked much better).

GeorgeRic said...

The complete universe is stacked in mankind's favor. You are writing only about the material portion.
A hundred and sixty-six years ago Edwin Abbott wrote 'Flatland ' so that any logical person would understand that contiguous dimensional worlds allows any thinking person to geometrically know how Christianity's' spiritual world could be right beside ours. Now 'Techie Worlds' examines Christian phenomena: Trinity, Resurrection, Judgment, Soul, and finds that Abbott's concept provides mechanistically for those phenomena. This is the approach science uses: establish understandings of the real world by testing facts in the context of the theory. With such logical understandings, thinking people can accept Christianity's teaching of love without bending their intellectual integrity. 'Techie Worlds' gives pause to Moslems and pagans by showing how and why the Trinity is. It explains realities that profit all mankind.
'Techie Worlds' is available at amazon.com.
GeorgeRic

Eta Carinae said...

I was planning to buy the paperback. I also have an astornomy background, so now I don't know if I should buy it! :)

I agree with you that describing the Big Bans as an explosion and feeding that krass misconception of "in the beginning there was nothing" does no good to our cause. Coming from Phil I am disapointed.

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