The Big Idea: Phil Plait

The End of the World As We Know It: It’s coming! With big sharp nasty teeth! It’ll do you a treat, mate! Well yes, you say, but which end of the world? Because there are so many on the way — including some that are based on actual science, which is to say, they could happen without the intervention of a supernatural being.

Dr. Phil Plait, aka “The Bad Astronomer” (because he’s made a career out of debunking bad assumptions about astronomy) entertainingly lays out some of these for you in his brand-new book Death From the Skies!, detailing scenarios like death by solar flares, black holes and — yes — even alien attack, laying out the real science behind the horrible, awful, terrible endgame scenarios for the entire planet. It’s probably the most fun you can have learning about The End of All Things.

But what possessed Plait to start thinking about the end of it all in the first place? Here he is to tell you.


So a few years ago I was talking with my agent over ideas for my next book. We had batted around a few thoughts, mostly things that would be really fun for me to write and for the reader to read, and trying to condense these ideas down into the fabled “elevator pitch” (something you could sell to a publisher/TV exec in the length of time of an elevator ride).

I came up with cosmic catastrophes. I had studied supernovae for my thesis — phenomenally cool and violent events — and was at the time working on a space mission that detected gamma-ray bursts, explosions so violent that they make the sweatiest Fundamentalist vision of Armageddon look like a pleasant breakfast at IHOP.

As I thought more about it, I realized I had (wait for it… wait for it…) A Big Idea. Why not write about them all? Everything that could wipe out life on Earth? Asteroid impacts. Massive solar flares. Wandering black holes, colliding galaxies, ramming an interstellar dust cloud. Hell, maybe even alien invasions!

Why not? Books had been written on these before, of course, but never all of them in one place, and not with an eye towards our modern understanding of them. And who doesn’t love an epic disaster movie?

Writing it turned out to be interesting for me. My first book, Bad Astronomy, was about astronomical misconceptions. I had written about many of them on my website, so the amount of research I had to do for the book wasn’t so bad. I had already done most of the heavy lifting in that case.

But this new one was different. I knew something about asteroid impacts, but a little bit of research showed me I was woefully unprepared to write about solar flares!

Don’t even get me started on evaporating black holes.

But it’s not what you know – as they say, whoever they are – it’s who you know. Or whom. Whatever. Happily, I have lots of astronomy-based friends, and started making an irritant of myself to them.

“How does the magnetic field tangling under the Sun’s surface make a flare and not a coronal mass ejection?”

“What happens, exactly, if you try to smash an asteroid with another asteroid?”

“So the meson flux from the gamma-ray pulse is bad, but how deep into the crust does it penetrate?”

I discovered that this book was requiring questions that were getting a little weird. Worse, I realized that even stuff I thought I knew, I didn’t know well enough to describe in detail. In one humiliating moment, I had to call a friend, an expert on gamma-ray bursts and a fairly high NASA muckety-muck, and admit to him I didn’t understand exactly how the formation of a black hole drives two titanic and incredibly destructive beams of matter and energy away from it.

He said that’s OK, no one really does.

I felt better.

In the end, I relied heavily on the advice of my stable of experts, and probably still got some things wrong. I’m pretty sure I made some small errors in the solar flare chapter (man, that stuff is tough!), but hopefully they’re minimal. As a science writer, that’s really the best you can hope for.

One chapter I really enjoyed writing was on alien invasions. I actually had to talk my agent into letting me write it (though my editor was interested to see what I could come up with, and gave me a shot). Stretching the topic just a bit, I wrote about viruses and bacteria from space – and discovered I had no clue why some bacteria make us sick. Do *you* know why? *Honestly*? It’s because they exude toxins that affect us. Bacterial warfare is really chemical warfare! And I learned that writing an astronomy book. Go figure.

And after many years of bull sessions with friends and lying awake at night wondering why aliens have never contacted us – and they haven’t; no apologies to the UFO people – I finally got my shot to write about aliens sending out interstellar probes loaded with von Neumann machines. These metal bugs are designed to eat planets, replicate, and send out more probes. You can wipe out all life in a galaxy in a few million years, and never have to leave the comfort of your couch! It’s a xenophobic alien’s paradise.

Fun for the scifi fan in me, too.

And all the time I was writing the book, I was mindful of the seriousness of it. People might freak out; I’ve had emails from people who were terrified after I’d written about supernovae, magnetar pulses, and wandering planets. So I made sure I did two things: even while describing devastating events I made parts of it light-hearted, and I made damn sure to explain the likelihood – or really the unlikelihood – of getting nailed by these things. You’re more likely to die on an amusement park ride than by an asteroid impact. The odds of a black hole passing through the solar system and gobbling down the Earth are so low that it’s a good bet it won’t happen for thousands of times the age of the Universe.

And the Sun won’t expand into a red giant for 6 billion years. Sure, it’ll happen. But it won’t happen to you.

So I had a lot of fun researching Death from the Skies!, writing it, and even reading it to myself while looking for grammar errors in the proofs. I don’t know if the behind-the-scenes stories are obvious to the reader or not, but I know them (and come to think of it, you know a few now too). But I hope that some of the fun leaked through, and even though I kill the reader, time and again, over and over, all through the book, I hope it’s a good ride.

Death From the Skies! Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Powell’s

Read the “Bad Astronomy” blog here.

14 Comments on “The Big Idea: Phil Plait”

  1. I’ve been a fan of Phil’s work for a long time now. I just bought the book the other day and look forward to reading it. It’s great to see two of my usual reads together on one site.

  2. To echo the sentiment of Mike F, I sure hope Scalzi, Plait, Myers and Stross don’t fly together. It would probably free up most of my blog reading time if that sucker went down.

    And the book? At worst you can cover your head with it. Can’t wait for my copy to turn up.

  3. Hey, Phil!

    I think it’s great that you’re documenting how things can come from outer space and, like, vaporize us all. I’m down with that. But do you have a ready answer the really *pressing* issue? Like… when? Specifically?

    ‘Cause I *totally* have some wagers to make on this. Thanks!

  4. I think this might solve a Christmas present for me, too. How nice it is to have friends into the whole end of time scenerios.

    I always wondered why people are so fascinated by this. We are all going to die anyway, right? But Amanda Marcotte from said something interesting about people who are really into end of the word scenerios. (She was referring to your supernatural being types, though.) She said we are all going to die and be forgotten about in a few generations (unless you are Ghandi or some such, and not many of us are) so if they have to go out and have their existence forgotten…they want to go out big and have everyone’s existence forgotten. I guess from an ego standpoint, it is much better for no one to remember you because they can’t rather than they just don’t.

  5. @Hamish: Yeah, but it wont make it worse either, so be on the safe side, put a paper bag over your head and lie down when the end is coming!


  6. Coincidentally, I happened to do some research on the probability of being killed by a meteorite recently. I couldn’t resist: in response to discussing some unlikely way to die, somebody said “you’re more likely to be hit by a meteorite”. It turned out you aren’t. By several orders of magnitude. The last recorded incident of somebody being killed by a meteorite was multiple decades ago.

  7. ahh, the “elevator pitch”. Funny you should mention that, I found myself in this fabled situation a couple of days ago. Me and my boss’s boss were leaving work at the same time. So we both rode the elevator down to the lobby. We started chatting he asked me how I was doing. At that time I got a sudden burst of inspiration and told him that I was not only doing fine but I had ideas for improving things. I delivered a quick pitch and he appreicated what I had to say.

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