I really enjoyed this book. From the title, you can probably guess that this book appealed to my slightly fatalistic fascination with end-of-the-world, apocalyptic scenarios. I love pondering the unavoidable and the inevitable. And this book presents, of all the environmental, weather, and disease-related possibilities for humans to kill themselves, absolutely the most unavoidable events, with absolutely the most fatalistic perspective. Which is why I loved it.
Each chapter in this book is devoted to a different way that the planet could be destroyed from outer space. And the title of the book isn’t overreaching at all: note that it isn’t called “These are the Ways the World *Could* End,” or “the Ways the World *Might* End”: it’s definitely how the world will end. The only question is when.
The first chapter is definitely the most gripping, since it’s the most likely to happen during the tenure of humans on Earth: asteroid and comet impacts. Not only is it extremely likely, it’s happened before: the asteroid that landed on Earth that killed the dinosaurs created a crater so large that you can really only see it from space. The really alarming part of asteroid/comet impact is that we could see it coming. The author points out that the comet Hale-Bopp, which passed us a few years ago, was twenty-five miles across, and, had it hit the Earth, “would have made the asteroid impact that wiped out the dinosaurs look like a wet firecracker.”
The rest of the chapters cover such fun and comforting subjects as annihilation by sun malfunction, supernovae, gamma-ray bursts, black holes, hostile aliens, and the eventual death of the entire universe. I really enjoyed the way each chapter begins with a little scenario that describes what an observer on Earth would see as the event unfolded. (And, if the human observer wouldn’t have lasted very long, the scenario carries on without the benefit of that human perspective.)
The author, Philip Plait, is a witty and engaging writer who manages to make potentially dull astronomical details come to life. Some of my favorite moments in his way with language:
“For those of you clinging to hope, there is some life that might survive this stage of the Earth’s distant future [the death of our Sun]. Footnote: My suggestion: let it go.”
“The Sun is a mighty, vast, furiously seething cauldron of mass and energy. . . . Invisible forces writhe and wrestle for control on its surface, and when it loses its temper, the consequences can be dire and even lethal. That is what it means to be an ‘ordinary’ star.”
“Sure, black holes can kill us, and in a variety of interesting and gruesome ways. . . . Remember: when you stare into the abyss, sometimes it stares back at you.”
However, even his wit and facility with language couldn’t save me from getting bogged down in the black holes chapter. To be fair, black holes and quantum physics aren’t the easiest subjects for a lay reader to absorb in 75 pages or so. I know that he tried to keep things moving, but I ended up skimming a bit.
The last chapter is the most staggering, in terms of its scale and its topic, and, besides the chapter on alien invasion, is the one that left the greatest impression on me. It’s the end of everything in the universe. Plait explains how, over the almost unimaginable eons of time to come (he tries to explain just how long this will take, but it really boggles the mind), slowly everything will end. After all the stars have burned themselves out, after the galaxy itself has evaporated through interstellar collisions, after even neutron stars have burned out, after matter itself has reached the end of its existence (remember the “half-life” of atomic particles?), even black holes will disintegrate. At that point the Universe will be “an ethereally thin slurry” of particles, “dark, randomized, silent.”
Am I just crazy, or is it totally fascinating to consider this stuff? I guess I’m captivated by things that are completely out of my control. And with cosmological events, there’s not much to do but sit back and see what happens. Of course, by the time black holes manage to disintegrate, humans will be long gone, but still.
Recommended if you love apocalyptic scenarios, astronomy, or a wittily written combination of the two!