Gamma-Ray Burst of Damocles

Back in 1979, Isaac Asimov let loose a book called A Choice of Catastrophes. It covered a whole spectrum of Very Bad Things, from the end of humanity (a relatively mild outcome) to the extinction of the Universe itself. Being Asimov, he voiced his concerns about overpopulation and the degrading environment, but the publisher nixed his take on another threat: terrorism. (If I ever make a third visit to Boston University’s Asimov Archive, I’ll have to try hunting down the original draft.)

Our understanding of catastrophes has advanced since 1979. We’ve learned more about the potential disasters lurking in human nature, and we also know a few more things about what the sky might have in store for us. So, give a big cheer for the one, the only, the inimitable Phil Plait, who is unleashing upon an unwitting world Death from the Skies!

Like he says,

it’s about all the myriad ways astronomical events can wipe out (or seriously mess up) life on Earth. There have been books covering this topic before, but not with much breadth and depth simultaneously, and none I have seen are really thorough. I have all sorts of ideas (you like asteroid impacts wiping out all higher forms of life on Earth? That’s only chapter 1!), so this should be a fun book. I’m really tired of doomsday criers scaring people and scamming their money, so this should act as something of a mitigation. I want to be accurate, and I want to make sure that people understand that while the effects of a Galactic gamma-ray burst would good and truly suck — oceans boiling, atmosphere ripped off, the crust of the Earth melted to a depth of many miles, stuff like that — the odds are vanishingly small. How many people do you know who have been killed by a GRB?

Expect the hardcover in Spring 2008. If it’s not as clever, lucid and informative as his last book, Bad Astronomy (2002), we’ll have to send the squid armies to terrorize him, or something. The big question, of course, is who will play Phil in the movie.

UPDATE: The other big question, naturally, is how will the BA feed himself? And how long does it take to invent an acronym like NASA Education Research Director (NERD!), anyway?

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