Death from The Skies by Philip Plait
Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond


I normally don’t review two books at once. There are reasons not to do it now: these two books have more in contrast than they do in common, and my reading of both was quite different: Death From the Skies I read over the course of a couple of months, a little here and a little there; Guns, Germs and Steel I tried to read straight through, and failed to complete — at least partly because that is not, for me, the best way to read popular science.

But these books do have some important things in common: they are both popular science non-fiction, DFTS in the hard science of astronomy, GGAS from the social science of anthropology. Both are about death, destruction and the end of civilization as we know it. I finished one only a few days before I gave up on the other, which proximity promptly juxtaposed them in my mind (YES! Been waiting for a chance to say “juxtaposed.” That alone is enough reason to review them both together.). Both have, for me, an interesting premise. Neither includes zombies.

Now let’s get to the more extensive and interesting list of the differences. DFTS is about future death and destruction: the book is a list of all of the ways that the universe could wipe out all life on Earth: asteroid impact, massive solar flare, black hole fly-by, gamma ray burst, supernova, even alien invasion. GGAS is about the death and destruction that has happened in the past, specifically to the human race, caused by the rest of the human race. It asks one essential question: why is it that some civilizations have been able to thrive and grow, and others have not? And when civilizations come into contact with each other, and one or the other is destroyed or subsumed, what determines which civilization survives and which dies?

It’s an interesting subject, I think. Diamond takes as his prime example the conquest of the Incan empire by the conquistador Francisco Pizarro. Why was it that the Spanish empire managed to overcome the Incan empire? Why wasn’t it the other way around — Incan ships crossing the Atlantic, Incan soldiers wiping out hordes of Spanish troops, and an Incan general capturing the Spanish king, demanding an entire room full of gold for ransom, and then executing the king anyway, as Pizarro did to Atahualpa, the Incan emperor? Or why couldn’t the Incas fight off the Spanish, and establish their own hegemony over the Americas? Diamond examines this and every other contact between civilizations that he can, and in exhaustive — and I mean exhaustive, fatiguing, meticulous, infinite as well as infinitesimal, and finally brain-numbing — detail, he explains.

Here’s the spoiler: it’s the title. The Spanish conquest of the Incas was accomplished not by Pizarro, but by smallpox, which had been dropped off on the coast of Mesoamerica ten years before, by Hernan Cortes and his troops in Mexico, along with the various explorers and traders who followed Columbus’s lead to the New World. Atahualpa wasn’t even supposed to be the Emperor of the Incas: the emperor of the Incas for thirty years before Pizarro’s attack was Huayna Capac, who led the empire to the height of its size and power — until he died of a fever, probably either smallpox or measles. Along with his successor, his eldest son Ninan Cuyochi. The empire was the divided between Atahualpa and his brother Huascar, who proceeded to wage a civil war for control which Atahualpa won after several years of fighting — right before he was captured by Pizarro. The battles that did occur between the Spanish and the Incas were won by the use of guns, steel weapons and armor, and mounted cavalry, none of which the Incas had.

Diamond actually explains every reason why the Incas didn’t have cavalry, why the Europeans had the deadlier diseases, why they had better weapons, why they had guns, why they had better ships, why they had writing; it has everything to do with the ecology, the geography, and the histories of the two areas of the world, the Americas and Eurasia. And honestly, it’s pretty interesting.

The problem is that Diamond writes sometimes like a popular science writer, but much more often like a scientist, which he is. And that’s fine. But like all scientists writing treatises about their research, his goal is to be meticulous and scrupulous in explaining how he came to his conclusions, rather than to make the book interesting. And I think he succeeds in that: because I felt like he asked the same question ten or twelve times, from different angles — why didn’t the Incas have cavalry horses? Why didn’t they have large domesticated mammals? Why didn’t they have the same agricultural productivity? Why didn’t they have the same population? Why didn’t they have the same specialization of professions within society? Why didn’t they have writing? — and every time gave a complete answer, but every time it was the same answer: geography, ecology, and history. Over and over and over again.

And then he moved on to Australia. And then Africa. And at that point, I just couldn’t take it any more, and I stopped reading it.

Now Phillip Plait: that man knows how to make a popular science book interesting for the average reader. Every chapter describes a new way that the universe could kill us all. Each chapter begins with a hypothetical description of that death, how it would arrive, how it would progress, and specifically how it would kill us (Generally speaking, Robert Frost was right: fire, or ice.); then the chapter describes the science behind the cataclysmic event; then it describes the probability of that event happening, based on our knowledge of the universe. He goes from the most concrete elements to the most abstract, and because of that, by the time you get to the abstract stuff, you’re ready for it, and you understand what he’s talking about, and you want to know more — generally because the description of the deaths is pretty horrific, but the probability of any of them happening is “Pretty danged small,” or else it’s a certainty — but not for billions of years. Like when the sun dies. Definitely going to happen; definitely going to kill us; definitely not due for about 7 billion years. It’s comforting, really.

(Not all of it. The first chapter, on asteroid impact, is actually pretty scary, as is the second, about massive solar flares wiping out our power and communications. The solar flares couldn’t kill us directly — but I’ve read enough post-apocalyptic fiction to know that if the power and communications go, Road Warrior and cannibalism are not far behind. And I would not do well in that world. The alien invasion one is much more speculative — but it’s creepy as hell. Robot spiders. That’s all I’m going to say.)

And here’s how Plait handles the science: he makes jokes — good ones, including a Spinal Tap reference. He explains the science, but he also makes it clear why we should or should not know the details. An example: before Plait gets into the chapter about the end of the universe, he takes a few pages to discuss scientific notation (And I apologize for the formatting — the exponents were superscript in my draft, I swear. Don’t know how to make it happen on WordPress.) — our planet is 4×10^9 years old, the universe 1.3×10^10. The end of the universe will come sometime around 10^70 years from now. And Plait was smart enough to know that people would think, “Wow — that’s sixty times the current age of the universe. That’s a really long time.” But the thing is, it’s not. 10^15 years is not six times as long as 10^9 years: it’s 1,000,000 times as long. That’s the age of the Earth lived over again one million times. And I’m thinking about my summer break in four months, and it seems a long way off. 10^70 years is so absurdly far into the future we can’t even fathom it. And Plait explained that, in a way I could understand. It helped.

Plus he explains all the awesome stuff about the universe. I feel like I understand black holes better now — just in time for me to watch Interstellar on Hulu. And now I know that spaghettification is a thing. My new favorite thing, in fact.

So here’s the point: I’m glad I read part of GGAS. I’m glad I didn’t spend any more time reading the rest. If you are terribly interested in prehistory and the rise and fall of civilizations, you may want to read it — it is very clear and easy to understand, and yep, it’s thorough. But for me, I’d rather read about the Milky Way colliding with Andromeda in a few tens of billions of years. GGAS just made me want to play Civilization on my computer.

Which I may just go do now.

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