The universe is a weird, warped, violent place. And that’s the good news.
Life is hard, and it’ll be harder still when Andromeda goes sliding into the Milky Way in an inevitable collision of galaxies, even if “colliding galaxies are mostly smoke and mirrors.” Fortunately, writes science writer and Astronomy columnist Berman (Zapped: From Infrared to X-rays, the Curious History of Invisible Light, 2017, etc.), this won’t happen for “sometime sooner than four billion years from now.” From the point of view of Earth, if there is an Earth, it’ll just be a sort of weird warping of space and time. Cataclysm is the universe’s constant; as the author writes, it’s a “a bumper-car ride” out there, but more than that, it’s a place where the collision of worlds produces startling effects. One example is our moon, which, by the increasingly regnant theory today, was born when a Mars-size planet with oxygen smacked into Earth, blowing a chunk out to become a satellite of our home. Against this backdrop, the current wave of mass extinctions of life on Earth has many precedents in our planet’s history, which doesn’t make it any more palatable. Berman writes with verve and vigor about such things as the Snowball/Slushball catastrophe, the Cambrian explosion, the meteor collision that produced the Chicxulub Crater (“giant tsunamis the height of sixty-story buildings spread across the Caribbean"), novas and supernovas and H-bomb tests, and all manner of suchlike terrors. Sometimes the prose can get cutesy, in the catchy way of pop-magazine writing: “And although the jury may be out on the success of the Big Bang…we members of Homo bewilderus can shrug it all off with a ‘Don’t blame me, I wasn’t even there’ innocence.” But mostly, Berman’s book is a pleasing excursion into the hows and whys of how the universe—our universe, anyway—took shape and how it works—except when it doesn’t. Just the book for a bright teenager interested in astronomy and geosciences.