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Good Reads  Reference  Physical Sciences  Cosmology & Astronomy

Fire in the Sky Cosmic Collisions, Killer Asteroids, and the Race to Defend Earth

Popular Science
By: Gordon L Dillow(Author)
277 pages, 8 plates with colour & b/w photos and colour & b/w illustrations
Publisher: Scribner
A well-researched popular narrative of the history of how science came to recognize asteroids as a real threat to life on Earth.
Fire in the Sky
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  • Fire in the Sky ISBN: 9781501187759 Paperback Sep 2020 Not in stock: Usually dispatched within 1 week
  • Fire in the Sky ISBN: 9781501187742 Hardback Jun 2019 Out of Print #246527
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About this book

Combining history, pop science, and in-depth reporting, a fascinating account of asteroids that hit Earth long ago, and those streaming toward us now, as well as how we are preparing against asteroid-caused catastrophe.

One of these days, warns Gordon Dillow, the Earth will be hit by a comet or asteroid of potentially catastrophic size. The only question is when. In the meantime, we need to get much better at finding objects hurtling our way, and if they're large enough to penetrate the atmosphere without burning up, figure out what to do about them.

We owe many of science's most important discoveries to the famed Meteor Crater, a mile-wide dimple on the Colorado Plateau created by an asteroid hit 50,000 years ago. In his masterfully researched Fire in the Sky, Dillow unpacks what the Crater has to tell us. Prior to the early 1900s, the world believed that all craters – on the Earth and Moon – were formed by volcanic activity. Not so. The revelation that Meteor Crater and others like it were formed by impacts with space objects has led to a now accepted theory about what killed off the dinosaurs, and it has opened up a new field of asteroid observation, which has recently brimmed with urgency. Dillow looks at great asteroid hits of the past and spends time with modern-day asteroid hunters and defense planning experts, including America's first Planetary Defense Officer.

Satellite sensors confirm that a Hiroshima-scale blast occurs in the atmosphere every year, and a smaller, one-kiloton blast every month. While Dillow makes clear that the objects above can be deadly, he consistently inspires awe with his descriptions of their size, makeup, and origins. At once a riveting work of popular science and a warning to not take for granted the space objects hurtling overhead, Fire in the Sky is, above all, a testament to our universe's celestial wonders.

Customer Reviews (1)

  • A well-researched historical narrative
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 13 Nov 2019 Written for Hardback

    Can you have too many books on the same topic? Not four months after the publication of Cosmic Impact in February 2019, which I reviewed earlier this year, Scribner books published Fire in the Sky in June. The former book was written by astrophysicist Andrew May, while Gordon L. Dillow is a newspaper reporter and war correspondent, coming at the subject from a different angle. Despite touching on many of the same events and topics, he provides a wealth of new information in what is a thoroughly researched work of popular science. But first, let’s go to Arizona and turn back our clocks some 50,000 years.

    As an Arizona resident, it is only logical that Dillow takes Meteor Crater as his starting point. At some 170 metres deep and almost 1200 metres in diameter this impressive astrobleme, or star wound (what a beautiful word he introduces here!), is one of the best-preserved impact sites on our planet. It also plays a large role in the history of impact theory and Dillow skillfully uses it as his jumping-off point for a science history lesson that spins itself out over the first half of the book.

    Although Native Americans in the area believed Coon Mountain, as it was known back then, to be an impact structure, the Western academic establishment did not. They were still held in thrall by the geological doctrine of uniformitarianism, which held that changes on Earth happened gradually through known processes (see my review of Cataclysms for more). When the famous geologist Grove Karl Gilbert mounted an expedition to Coon Mountain in 1891 to address the question of its nature, he considered the possibility of meteoric impact but rejected it in favour of a volcanic steam explosion. Not that strange, with the 1883 volcanic eruption of Krakatau still fresh in people’s minds (see Krakatoa). With that, the case was closed for geologists. But it was not for Daniel Moreau Barringer. Nor, later, for Gene Shoemaker.

    Where May’s book focuses more on the technical side complete with diagrams – the celestial mechanics of asteroid orbits, the different types of asteroids – Dillow instead largely focuses on the human story of geology’s history. He gives a delightful introduction to early efforts, including the 1800s group calling themselves the Himmelspolizei or Celestial Polic. But the focus is on the fascinating story of both Barringer and Shoemaker. The former made his fortune mining but then wasted it over the next few decades, from 1904 to 1929, digging holes in the crater, obsessed with the idea that there had to be an enormous meteor buried there somewhere. He published academic papers on the topic, but his belligerent attitude made him few friends (see Coon Mountain Controversies). The latter, upon visiting the crater in the 1950s, thought it looked like those left by nuclear bomb tests, just bigger. He changed his career from geology to astronomy, joined NASA, and set up the first observatory to find and track asteroids that could pose a risk to Earth (see Shoemaker by Levy).

    A recurrent theme in this book is the reticence of the geological establishment to accept the impact theory (see also Four Revolutions in the Earth Sciences, which covers some of this history in its chapter on impacts). Despite mounting evidence, volcanism remained the preferred explanation for craters both here and on the moon. Dillow traces the big change in attitude to two things. He gives an excellent brief history of the dust kicked up by the famous 1980 Alvarez et al. Science paper that proposed the Cretaceous ended with a bang (see also T. rex and the Crater of Doom and my review of The Ends of the World). And while scientists were busy arguing, Shoemaker discovered an asteroid on a collision course with Jupiter, which it hit in 1994 (see The Great Comet Crash)

    From here on outwards Dillow makes clear how the sniggering around the wacky concept of giant-rocks-from-space died down, with the 2013 Chelyabinsk meteor a disconcerting reminder that the threat is real. He describes the many initiatives to find and track Near-Earth Objects or NEOs (see also Near-Earth Objects), and joins astronomer Richard Kowalski at the Catalina Sky Survey to learn how asteroid sightings are shared and verified by amateur astronomers around the world.

    Dillow takes the same historical approach when considering what, if anything, we could do. From the 1967 MIT student project, Project Icarus, that asked participants to come up with solutions, to NASA’s 2005 Deep Impact mission that hurled a heavy projectile at a comet, people have been considering all sorts of strategies. NASA now even has a Planetary Defense Coordination Office and Dillow interviews its officer, Lindley Johnson.

    There are really only two options to deal with an incoming asteroid: nudging it or nuking it. Dillow briefly considers the slow-push methods that aim to change an asteroid’s course but spends most time on the idea of the kinetic impactor. Basically, the idea of launching a large object or nuclear warhead to blow up the incoming threat. The latter is, unsurprisingly, controversial, and Dillow examines the different opinions on the topic. For now, it might be our only realistic option though. Similarly insightful is his coverage of several “asteroid war games” conducted by NASA and FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency). These are tabletop exercises to train government officials on how to respond when a natural disaster strikes. Obviously, these drills are somewhat different from the regular ones, both in the likely long lead time where we know an impact is imminent years in advance, and the limited capabilities we currently have to actually do something.

    Fire in the Sky is an excellent example of an outsider digging into a topic, doing his homework, talking to experts, and becoming fascinated with the story he uncovers. With a reporter’s flair, he transmits his enthusiasm, making this a fun book that treads lightly on the science side of things. His focus on the human history ensures the book does not simply rehash recent publications such as Cosmic Impact. Dillow makes a convincing case that, despite so many other problems here on Earth requiring our attention, we would do well to apportion some of our funds to keeping an eye on the sky.
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Gordon Dillow has been a reporter, columnist, and war correspondent for more than thirty years. He has written for a number of newspapers, including the Orange County Register, the Los Angeles Times, and the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, and is the author of Fire in the Sky and coauthor of Where the Money Is, Uppity, and Blue on Blue. He lives in Scottsdale, Arizona.

Popular Science
By: Gordon L Dillow(Author)
277 pages, 8 plates with colour & b/w photos and colour & b/w illustrations
Publisher: Scribner
A well-researched popular narrative of the history of how science came to recognize asteroids as a real threat to life on Earth.
Media reviews

"Journalist Dillow packs quite a punch with this volume about humanity's expanding understanding of the threat posed by objects from space [...] Revealing the estimated chances of a disastrous strike over the next century to be low but not zero, this enjoyable survey should have appeal beyond pop science fans to the researchers and officials concerned with preparing for such a potentially calamitous event."
Publishers Weekly

"In an accessible and always entertaining narrative, Dillow shares the somewhat alarming news that objects from outer space collide with Earth's atmosphere on a regular basis [...] [He] describes unimaginable catastrophes with such detail that readers feel like eyewitnesses and reimagines vast expanses of space as easily digestible scenarios [...] Dillow [makes a] compelling argument that we really should be paying more attention to the heavens."

"A century ago, Scribner published a book about how the world, as many knew it, was ending. It was called The Great Gatsby. Fire in the Sky is our generation's contribution to this crucial theme. Gordon Dillow has written a beautiful and riveting book, a thunderous book, about how we might defend our planet from the collision with a comet or an asteroid that is surely to come."
– David H. Levy, co-discoverer of the Shoemaker-Levy 9 Comet, author of Skywatching, Science Editor at Parade, and columnist for Sky and Telescope

"Just when you thought you had enough worries, it looks like chunks of the sky will indeed someday fall. Gordon Dillow's breezy, gentle humor proves an engaging vehicle for absorbing his well-researched, quite serious subject. What's amazing is how refreshing it feels that, at least this time, we're innocent of the resulting global havoc."
– Alan Weisman, New York Times bestselling author of The World Without Us and Countdown

"The scope of Fire in the Sky is epic – covering millions of years and spanning the solar system as well as the globe – yet the effect is intimate: Gordon L. Dillow writes with an irresistible You can't make this stuff up sense of personal wonder about asteroid impacts measured in Hiroshimas, the kind of character who manages to misplace a 40-pound chunk of meteorite while on a three-day bender, and the scientists of today who cheerfully go about their work while knowing the end is, if not nigh, inevitable."
– Richard Panek, author of The 4% Universe and The Trouble with Gravity

"Nobody wants to contemplate a giant asteroid smashing into their hometown. But such a catastrophe is basically inevitable, if we don't take measures to prevent it – it's just a matter of when. In Gordon Dillow's engrossing book, we learn a lot about the Solar System, and more important, about our fascination with bodies moving through the skies. That these considerations might someday save our species is a bonus."
– Sean Carroll, author of The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself

"Informative, timely and entertaining [...] a great read! Dillow's treatment is never dull – often humorous – and provides accurate information about the potential of near-Earth asteroids for space resources, their impact threats to Earth, and the ongoing activities to mitigate these threats."
– Donald K. Yeomans, author of Near-Earth Objects: Finding Them Before They Find Us, and former manager of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory's Near-Earth Object Program Office

"Lucid and engaging [...] a comprehensive look at the threat to our planet from asteroid impacts [...] Dillow stresses that the threat is real, that the Earth is routinely hit by objects from outer space, and that it is certain that sometime in the future – maybe in coming decades, maybe millions of years from now – unless mitigating actions are taken one of those objects will be large enough to cause catastrophic damage [...] A convincing case for the need to pay more attention to planetary defense."
– John M. Logsdon, Founder of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, NASA advisor, and editor of The Penguin Book of Outer Space Exploration

"It's only a matter of time before a really large space object hits the Earth. Asteroids and comets have created disaster many times in the Earth's past, including the impact that wiped out the dinosaurs, and the vestiges of their havoc are still apparent. Gordon Dillow's enthralling discussion unlocks the secrets of how and why these objects jeopardize the planet and what thousands of people around the globe are doing to detect and defend against them. Fire in the Sky is nonfiction that reads like a great adventure novel even as it points toward a hopeful future for humanity."
– Roger D. Launius, former Chief Historian for NASA and author of The Smithsonian History of Space Exploration

"The number one threat to the extinction of the human species is a huge asteroid hurtling out of the deep cosmos on a collision course with Earth. This is the book to read before that happens. Compelling and lively, Fire in the Sky is a critically important call to action, because for the first time in our history we can build a defensive system to avoid that fate."
– Stephen Petranek, former Editor-in-Chief of Discover and Washington Post magazine, and author of How We'll Live on Mars

"A comprehensive and informative treatment of the past, present and potential future of asteroids – whether they be globally hazardous or infinitely valuable."
– Chris Lewicki, CEO of Planetary Resources and former Flight Director of the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity

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