Drama in the skies, a heroic botanist and green groups gone bad.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

DEATH FROM THE SKIES! These Are the Ways the World Will End . . . By Philip Plait Viking. 326 pp., $25.95

With the threats of gamma-ray bursts, black holes, alien attacks, rogue asteroids and the inevitable death of our sun, there's plenty to keep a paranoid stargazer awake at night. Philip Plait takes a perverse joy in stoking those fears in this book, which breaks down the causes, consequences and odds of these cosmic coups de grace snuffing out life on our little blue planet.

Plait, a popular astronomer and blogger, describes each doomsday scenario with glee -- for instance, how humanity could be roasted by the sun in its red-giant phase, crushed into spaghetti by the gravitational force of a black hole or blasted to smithereens by an incoming asteroid. Yet for all that, his book is strangely comforting. The sun will begin dying about 1.1 billion years from now, but it won't explode (it isn't big enough), nor will most stars in our neighborhood. If aliens were going to come, we would probably have seen them already. The eventual death of the universe is so many years away that it's nearly inconceivable. Of all the threats, the only one that has any immediacy -- it has already happened several times in Earth's past -- is a large asteroid striking the planet. And that, as anyone who has seen the film "Armageddon" is aware, is preventable with current technology, a sharp lookout and Bruce Willis.

Plait rolls through these explanations in the same easy way that makes his "Bad Astronomy" blog for Discover magazine so popular. Occasionally the more inquisitive reader might be disappointed by the superficial nature of some of the physics explanations. ("Quantum mechanics, it cannot be said enough, is really freaky," he explains in a footnote on degenerate matter.) Nevertheless, the decision to avoid scary equations does render this work comprehensible and engaging for the neophyte. The only real problem is that when you finish reading this lighthearted take on the end of the world, you're still going to have to deal with the more immediate crises of a troubled universe: your mortgage and a shrinking 401(k).

-- Nelson Hernandez

GREEN, INC An Environmental Insider Reveals How a Good Cause Has Gone Bad By Christine MacDonald Lyons. 265 pp. $24.95

The fact that environmental non-profits and American corporations are forging a growing number of alliances raises an important question: Have the country's green groups sold out?

Christine MacDonald attempts to answer this query in Green, Inc by exploring how environmental groups scrutinize the products they endorse and why they accept contributions from companies with poor environmental records.

Unfortunately, there's little original reporting in this book, aside from anonymous quotes from dissatisfied environmentalists and a much smaller number of on-the-record comments from a few outspoken activists. MacDonald, who worked for about a year at Conservation International before her position was eliminated in a restructuring, directs many of her attacks toward her former employer. But some of the book's strongest points are about other groups, as when it questions whether the Sierra Club gave a seal of approval to Clorox's Green Works cleaners without determining whether the chemicals were truly environmentally friendly. But the author doesn't address how green groups can survive financially while still adhering to the principles that give them credibility.

-- Juliet Eilperin

A PASSION FOR MARS Intrepid Explorers of the Red Planet By Andrew Chaikin Abrams. 279 pp. $35

Space writer and National Public Radio commentator Andrew Chaikin knows about the intense pull of Mars on the psyches of space scientists, rocket builders and explorers because he has felt it since he was a boy. The combination of his fascination with space and his years writing about NASA make him an especially well informed and convincing guide to mankind's efforts to understand the planet most like ours.

A Passion for Mars, which includes dozens of nicely reproduced and sometimes stunning images of the planet, is a mix of history, science and biography of the men (and it is almost entirely men) who have inspired and implemented the nation's Mars program. The planet is more than 100 million miles away and remains largely a mystery, but a central and persuasive theme of the book is how much we've learned about Mars since the beginning of the space age. While Chaikin's writing sometimes borders on the clich├ęd, he does a good job of explaining the many discoveries made during the handful of successful missions to Mars. The planet, for instance, is home to what remains of the Olympus Mons volcano, which reaches 15 miles above the surrounding plains and is nearly three times the height of Mount Everest. Researchers are now certain that Mars has great frozen reservoirs of ice beneath its surface, perhaps the remains of the liquid water that once ran on its surface.

By book's end, a reader can't help but feel some of the same excitement that drives the author. We certainly don't need to explore Mars, but isn't it grand that scientists and engineers will spend (and risk) their careers rising to the enormously daunting challenge of trying anyway?

-- Marc Kaufman

WHERE OUR FOOD COMES FROM Retracing Nikolay Vavilov's Quest to End Famine By Gary Paul Nabhan Island Press. 223 pp. $24.95

Nikolay Vavilov anticipated his demise at least four years before the KGB starved him to death, but he knew then that his pioneering work as a botanist would endure. "We shall go to the pyre. We shall burn. But we shall not retreat from our convictions," he said defiantly in 1939.

Vavilov was one of the first scientists to see that modern agriculture's reliance on a handful of crops would endanger biodiversity. Before Stalin's regime decided to use him as a scapegoat for disastrous farming policies, Vavilov conserved seeds on five continents, organizing more than 100 expeditions through 64 countries.

In Where Our Food Comes From, ethnobiologist Gary Nabhan retraces Vavilov's footsteps in 10 countries, from the haunting apple forests of Kazakhstan to the montane corn fields of the Sierra Madre. The author explores how agricultural practices have changed since Vavilov's day, often for the worse, as the use of seed varieties has been compromised by climate change, loss of land and political turmoil.

The book pays homage to a martyr who understood that crop varieties must be preserved for the future food security of the human race. As Nabhan points out, the risk today is no less than in Vavilov's time, and it may be greater.

-- Adrian Higgins

The reviewers are Washington Post staff writers.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company