# Between the lines

27 Apr 2011

A trio of books about doomsday and disaster

### Apocalypse eventually

The list of disasters that threaten life on Earth is long and varied. The list of books that have been written about such disasters, however, is even longer. With what is, in retrospect, spectacularly bad timing, we picked this month to review a trio of recent books that explores the science of disasters. Of the three, Armageddon Science: the Science of Mass Destruction is the most conventional. In it, the science writer Brian Clegg presents a tour of the science and history behind numerous possible doomsday scenarios, ranging from the unlikely (antimatter bombs and planet-eating black holes) to the all too real (climate change). Not all of them are covered in the same depth. For example, tsunamis, earthquakes, asteroid impacts, supervolcano eruptions, alien invasions and irradiation by interstellar gamma-ray bursts are all crammed into a mere 26 pages. In contrast, the chapter on nuclear weapons takes up almost a quarter of the book, and sections on nanotechnology and climate change are also relatively meaty. One reason for this emphasis may be the author’s own background: Clegg is a physicist by training, and he seems more at home with physics-related disasters than he does with geological ones. However, as the book’s thoughtful introduction and conclusion make clear, Clegg is also primarily interested in disasters that are in some sense caused by science, not merely explained by it. Noting that Marie Curie died of radiation-induced leukaemia, he observes that “scientists don’t always have a great track record in keeping themselves and others safe”. Apparently callous attitudes such as these – which Clegg links, tenuously, to the fact that many scientists exhibit mild symptoms of autism – have a detrimental effect on the way outsiders perceive the scientific community.