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Author Bob Berman On 'Hazards To Life In Our Universe'


Global warming, polar ice caps melting, general doom and gloom - well, how's this for a cheery book title? "Earth-Shattering: Violent Supernovas, Galactic Explosions, Biological Mayhem, Nuclear Meltdowns, And Other Hazards To Life In Our Universe." Author Bob Berman joins us now from the studios of WAMC in Albany, N.Y.

Welcome to the program.

BOB BERMAN: Well, thank you, Lulu.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So what prompted you to write a book full of so many cataclysms?

BERMAN: Well, I keep hearing - when I'm doing lectures or when I was running this community observatory, people would always be worried about things colliding with Earth. And some of them were imaginary. Like, there's this imaginary planet Nibiru that supposedly is on a collision course. And so I realized that there's a lot of juice and interest in it.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: There is - and a lot of movies about it, too. I mean, I'm a personal fan of the sort of end-of-the-world scenario movies. So let's go through a few disastrous greatest hits. There's the Big Bang, of course. But much more recently, many more stars have gone supernova, including one that was visible by humans in the 11th century. Tell us about that.

BERMAN: Yeah. And that was big because not only did nobody see it coming, but it was the brightest light in the sky that's ever been seen in terms of a point source - something that looked like a star. It easily cast shadows. It was much brighter than Venus looks. Now we know it's a supernova. But they didn't even have that word back then.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What did they think it was?

BERMAN: It was not good. That's for sure.


BERMAN: Yes. Changes in the sky were always bad things. And usually, the worst they had to put up with were comets every 15 to 20 years. But this was off the charts entirely.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But supernovas actually do - you write - some good for humans.

BERMAN: Oh, yeah. They end up being good. In the short term, they completely incinerate their solar system - so part of the good news, bad news thing. But they do create every element that's heavier than iron. So the iodine, for example, in our thyroid glands in our necks right now could only have come from a supernova.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Amazing. What was the most surprising thing while you were looking into this? What was the thing that you thought, wow, I had no idea that this was something that was so devastating to humanity?

BERMAN: Maybe it was the 1918 Spanish Flu because - concerning that was an H1N1 ordinary-type flu not too different from the kind that goes around in our own lifetimes - you wouldn't think that the flu could ever suddenly get so virulent that it would destroy one or two percent of the Earth's population. So that was fascinating to me.

Another was something that was very reassuring. I found that in really studying the nuclear power plant accidents that make up a few of our chapters, things were not as bad as they were made out to be. For example, in the Fukushima what we call disaster, the real disaster was in the tsunami - the tidal wave that came earlier that day from the greatest earthquake that has ever hit Japan. That's what produced all the loss of lives.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So why do you think so many of us are interested in the end of days?

BERMAN: My own guess is that even though we're all more likely to be done in by our own stupidity, by smoking when we know we shouldn't or not watching our cholesterol or things like that, I think people naturally want to tie their lives in with a bigger picture and that the idea of when they leave the Earth, the Earth goes as well because, you know, loss of life is a disaster.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's our vanity.

BERMAN: It's - well, I don't know if it's so much vanity as much as trying to find an epic meaning to things.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So what's the most likely thing to wipe us out?

BERMAN: Well, the most likely thing is the thing that we don't have to think about because it'll happen in 1.1 billion years. And that's the fact that the sun gets 10 percent hotter every billion years. The Earth will equalize at about 710 degrees, which will boil off all the oceans. And Earth will be uninhabitable. That's just in 1.1 billion years. And there's no getting away from that.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Bob Berman - his book is called "Earth-Shattering: Violent Supernovas, Galactic Explosions, Biological Mayhem, Nuclear Meltdowns, And Other Hazards To Life In Our Universe." Thank you so much. And good luck to us all.

BERMAN: Thank you, Lulu.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.