Bob Berman’s latest book plays right into the shock-and-awe, End Times and catastrophe zeitgeist. Just take a second – or a minute as the case may be – to pronounce its full title in your mind’s mouth: Earth-Shattering: Violent Supernovas, Galactic Explosions, Biological Mayhem, Nuclear Meltdowns and Other Hazards to Life in Our Universe. First guess: Berman has been studying the titular arts with Fiona Apple in Los Angeles. The sensationalism of the book’s full title, is predictably, a bit of a red herring and a trick. By its end, one of Earth-Shattering’s most pointed theses has to do with the counterproductivity of alarmism, sensationalism and media-inflated hysteria as impediments to the progress of real science and science-based problem-solving. Still, can Berman be blamed for leveraging the ambient panic of modern life to help him move a few units in the name of science and a better-educated, more hysteria-resistant populace?
Eight books and thousands of columns and broadcast pieces into his career as one of our most approachable big-game science storytellers, Bob Berman’s voice is comfortable, natural in its element, easygoing and not above an occasional Borscht Belt wisecrack and rimshot. Over his long career, the seasoned astronomer and science explainer has developed a multifaceted narrative mode that is entirely his own and deceptively complex. He wields it with an unassuming, conversational grace, as if he were speaking about bonsai to some Rotarians. Meanwhile, under the unstressed surface of his prose, the author deals with mighty design and linguistic challenges: the efficient reduction and delivery of large bodies of requisite technical knowledge (including science’s unavoidable math); the bold challenge of making uncompromised cosmic and particle truth appreciable, palpable in the imaginations of non-specialists; and the ongoing burden of relevance – connecting the vastness of scientific knowledge, from ancient to quantum, to our lives, experiences and perceptions.
Look, at any given moment in a Bob Berman book, the author might be requiring you to adopt new and queasy ways of thinking about the nature of space, tasking your imagination with inconceivable vastness and smallness in the same sentence, presenting a space-erasing (and proven!) concept like entanglement without making you fall off your chair or holding your virtual hand as you visualize the trillions of neutrinos currently passing through your body as if there were nothing there, and – Berman with half his mind always on quantum paradox – maybe there’s not! Berman’s truth is often genuinely upsetting, disorienting, a real challenge to your daily frame. There’s no need for his prose to add to the burden of stress. The folksiness in his style is just one of the ways in which the author manages the healthy existential crises that he so routinely induces in his readership.
In Earth-Shattering, as in his entire oeuvre, Berman’s typical narrative texture blends (expertly) reductive science with his impressive feel for particle-eye perspective and the concrete reality of vast cosmic action. He maintains a constant lookout for “and this is why…” practical applications, though they are less frequent in Earth-Shattering than in Zapped, his recent book on the subject of invisible light. Finally, historical narrative is always part of his tapestry, and in two ways: First, like any good writer of popular science, Berman gives homage where it is due. An appealing if secondary strand in all of his books might be called “the lives of the great scientists”: thumbnail and generally sympathetic characterizations and micro-biographies. More essential to his purpose, however, is the way Berman continually reminds us of the historical, cognitive, philosophical and cultural conditions into which these revelations dropped, highlighting the disruptive and destabilizing power of scientific discovery.
The first and longest section of Earth-Shattering contains the book’s purest science and purest poetry, moving from the Big Bang through supernovas and galactic collisions all the way to cutting-edge astrophysical theory. Taken as a whole, there is something lyrical and lofty about Section One and its literally suprahuman scope. One leaves a Berman chapter feeling paradoxically tiny and ennobled, more connected, implicated and part of literally everything: the big story. In some ways, this writing is not for agoraphobes. Berman takes great pains to establish and reestablish perspective. He is always constructing and tweaking a relative context in which to appreciate inconceivable size, mass, speed, heat and brilliance, the lengths of time and reaches of space that set the stage of his narrative. It can be hard to get back to your daily concerns when you have been wearing your universe head for a couple of hours.
After a few pre-human earthly episodes, including the sad and sudden departure of the dinosaurs, Berman catches up with human history for most of Section Two and all of Section Three: plague, flu, world war and nukes, all the way to climate crisis and the inevitable doom of our solar system. No spoilers, but here we find our author a little politicized, hackles slightly elevated as he tackles the cataclysms that weren’t and decries the deleterious effects of hysteria and bad pop science. He never loses his cool, however, or his primary purpose. Even so, one of the unavoidable takeaways of Berman’s wonderful and colorful treatment of time and space’s greatest disasters is that, on the whole, we all need to chill out.