An Ocean of Air

Screenhunter_10_aug_09_1130I’ve been reading this absolutely fascinating book by Gabrielle Walker over the last couple of days and couldn’t recommend it more highly. In the review that I post an excerpt from below, William Grimes unnecessarily tries to balance his overall-very-favorable opinion with a few petty gripes, like:

Like Dava Sobel in “The Planets,” Ms. Walker writes for a general audience and seems to assume something close to scientific illiteracy in her readers. There is plenty of gee-whiz and tee-hee in her merry tale, a colorful blend of anecdote, personality and pure science explained in the simplest terms.

Do you know how Galileo first figured out how much air weighs? How Torricelli first measured air pressure? How Robert Boyle came upon his eponymous law? How Priestly helped Lavoisier discover oxygen? Do you know how all these people are connected, one to the next? If not, then like me, and presumably unlike William Grimes, I suppose you are scientifically illiterate. Don’t believe Grimes. There is endlessly enchanting information here for the scientifically well-informed, as well as for others. (All the stuff I point out above is from just the first fifth of the book!) Get it. And read it.

William Grimes reviews An Ocean of Air: Why the Wind Blows and Other Mysteries of the Atmosphere, by Gabrielle Walker, in the New York Times:

Screenhunter_11_aug_09_1131As a metaphor for absence and nothingness, air has performed admirably for centuries. It has pulled off one of the great con jobs in human history, concealing endless complexities behind its bland, transparent facade. Layer by layer, from the ionosphere to the Earth’s surface, Gabrielle Walker exposes the Earth’s atmosphere for what it is, a restless, electrically charged, dynamic superhero, entrusted with the sacred mission of protecting our planet, nurturing life and even, when looked at from a certain angle, making love possible.

Ms. Walker, a chemist by training and a science journalist by profession, finds that angle in “An Ocean of Air,” her perkily popular take on air, wind, atmosphere and the scientists who unraveled their mysteries, from Galileo onward. It starts with oxygen, creator and destroyer, foundation of the atmosphere, the revolutionary element that quickens life and hastens death through its ferocious reactivity, and requires two sexes. Oxygen-burning, ever-aging mitochondria from the male expend energy seeking out cool, unaged mitochondria in the female egg, which guarantee that the human embryo’s biological clock starts at zero. Romance is in the air.

More here.  [Thanks to Anna Suknov.]