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AN OCEAN OF AIR by Gabrielle Walker


Why the Wind Blows and Other Mysteries of the Atmosphere

by Gabrielle Walker

Pub Date: Aug. 1st, 2007
ISBN: 978-0-15-101124-7
Publisher: Harcourt

The fascinating story of earth’s atmosphere, filled with fresh and lively biographical sketches of intrepid explorers of the natural world from Galileo to James Van Allen.

Walker, a consultant to New Scientist magazine, brackets her narrative with two opposite journeys through the atmosphere: Air Force test pilot Joe Kittinger’s extraordinary plunge from the edge of hostile space to the New Mexico desert in 1960, and the ascent of a weather balloon in Greenland in 2006. Between is a fascinating account of the very nature of the protective blanket that surrounds our earth. Walker, who has a Ph.D. in chemistry, writes with a pop journalist’s eye for the personal detail that makes a character come alive. There is no chalk dust in her description of Galileo’s measurements of the weight of air; Torricelli, Boyle and Hooke’s experiments with air pressure; Priestley and Lavoisier’s work with gases; or Joseph Black’s discovery of carbon dioxide. Who knew that Hooke was “an irascible hunchback, a hypochondriac with a caustic wit and a terrifying manner”? Or that Priestley discovered how to make fizzy drinks for his houseguests? The author also considers the motion of air, from Columbus’s utilization of the trades and Westerlies to carry him to the New World to the calculations of an American farmer who worked out that the winds of the northern and summer hemispheres move in mirror image. A chapter on ozone features the discoverer of the ozone layer, Irish scientist W.M. Hartley, and the American inventor of the CFC Freon, Thomas Midgley, as well as the scientists who discovered what CFCs were doing to the earth’s ozone layer. She concludes with Van Allen and his discovery of the radiation belts that bear his name. Throughout, the link between changes in the earth’s life-generating, life-preserving atmospheric shield and global warming are deftly woven into the narrative.

Science made accessible and entertaining.