“An Ocean of Air: Why the Wind Blows and Other Mysteries of the Atmosphere” by Gabrielle Walker (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2007)

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Each and every day the people of the world go about their daily activities: going to school, going to work, going to help someone; all with little idea of the great ocean of air above them that has trillions of molecules constantly performing crucial reactions – much like the population below – with the aim of keeping this planet (and its people) healthy and alive.  An Ocean of Air by Gabrielle Walker is an excellent 235 page book that teaches you everything you could ever want to know about our atmosphere, its many layers, and the very air we are constantly breathing.  Part science book, part history book; An Ocean of Air provides a whole semester’s worth of knowledge and learning in just a single volume.

Walker is an award-winning scientist with a Ph.D. in Chemistry from Cambridge University.  As well as having served as climate-change editor for Nature and features editor for New Scientist, she is a visiting professor at Princeton University and has presented many programs for BBC Radio.  In An Ocean of Air, she breaks down the atmosphere into its components, explaining each in detail and in clear layman’s language, making it easy to understand for any reader.  Along with the science, she also goes into the history of when this air molecule or atmospheric layer was discovered, how and by whom.  Apart from learning the makeup of our atmosphere, the reader is also learning of great scientists and inventors of the past who were able to discover so much about something that is essentially invisible.

The book is split into two parts.  The first part, “Comfort Blanket,” explains what the air we breath consists of; the fascinating evolution of oxygen and why we cannot live without it, but at the same time it leads to our inevitable deaths; and how wind is formed and develops into the fierce and destructive hurricanes and tornadoes around the world.  The second part, “Sheltering Sky,” is where Walker explains the various levels of our atmosphere, their history and discovery, from stratosphere to ionosphere – which is constantly being bombarded with radiation from the sun, but causes a reaction that protects the complex life below.  It is here that Walker launches into the crux of the book, explaining the history of global warming from the invention of CFCs and the depletion of the ozone layer, to our present which is just beginning to look towards and understand the possibility of a doomed future.

Just as anyone can be amazed at the complexity of the human body and how it keeps living and moving with the millions of different processes and reactions taking place constantly, our atmosphere is seemingly just as complex and in some ways fragile.  Walker keenly points out that while carbon dioxide levels have spiked in Earth’s history, they are now at a level never recorded before, and continuously increasing.  Her intent is to inform and educate readers on what is happening to the atmosphere, and therefore the world, and with a further reading section, one can learn how to do their little bit to help this ailing planet.

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Originally written on July 13th 2007 ©Alex C. Telander.