An Ocean of Air

Published By: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Book Category: Non-Fiction, Science

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Reviewed by Muhammed Hassanali

Subtitled: Why the Wind Blows and Other Mysteries of the Atmosphere

The prologue in An Ocean of Air recounts Captain Kittinger’s extraordinary parachute jump from the edge of space to the desert in New Mexico. The epilogue describes the ascent of a weather balloon in Greenland. Sandwiched between these two accounts, the reader meets the scientists who devoted their time to discovering complexities of the air surrounding us.

The spectrum spans from Galileo (who tried to measure the weight of air when he was in his seventies) to Van Allen, after whom the radiation belts are named. In between, the reader meets several other personalities that come from all walks of life. The common bond tying them all together is that they all worked to understand the atmosphere, had to challenge notions of their day, and ultimately refined our knowledge of the atmosphere.

What is intriguing is that the reader is introduced to the prevailing notion of air, the questions that these scientists posed, the empirical methods they used to satiate their curiosity, and the knowledge they bequeathed to humanity. There are no equations, just details of these scientists’ lives that make their quest personal and high-level overview of the prevailing wisdom. Thus readers are invited to shares in the trials, tribulations, and eventual successes that these men experienced.

Air is often thought as “nothing” (an “empty” glass for example). Galileo sought to “weigh” nothingness. In turn he could pose the question that if air has weight, could it really be nothing? Thus the question’s underlying assumption challenged the prevailing notion that air is nothing. From the time of the Ancient Greeks, air was thought to be an element (and hence indivisible). Priestley’s work (which separate the gases in air) challenged this notion and the theory of “different airs” developed. Walker presents these and many other notions that eventually bring the reader to contemporary theories. No doubt as scientific work progresses, our notion of the atmosphere will evolve.

While Walker is a scientist, her writing style is akin to that of a novelist. The descriptions are vivid, the prose is fluid, the text unassuming – making the book a page-turner (if there ever could be a page-turner science book)!

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