Saturday, August 25, 2007

Walker's Ocean of Air [Review]

Title: An Ocean of Air: Why the Wind Blows and Other Mysteries of the Atmosphere

Author: Gabrielle Walker (author's website)

Copyright: 2007; published by Harcourt, Inc. (ISBN: 978-015-101124-7)

Length: 272 (incl. Acknowledgments, Suggestions for Further Reading, Endnotes and Index)

Genre: Non-Fiction, Science

Summary: Writing about science is not an easy task. One must be specific and careful to state exactly the significance of a particular experiment, (which can turn any paragraph into dry dust) but one also seeks to communicate that instant of marvel and discovery experienced after exploring some question that no one has answered satisfactorily to date. An Ocean of Air is actually a marvelously successful attempt at presenting science, specifically what we know and how we learned the nature of the atmosphere that makes it possible for us to live on this earth.

The book opens with a prologue that recounts the amazing story of Joe Kittinger in August of 1960, a story I had never heard before either in science class in school or by reading volumes of science fiction. Walker writes: Captain Joseph W. Kittinger, Jr. of the US Air Force is the man who fell to Earth and lived. Nobody has ever managed to emulate his feat. His passage home from the edge of space, from thin air to thick, illustrates something extraordinary about our planet. Space is almost close enough to touch. Only twenty miles above our heads is an appalling hostile environment that would freeze us, and burn us and boil us away. And yet our enfolding layers of air protect us so completely that we don't even realize the dangers. This is the message from Kittinger's flight, and from every one of the pioneers who have sought to understand our atmosphere. We don't just live in the air. We live because of it.

Kittinger's calculated risk was only one of a series of experiments carried out over several centuries as human beings attempted to understand the ocean of air that surrounds us and supports our existence. Walker follows both amateur and professional investigators in their efforts to figure out the mysteries of air. Her entire book is a story of how science was and is done under diverse, frequently adverse, conditions. She follows idiosyncratic professors in Edinburgh in 1754, Irish physicians in London's Royal Institution in the nineteenth century, and British and Americans in Antarctica in the 1950's and 1980's. The stories are almost fantastical, even though the author touches on the familiar. We know of Galileo's excommunication by the Church for daring to suggest that the earth moved about the sun, but who knows on a common basis that Galileo spent his later years in prison investigating the weight of air. We hear of the Frenchman, Antoine Lavoisier, who further explored the nature of breathing and the rural West Virginia genius, William Ferrell, who first recognized the existence of jet streams. (Walker writes of Christopher Columbus taking advantage of easterly trade winds in navigating the Atlantic, but Columbus had no idea why the air moved the way it did. The explanation was developed by Ferrell.)

The most remarkable aspect of this book is that one never feels as if the author is talking down to the reader. Walker writes so exuberantly about the people who are taking these risks in the name of knowledge, that you are swept into the action and absorb painlessly the basics of the scientific concepts that they master.

Extract: Midgely announced his invention at a meeting of the American Chemical Society in Atlanta in April 1930. He demonstrated the safety of his new gas with irrepressible showmanship. In front of a rapt crowd of chemists, he took in a deep breath of Freon and then slowly exhaled it over a lit candle. The candle went out.

Midgley's new chemical was an immediate hit. Together with its family of related chemicals (known collectively as CFCs or chlorofluorocarbons, so named because they contain chlorine, fluorine and carbon), it quickly became American's refrigeration of choice. Because it was so safe, Midgley's company agreed to sell it to all of their competitors, and soon it was universal in refrigerators across the land.

Also Relevant: It is the exuberant tone of the text that makes this book a tremendous read! JenClair wrote in some detail recently about this book and I think her experience was the same as mine. The author doesn't talk down to you, but writes most articulately about how gentleman-scholars managed to conduct experiments when glass was a precious commodity and how Susan Solomon, a modern scientist whose project in Antarctica was threatened by damage caused by forces of blizzards and winds to mirrors poised on a rooftop, actually went out in -40 degree winds to pull the mirrors back into safety. JenClair noted in her review some of the people who captured her attention in the book as did the Times critic, here. The Times critic sneered a bit at the tone Walker adopts in her story-telling, making a snarky reference to scientific-lite, but I think he was wrong in his disdain. Our scientific awareness is not generally the product of safely-enclosed institutional laboratories; it is formed by the thinking and daring of some amazing people and there are dramatic events in our history that might have been changed had those involved had just a tidbit of factual information. Walker wants us to know about the inquiring minds who have brought us so far and whose feats we should recognize outside of the average textbook. Science *should* be told with an eye to the dramatic; how better to appreciate how far we've actually come and how the knowledge was gained.