Sunday, September 21, 2014

An Ocean Of Air: A Natural History Of The AtmosphereAn Ocean Of Air: A Natural History Of The Atmosphere by Gabrielle Walker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An Ocean of Air opens with Joe Kittinger, an Air Force test pilot, in 1960, about to jump from a gondola hanging 20 miles in the air above New Mexico, at the edge of space, wondering if he's about to die. As he falls through the layers of atmosphere (landing safely), he is tracing the journey we'll follow to discover the wonders of wind and breath and the thinnest radiation shield ever--the layers of gases that surround our planet and make our lives possible.

How much does air weigh? Galileo almost got in trouble again for wondering. He discovered that it must have weight, but "how much" it weighs--that was for others to find out. (If you are in Carnegie Hall, the air around you weighs 70 thousand pounds.) Like a good science teacher, Ms. Walker asks questions and draws us in to the discovery of the answers through epic storytelling. Galileo, Columbus, Marconi and Van Allen (of the belts) get their stories told, but so do Will Ferrel, Oliver Heaviside, Wiley Post, and others, in all their quirky glory.

Who knew that Columbus, alchemy, Pascal, wars, the space race, the sinking of the Titanic, and climate change could be bundled so compellingly together? Or how truly lucky we are to have an ozone layer? Even reluctant nonfiction readers are seduced by Walker's stories--and it reads fast, since the last full quarter of the book is notes and index. Fascinating. For the curious: Felix Baumgartner's death-defying leap from space in 2012 was the first to break Kittinger's 1960 record, and Kittinger was one of his advisors.  


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