An Ocean of Air: Why the Wind Blows and Other Mysteries of the Atmosphere by Gabrielle Walker

In March, I read Gabrielle Walker‘s fantastic book about the atmosphere, An Ocean of Air: Why the Wind Blows and Other Mysteries of the Atmosphere, which I’d heard about in William Grimes‘s review published in the New York Times in August 2007.

Since there have been many tornadoes in the news lately, I have frequently found myself thinking about this fascinating and informative book.

Walker — author of Snowball Earth: The Story of a Maverick Scientist and His Theory of the Global Catastrophe That Spawned Life As We Know It (2004) and co-author of The Hot Topic: What We Can Do About Global Warming (2008) — earned a Ph.D. in chemistry from Cambridge and it shows in the scientific knowledge she conveys to readers through her lyrical, witty, and easy-going prose.

Written for the average reader without much science knowledge, Walker captivates readers with surprising facts — did you know that the air filling Carnegie Hall weighs seventy thousand pounds — and easy to understand details of scientific theories (and the people who discovered them) with cheerful storytelling.

The reviews quotes printed on the back cover say it all:

“Who knew air could be so interesting? Like the scientific mavericks she profiles, Gabrielle Walker had the freshness of vision to realize that within its presumed-nothingness lay the most fascinating, profound revelations about life on earth. This is science writing at its best: clear, witty, relevant, unbelievably interesting, and just plain great.”

-Mary Roach, author of Stiff

“An Ocean of Air is a fascinating book. The subject is hot, the science is cool, and Gabrielle Walker”s style is lighter than air. Warmly recommended.”

-Jonathan Weiner, author of The Beak of the Finch

“I never knew air could be so interesting.”

-Bill Bryson, author of A Short History of Nearly Everything

An Ocean of Air starts with the nail biting story of “the man who fell to Earth and lived”: Captain Joseph W. Kittinger, a test pilot for the U.S. Air Force, who in 1960 rode a helium balloon into space and jumped 103,000 feet (almost 20 miles in four and half minutes) to earth wearing an early version of a spacesuit and a parachute.

I particularly enjoyed learning about William Ferrel — a largely self-taught West Virginia farm boy, who helped explain the movement and direction of air — and Charles Kettering — the DuPont scientist whose well-intentioned creation of freon and chlorofluorocarbons were later found to be creating holes in the ozone layer — and Oliver Heaviside — the eccentric, self-taught scientist who discovered that an electrical layer in the sky (now called the Heaviside Layer) is responsible for transmitting radio signals across Earth.

Click here to read an excerpt or listen to an interview with Walker about this delightful popular science book.


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