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Wednesday, August 22, 2007

An Ocean of Air

Walker, Gabrielle. An Ocean of Air: Why the Wind Blows and other Mysteries of the Atmosphere. I've posted about this book here and here. Now that I've finished, I can truthfully say that it was--from first to last--excellent.

One of my favorite scientists-- immensely important, but shy and more concerned with the science than with awards or honors-- was William Ferrell who "discovered the precise nature of the giddying effect that our planet's spin has on the air above it." You may know this as the "Coriolis effect" because Coriolis published equations concerning theoretical behavior of objects in rotating systems, but he never dreamed of applying these equations to explain the winds. Ferrel's studies resulted in an explanation of almost "everything about the wind currents" and while "still relatively unknown," he "remains one of the best American scientists who has ever lived" according to Walker. When I read Walker's acknowledgments, I was pleased to note that Ferrell was one of her favorites as well.

Wiley Post and the jetstreams; Thomas Midgely (friendly, enthusiastic, energetic) , an inventor who solved an important problem and created a monster; Jim Lovelock and his Gaia theory; Molina and Rowland and their predictions about the ozone layer; Marconi who didn't understand the "mirror in the sky" but whose wireless transmissions made use of it; the very, very strange Oliver Heaviside, who suggested the mirror; Edward Victor Appleton who discovered x-rays; James Van Allen and the Van Allen belt; Kristian Birkeland who studied the northern lights and created an "electromagnetic cannon"--what a collection of creative imagination and devoted study. Each and every one comes alive under Walker's touch; she makes both the men and their ideas fascinating.

As I've mentioned before, this work is the most entertaining work of nonfiction imaginable. If you have the least interest in air, atmosphere, and our "sheltering sky" do read this book.

Walker includes suggestions for further reading and detailed end notes.

Nonfiction. Science. 2007. 238 pages.


  1. another book to add to my reading list. Have gotten some gems from this blog.

  2. I totally agree with Alicia. I think I've added more books to my TBR list from your blog than from any other. That says a lot! This one sounds very interesting.

  3. Alicia -- I think you'll enjoy this one!

    Booklogged -- Fair exchange, Cheya, as I've gotten quite a few titles from you as well. :0 and we share a love for so many of the same mystery series... An Ocean of Air is full of real-life mysteries and their solutions.

  4. Placed an order for it and am looking forward to reading it! I'm on an ALA Outstanding books for the College Bound and this looks to be perfect. :D

    PS You dropped an "l" in Ferrell name, second paragraph. William Ferrell Smith is my brother. ;)

  5. Maggie -- I think science teachers should assign this book for sure, but I would have put it on my "books of choice" list for my Engllish classes (oops! I found the l I lost from Ferrel). :P

    I love science writers who can educate and entertain in such a relaxed and comfortable way. Given the nature of some of their theories and experiments, Walker's ability to keep the reader not only involved, but eager-- is quite an achievement.

    Walker has another book, Snowball Earth, about a controversial theory from the Harvard professor Paul Hoffman. I want it, too!

    Your brother shares a name with one of America's unsung geniuses!

  6. Sounds awesome. I love non-fiction. My most recent cool non-fiction was The Earth Moved by Amy Smith. I would say the same thing about worms as you say about air here.

    Concerning atmosphere, have you read The Invention of Clouds by Richard Hamblyn? It isn't entertaining in a haha way but it is fascinating and has stuck with me in the three years since I've read it.

    I don't need another book to buy but...this sounds really, really good.

  7. You -- I've added The Earth Moved to my list. For several years I've been "going to" do some worm composting, but have never followed through. My garden if full of worms, though, and when digging, I always try to re-bury them quickly so that the robins waiting for their dinner don't get as many as they wish.

    Will also keep The Invention of Clouds in mind.

    Thanks for some great suggestions!

  8. Oh, wow, this book sounds fascinating. It's going straight onto the wish list. Thanks for the fantastic review!

  9. bookfool -- Completely involving!

  10. definitely will be checking out this book! I adore nonfiction which engages! have you read any of mark kurlasky? he has a marvelous knack for making a a seemingly dry topic come alive (fish, salt, etc) ... his book "Cod: a biography of the fish that changed the world' still reigns as my #1 nonfiction read!