Bookmarks Issue: 

Why the Wind Blows and Other Mysteries of the Atmosphere

A-An Ocean of AirAir, the saying goes, is one of those things you don’t really miss until it’s gone. Gabrielle Walker uses the ocean metaphor—a notion first put forth by 17th-century Italian scientist Evangelista Torricelli, a contemporary of Galileo—to suggest the underappreciated vastness and complexity of our atmosphere. From the book’s opening scene, readers come to understand what a luxury a steady supply of air can be. Walker describes a man in free fall from more than 20 miles above Earth; a pinprick in his jumpsuit would mean instant death as his blood boils. Similar eye-catchers (not all so morbid) abound. The air that fills Carnegie Hall, for example, weighs more than 70,000 pounds. Walker also explores wind mechanics, hurricanes, the ozone, and global warming—the known and the unknown with equal fervor and wonder.
Harcourt. 272 pages. $25. ISBN: 0151011249

Daily Telegraph (London) 4 of 5 Stars
"The opening chapters provide a wonderful lesson in how science works—showing how theory and speculation mix with experiment and observation to get mankind closer to the truth. … Throughout her book, Walker relates physics and chemistry to biology in a thought-provoking and entertaining way." Simon Singh

San Diego Union-Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"In An Ocean of Air, [the author] transforms what many of us perceive as invisible and insignificant into something that’s not only tangible, it’s downright interesting. … The book reads like well-written history, with equal emphasis on personalities and the process." Robert Krier

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Walker has a PhD in chemistry, but she writes like a poet. [An Ocean of Air] should absorb and delight anyone who breathes." M. G. Lord

New York Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Like Dava Sobel in The Planets, Ms. Walker writes for a general audience and seems to assume something close to scientific illiteracy in her readers. There is plenty of gee-whiz and tee-hee in her merry tale, a colorful blend of anecdote, personality and pure science explained in the simplest terms." William Grimes

Critical Summary

Although Gabrielle Walker, author of Snowball Earth (2003), holds a Cambridge doctorate in chemistry, her ear for storytelling is perfect for popular science. One critic praises her lyrical style; others praise her use of detail, anecdote, and science that wouldn’t be out of place in Meteorology 101. Critics inevitably compare Walker to Dava Sobel (Longitude; Galileo’s Daughter; The Planets, 3 of 5 Stars Jan/Feb 2006), one of the genre’s most popular writers. Walker has honed her skills as a contributing editor of Scientific American, and her breezy tone fits her subject perfectly. Even though her choice to start from square one may frustrate readers with some previous knowledge in the area, Walker has penned an engaging, readable book—nothing too heavy, and worth the reader’s every breath.