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An Ocean of Air: A Natural History of the Atmosphere [Paperback]

Gabrielle Walker
4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)
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Book Description

19 May 2008
We not only live in the air, we live because of it. At ground level air transforms miraculously; it wraps our planet in a blanket of warmth, while the outer layer of our atmosphere soaks up violent flares from the sun. In this fascinating celebration of the Earth's fragile atmosphere, Gabrielle Walker traces a journey of groundbreaking scientific discovery from the first experiments in the Renaissance to recent findings in space.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing PLC (19 May 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 074759290X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0747592907
  • Product Dimensions: 2 x 12.9 x 19.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 111,489 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

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Product Description


"Read this superb book and the simple act of breathing will never be the same again."
-- Mail on Sunday

About the Author

Gabrielle Walker has a PhD in chemistry from Cambridge and has taught at both Cambridge and Princeton universities. She is a consultant to New Scientist, contributes frequently to BBC radio and writes for many newspapers and magazines. The author of Snowball Earth and presenter of BBC Radio 4's 'Planet Earth Under Threat', she lives in London and France.

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Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A weight on your shoulders 15 Oct 2007
By Stephen A. Haines HALL OF FAME
Apart from the unoriginal title and misleading subtitle [any fourth-grader knows why the wind blows], this introduction to the history of atmosphere has much to recommend it. Walker is able to take us through the search for what comprises the air we breathe. She resurrects some important figures in this quest, showing why we should know of them. There are also familiar characters, not the least of which is Galileo, whose study of the air took his remaining years during house arrest by The Church. Although the challenge to cover so many characters and their efforts to put substance to something we consider almost ephemeral is daunting, the author covers the ground with spritely prose. The book is a good starting point for those unfamiliar with the air that sustains us.

It was a revelation of great magnitude to discover air can be weighed. Passing your hand through it doesn't seem to meet much resistance. Balloons and birds pass through it effortlessly, it seems. But the realisation that air was "there" was the first step in a long journey in understand what exactly was "there" to understand. Walker, although opening the account with Galileo's trial and confinement, reminds us that "air" was considered by some ancients, especially Aristotle, to be one of the four "Elements", along with earth, fire and water. Air, because it exhibits pressure, must have measureable "weight". Another Renaissance Italian, Alessandro Torecelli, resolving a dispute about that suggestion, invented the quicksilver [mercury] barometer still in use today - coining the phrase "ocean of air" as a result. In dealing with the pressure derived from its mass, Walker panders to her US readers by noting that Carnegie Hall in New York City holds over 32 thousand kilogrammes of air.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An Ocean of Air 7 Oct 2007
By Tami Brady TOP 500 REVIEWER
A copy of An Ocean of Air should be on every library bookshelf in the world. I found this text both immensely informative and extremely interesting. Quite a number of times, I jumped up, put the book down, and went to find someone to tell about an remarkable fact or a story about a particular scientist that I thought was amusing.

The book is set up in chronological order, exploring the various issues surrounding air. It starts off with the presumptions about air that our ancestors had about the substance. Then, it begins looking at the various individuals who were courageous, curious, and sometimes just plain mad enough to ask questions and seek answers. The stories progress throughout touching on a variety of associated topics from chemical composition of air and the ozone layer to carbonation and space flight.

Apart from the historical and scientific usefulness of this book, I also want to note the humanizing aspect of the various scientists. Often when we picture scientists, we assume that they sit in their laboratory using their great intellect to uncover scientific discoveries. We don't often think about the sacrifices of these individuals or that often such discoveries have not always been popular. Moreover, often the most interesting successful experiences were those that went horribly wrong.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A good read! 15 Aug 2009
By Fatboy
This book is written in a 'chatty' manner that will no doubt annoy some people, but in my opinion adds a lot to the readability of this book.

Walker tends to explore a lot of tangets rather than stick to the main thread. (For example she goes into detail about Columbus's journey across the Atlantic to illustate trade winds.) However, these 'tangents' are still enjoyable, if not to the point.

I did find 'Snowball Earth' better (although noting from that ratings that view is not necessarily shared!).
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