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

by Gabrielle Walker

Published by Harcourt

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In 1960 Captain Joseph Kittinger fell to earth from the edge of space and lived. He jumped from the basket of a gigantic helium balloon into an appalling, hostile environment that, without the protection of a pressure suit, would have simultaneously frozen his body and boiled away his blood. But the air that Kittinger fell through is what makes our lives on earth possible.

Air is about more than just breathing. Air miraculously transforms into solid food, and without it every creature on earth would starve; it wraps our planet in a blanket of warmth; the floating mirror of metal in the air allows radio signals to bounce around the world; and the outer layer of our atmosphere shields us from sun flares that are more violent than all the world's nuclear warheads put together. In this exuberant work, Gabrielle Walker peels back the layers of our atmosphere with stories of the people who uncovered its secrets:

  • A flamboyant Renaissance Italian discovers how heavy our air really is: The air filling Carnegie Hall, for example, weighs seventy thousand pounds.
  • A one-eyed barnstorming pilot finds giant rivers of air that blow five miles above our heads with the force of a hurricane.
  • An impoverished American farmer figures out why storms move in a circle by carving equations with his pitchfork on a barn door.
  • A well-meaning but ill-fated inventor creates wonder chemicals that  nearly destroy the ozone layer (he also came up with the idea to put lead in gasoline).
  • A reclusive mathematical genius with a predilection for painting his toenails cherry red figures out the technology that allowed the rescue of passengers on the Titanic.

An Ocean of Air is a triumphant celebration of the Earth's atmosphere and a completely engaging work of popular science.


pub date: 2007-08-06 | hardcover | 9780151011247