An Ocean of Air, Gabrielle Walker (Hardcover, 2007)|
(You can print this review in landscape mode, if you
want a hardcopy)
Mark Lamendola, author of over 6,000 articles.
This book was engaging and informative, making it just the kind of
book I enjoy reading. But what most impresses me about An Ocean of
Air is it
makes science so very real. This book is great for the adult audience it
was written for. But since it's also a change from the dry and
discouraging texts that normally assault our school kids, it should be in
Walker uses drama to hook the reader, right from the start. If you
know who Joe Kittinger is, you understand what I mean. If you don't know
who Joe Kittinger is, you have one more reason to read this book.
In 1975, Chiam Topol (who is more widely known just by the moniker
Topol) starred in a highly acclaimed film that told the story of science
legend Galileo. The film presented the human story along with
interesting bits of historical detail and science. While Galileo's
story is intriguing, he is far from being the only interesting
scientist. This becomes quite evident as Walker shows us who
brought us to our present-day understanding of the atmosphere and how
they did it.
You can think of this book as an epic saga chronicling the
exploration of the atmosphere. Like any good epic saga, it features
interesting characters in each era. I've already mentioned two of them.
Here are three more, just for example:
- Antoine Lavoisier, who was beheaded during the French
Revolution. His insights were so remarkable, that upon hearing the
news of his execution a friend said, "It took them only an instant to cut off that
head, and a hundred years may not produce another like it."
- Christopher Columbus, who discovered the trade winds. This was a
huge breakthrough, and Walker's take on Columbus goes beyond the
surface treatment normally rendered in what passes for "history" in school. She shows us the real decisions
that drove Columbus westward, and the primal fears he and his
sailors contended with. There is much more to the story than "he
sailed west to find India," and Walker starts off Chapter Four ("Blowing
in the Wind") with this angle on Columbus.
- William Ferrel (not to be confused with Will Ferrell, the
actor/comedian) is also in Chapter Four. His story begins not in
1492, but in 1831. He was one of the most eminent scientists in
American history, but he is also one of the least well-known. He is,
however, the man who figured out why winds that are around storms and weather
patterns move in circles.
Part of the solution
This book wasn't intended as a school text. But I think it should be
widely adopted as one. Here is why.
In the United States, the late 1970s ushered in an era of educational
disablement. Kids learned in spite of, not because of, our public
"education" system. Such "innovations" as "new math" and "look see" reading
not only deprived kids of learning opportunities while stuck in school,
but also discouraged them from learning once they got back home.
Worse, people who live by "ignorance is bliss" have managed
to get legislated such things as putting "Evolution is only a theory"
stickers on school text books (that was inflicted on children in Kansas,
for example). To these champions of ignorance, it's best not to
teach the foundation of many of the science disciplines we depend on
today. They don't mind availing themselves of the fruit of knowledge but
they oppose such knowledge being acquired in public schools. The
hypocrisy of this escapes them.
Many schools now ban competitive sports, based on the idea that this
means there aren't any losers. This also means no winners. And for all
of the kids, it means being deprived of activities that make
them strong physically, emotionally, and intellectually. Since "we"
removed the building blocks of self-esteem and character, a new
movement arose. This is the flatulent and dishonest "self esteem"
movement that relies on disabling kids from engaging in the critical
skill of self-assessment. Grade inflation, an offshoot of this nonsense,
has now spread from our K-12 schools to our universities. This makes
transcripts worthless, but think what it does to the victims it
One result of these exercises in denial and delusion is that
(according to what polls repeatedly show) American kids want a job in
which they "talk to people," rather than a job in which they actually do
something that results in new discoveries or in which they do
intellectually challenging work. But is this bad? Ask around at the
engineering schools, and you'll get your answer.
The diseducation system in America has produced a country in which
there is a severe shortage of people with quantitative skills. While
this is wonderful for the political system (which relies on deception
and the inability of people to engage in abstract thinking, critical
thinking, fact filtering, and quantitative analysis), it's bad for the
country in every other respect.
Most of the alleged help with this problem is just another part of
the problem. For example, the "No Child Gets Ahead" program allegedly
raises minimum standards. In reality, it adds yet more ankle weights to
kids who are potential stars. Several books have discussed the effects
of that particular fraud, so I won't go into it here.
When a book like An Ocean of Air comes along, the metaphor "a
breath of fresh air" immediately comes to mind. Bucking the enormous
efforts currently being made to "dummify" all but the most persistent
students, this book is part of the solution. The target audience was
obviously adults, yet I can't help but thinking how such a book placed
in our public schools would give kids a glimpse of how meaningful and
rewarding learning about the physical world around us actually is. The
physical sciences are unpopular study subjects primarily because they
are normally presented in a complex, jargon-laden, confusing, boring,
and pointless manner
An Ocean of Air, on the other hand, makes a complex subject
simple and exciting. The language is our own, not some compilation of dense prose
used to impress a panel of bureaucrats whose motivations rarely include
actual education. But I fear this book won't pass muster and make it
into the classroom except as contraband. An Ocean of Air is
clearly written for the end-user reader. Walker erred by not keeping
with the tradition of breaking of the rules of effective
composition. Instead, she wrote a book in which the text seems to
As a reader, you want to keep turning the pages for a couple of
reasons. One is to find out what happened next--did that radioman on the
Titanic survive, or was he one of the lost? Another reason is the sheer
enjoyment of saying, "Ah, so that's why...."
A bit of caution
Walker veers slightly into Al Gore territory, by positing an unproven
causal relationship between carbon levels and climate as fact. There may
be a causal relationship, but consider these three points:
- While it's true the glaciers are melting on earth, it's also
true that the same thing is happening on Mars. This suggests, rather
strongly, that SUVs are not the common cause of global warming on
- Carbon levels are, as Walker reports, higher than ever before.
But we are nowhere near a record temperature. Ergo, there is a
disconnect between temperature and carbon or there are other factors
that drive climate change more significantly than carbon levels.
- Solar activity has broken out of its "normal" eleven year cycle
and we've been seeing some weird things. Earth has been hit by solar
events that make nuclear weapons look like matchsticks by
comparison. You can monitor solar activity on such sites as
spaceweather.com. A huge temperature spike in August (of 2005, I
three days after a particular solar flare erupted. That flare was 50 earth
diameters in size, totally dwarfing the earth. So, things got a bit
Wont stay still on my bookshelf
Not long ago, the Harry Potter series of books, which are about a fantasy world, surpassed all other books in the number of
copies sold. That says something about our desire to understand reality.
Collectively, we have a vast preference for a make believe world rather
world we live in. Yet, the real world is every bit as fascinating.
Now here's your chance to become well-informed, and to have a good
time while doing so. At least, well-informed about the air that is all
around us. I think it's an opportunity worth grabbing. I know I'll be
grabbing this book from its shelf many times over the next few years.