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Book Review of: An Ocean of Air

Why the wind blows and other mysteries of the atmosphere

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Review of An Ocean of Air, Gabrielle Walker (Hardcover, 2007)

(You can print this review in landscape mode, if you want a hardcopy)

Reviewer: 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 the classroom.

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 allegedly helps.

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 sparkle.

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:

  1. 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 both planets.
  2. 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.
  3. 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 believe) began 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 toasty here.

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 than the 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.


 

About these reviews

You may be wondering why the reviews here are any different from the hundreds of "reviews" posted online. Notice the quotation marks?

I've been reviewing books for sites like Amazon for many years now, and it dismays me that Amazon found it necessary to post a minimum word count for reviews. It further dismays me that it's only 20 words. If that's all you have to say about a book, why bother?

And why waste everyone else's time with such drivel? As a reader of such reviews, I feel like I am being told that I do not matter. The flippancy of people who write these terse "reviews" is insulting to the authors also, I would suspect.

This sound bite blathering taking the place of any actual communication is increasingly a problem in our mindless, blog-posting Webosphere. Sadly, Google rewards such pointlessness as "content" so we just get more if this inanity.

The reviews I do will, contrary to emerging trends, actually tell you about the book. I always got an "A" on a book review I did as a kid (that's how I remember it anyhow, and it's my story so I'm sticking to it). A book review contains certain elements and has a logical structure. It informs the reader about the book.

A book review may also tell the reader whether the reviewer liked it, but revealing a reviewer's personal taste is not necessary for an informative book review.

About your reviewer

  • Books are a passion of mine. I read dozens of them each year, plus I listen to audio books.
  • Most of my "reading diet" consists of nonfiction. I think life is too short to use your limited reading time on material that has little or not substance. That leads into my next point...
  • In 1990, I stopped watching television. I have not missed it. At all.
  • I was first published as a preteen. I wrote an essay, and my teacher submitted it to the local paper.
  • For six years, I worked as an editor for a trade publication. I left that job in 2002, and still do freelance editing and authoring for that publication (and for other publications).
  • No book has emerged from my mind onto the best-seller list. So maybe I'm presumptuous in judging the work of others. Then again, I do more describing than judging in my reviews. And I have so many articles now published that I stopped counting them at 6,000. When did I stop? Probably another 6,000 articles ago! (It's been a while).
  • I have an engineering degree undergrad and an MBA. That helps explain my methodical approach toward reviews.
  • You probably don't know anybody who has made a perfect or near perfect score on a test of Standard Written English. I have. So, a credential for whatever it's worth.

About reading style

No, I do not "speed read" through these. That said, I do read at a fast rate. But, in contrast to speed reading, I read everything when I read a book for review.

Speed reading is a specialized type of reading that requires skipping text as you go. Using this technique, I've been able to consistently "max out" a speed reading machine at 2080 words per minute with 80% comprehension. This method is great if you are out to show how fast you can read. But I didn't use it in graduate school and I don't use it now. I think it takes the joy out of reading, and that pleasure is a big part of why I read to begin with.

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