An Ocean of Air: Why the Wind Blows and Other Mysteries of the Atmosphere by Gabrielle Walker was sent to me to read and review by Anna Suknov of FSB Associates. Somehow they tapped into that area of my eclectic reading choices that wants to know about (but not TOO much about) lots of different things. Maybe they saw my review of The Demon Under the Microscope: From Battlefield Hospitals to Nazi Labs, One Doctor's Heroic Search for the World's First Miracle Drug. Or maybe they have heard about how I was mesmerized by The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History by John Barry.
I used to feature myself as a fiction reader who would only go astray for the occasional memoir which read like a novel...and as the years went by, many have been exposed as more novel than memoir...but I digress. I can tell you exactly when it happened...my transition. On September 1, 1997 I finished Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mount Everest Disaster by Jon Krakauer. The night before was a Sunday and although I did not want to put the book down, I had to get to sleep in order to wake up at 6 a.m. to go to work the next day. The next day, during my lunch hour, I walked over to the nearby bookstore, picked up a copy of the book and sat down on the floor in the aisle and finished it. When I finished it, I immediately turned it over and started reading it again. It was at that moment that I knew there was more to non-fiction than I had been aware of and decided to branch out.
An Ocean of Air feeds that side of my brain. I want to know about things. I want to know about things that are true. But I don't want to have to have a Ph.D in chemistry, physics or microbiology to know about what is going on in the world or how things came to be. Gabrielle Walker provides just the right balance of history, science and some gossipy personal stuff to give the reader fascinating information and keep the reader fascinated with the foibles and idiosyncrasies of the scientists who have contributed to our understanding of the composition of the air we breathe and the atmosphere that surrounds the earth.
As I read, I couldn't help but periodically quote from the book to my husband, ignorantly studying football stats on ESPN.com beside me in bed. It was fascinating. Page one places the reader in 1960 with Joe Kittinger in a 20 mile free fall from the edge of the atmosphere to the surface of the earth. From there we move back and forth in time from the "heresy" of Galileo and his contemporaries who were terrified to publish their findings lest they be put to death.
The book explores the vicissitudes of winds and weather, even quoting Mark Twain and making me think of my BF Amy in Boston, when he said of a "typical New England day: "Probably nor'east to sou'west winds, varying to the southard and westard and easterd, and points between; high and low barometer, sweeping round from place to place; probably ares of rain, snow, hail and drought, succeeded or preceded by earthquakes with thunder and lightning." Sounds about as definitive as any weather forecast I've heard lately.
Walker captivates with information that one might never know, like how and why did the six mainland casualties of WWII occur and what does this have to do with our "Ocean of Air". I'll let you find out in the book. What inventor of a scourge to the ozone, the dangers of which weren't discovered until the early 1970's, was awarded "almost every major prize in chemistry" with the exception of the Nobel Prize?
The book makes reference to issues of global warming and the environmental impact of man's inventions and interventions, but has no political agenda. Interspersed with the science and the individuals are more notorious incidents such as the sinking of the Titanic whose wireless operators used their own version of the language our kids are using on AIM...GNOM for "Good Night Old Man" or GTH for "Go to Hell". Although the wireless, a novel invention, was mostly used for well-heeled passengers to send costly messages home, when the Titanic struck the iceberg, the wireless operators immediatley signaled "CQD" which meant "seek you" or "attention all stations" and the D for "distress". This sign was eventually converted to the more familiar SOS because it was easier to recognize in Morse Code. And the ultimate in irony is that Marconi, a key figure in the development of the technology that ended up saving so many of the passengers, was himself scheduled to be on the Titanic but postponed his trip due to paperwork he needed to catch up on.
I am not giving you too much information...there is so much more in this book to read, absorb and marvel at!
For some reason, I received two copies of An Ocean of Air, so FSB Associates has given me the green light to raffle the other copy off to one lucky blog reader. You don't have to do anything, come up with anything creative...just leave a comment and on December 3 I will hold a random drawing involving Colonel Mustard, a candlestick and the conservatory. The lucky winner will simply need to provide to me (privately of course) his/her address to which I will happily mail a new, unread copy of An Ocean of Air.