An Ocean of Air

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  • Format: Hardcover
  • Copyright: 2007-08-06
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

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We spend our lives surrounded by air, hardly even noticing it. Its the most miraculous substance on earth, yet responsible for our food, our weather, our water, and our ability to hear. In fact, we live at the bottom of an ocean of air. In this exuberant book, gifted science writer Gabrielle Walker peels back the layers of our atmosphere with the 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 a set of winds that constantly blow five miles above our heads. An impoverished American farmer figures out why hurricanes move in a circle by carving equations with his pitchfork on a barn door. A well-meaning inventor nearly destroys the ozone layer. A reclusive mathematical genius predicts, thirty years before hes proved right, that the sky contains a layer of floating metal fed by the glowing tails of shooting stars.

Author Biography

GABRIELLE WALKER earned a Ph.D. in chemistry from Cambridge. She is a contributing editor at New Scientist magazine and has taught in the science-writing program at Princeton. She lives in London.

Table of Contents

Prologuep. xi
Comfort Blanket
The Ocean Above Usp. 3
Elixir of Lifep. 26
Food and Warmthp. 58
Blowing in the Windp. 88
Sheltering Sky
The Hole Storyp. 129
Mirror in the Skyp. 159
The Final Frontierp. 196
Epiloguep. 232
Acknowledgmentsp. 236
Suggestions for Further Readingp. 239
Endnotesp. 247
Indexp. 262
Table of Contents provided by Ingram. All Rights Reserved.


Chapter 1The Ocean Above UsNearly four hundred years ago, in a patchwork of individual fiefdoms that we now call Italy, a revolution of ideas was struggling to take place. The traditional way to understand the workings of the worldthrough a combination of divine revelation and abstract reasoninghad begun to come under attack from a new breed. These people called themselves natural philosophers, because the word scientist had not yet been invented. To find out the way the world worked, they didnt sit around and talk about it. They went out and looked. This was not an approach that was likely to find favor with the Church, home of received wisdom, or with its instrumentsthe whispering Inquisitors, with their hotline back to Rome. Now, a certain natural philosopher had fallen very foul of those Inquisitors and been forced to stop his investigations into the structure of the heavens. His name was Galileo Galilei, and our story begins with him.Convent of Minerva, RomeJune 22, 1633I, Galileo Galilei, son of the late Vincenzo Galilei, Florentine, aged seventy years, arraigned personally before this tribunal, and kneeling before you, most Eminent and Reverend Lord Cardinals, Inquisitors general against heretical depravity throughout the whole Christian Republic . . . have been pronounced by the Holy Office to be vehemently suspected of heresy, that is to say, of having held and believed that the sun is the center of the world and immovable, and that the earth is not the center and moves: Therefore, desiring to remove from the minds of your Eminences, and of all faithful Christians, this strong suspicion, reasonably conceived against me, with sincere heart and unfeigned faith I abjure, curse, and detest the aforesaid errors and heresies . . . and I swear that in the future I will never again say or assert, verbally or in writing, anything that might furnish occasion for a similar suspicion regarding me. As the great Galileo rose from his knees at the end of this infamous, and forced, recantation, he is said to have muttered Eppur si muove! (And yet it moves!). He knew in his heart that Earth moves around the sun, in spite of what the Inquisitors had made him say. Still, devoutly religious as he was, he had no taste for defying his own church. Nor had he any desire to share the fate of the unfortunate monk Giordano Bruno, who a few decades earlier had been publicly burned for holding similar views. Galileo may have been the most famous philosopher in all Italy, but he knew that in itself wouldnt save him from the fire. And though he was now seventy years old, frail, and steadily losing his sight, he was not yet ready to die. He had damaged his eyes by staring through a telescope at wonders he himself had discovered: blemishes that appeared periodically on the surface of the sun; craters on the moon; distant but distinct moons circling the planet Jupiter (who would have thought that other planets could have moons of their own?), and stars that

Excerpted from An Ocean of Air: Why the Wind Blows and Other Mysteries of the Atmosphere by Gabrielle Walker
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

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