My holiday reading has included re-reading three powerful narratives.
These really hit the spot in terms of entwining a good read with science, history, adventure, questions, and to an extent – answers – to some of the pressing problems of our times:
Dancing at the Dead Sea by Alanna Mitchell (2005)
Water from Heaven by Robert Kandel (2003 English Version)
An Ocean of Air by Gabrielle Walker (2007)
I am on my third reading of Gabrielle Walker’s vivid account of the history of our earth’s atmosphere. With each reading, I feel like I’ve discovered a new piece of the ‘universal jigsaw’, conjuring up a little more understanding – new thinking – about planet Earth and its support systems – about those atmospheric gases, water not least, that so cleverly sustain us. Adventure, exploration, colour, vivid description – these books have them in spades.
This is from Gabrielle Walker’s fifth chapter The Hole Story:
Ozone is a beautiful gas. Unlike its closest relative, oxygen, which is invisible, ozone is a vibrant shade of blue. When Dublin scientist W. M. Hartley began working on the gas in 1881, he was enchanted by its colour, ‘as blue as the sky on a brilliant day’. And though some people were inclined to find the smell of ozone disagreeably pungent, Hartley thought it fresh, as after a great thunderstorm when the world has been washed clean…Starting some thirty kilometres above the ground, it (ozone) forms a protective layer, the first of the air’s three silver linings that shield every living creature from the hostility of space. – pages 151-152
Alanna Mitchell pressed for answers to perplexing environmental problems after dancing – ‘celebrating life’ – at the edge of the near-ruined Dead Sea. Yes, the Dead Sea is diminishing – it’s level dropping by around a metre a year. Despite this and other environmental catastrophes chronicled in Alanna Mitchell’s ‘Darwinian’ journey (less the ‘origin’ and more the ‘fate’ of the species) – from Madagascar and the Galapagos Islands to the Amazon and the Arctic – the book is optimistic, hopeful:
It is clear that humans have become as powerful geological force as the four elements of water, air, earth and fire that the ancients believed made up the cosmos. Humans are so numerous, so ravenous, so self-centered a species that we have become the fifth element…I am convinced that if we do things differently we can flourish, as could other species on this planet. We’re just not doing things wisely enough yet. It’s understandable. We haven’t needed to do so before. Now we must change, and I believe we can…It is the human legacy to change, even as we fail to notice that we are doing so. It is our legacy – as a species and even as individuals – to keep going, even when it seems that the end has come. We may weep at the Dead Sea, but we will also learn to dance. – pages 14-15
Perhaps a tad more scientific than the other titles, Kandel’s Water from Heaven is a definitive guide to the life and times of water – a billion billion tons of it – arriving here 4 billion or so years back. From El Nino and La Nina weather patterns, and Continental Drift, to drains, dams and desalination, Kandel misses little. For solid science and theory about water, where it comes from, where it goes and how it ties in with the elements that make for our human existence on Earth, don’t go past this book.
How did it all begin?
Buried in the earth’s crust, miners can still extract – blessing or curse? – uranium and other radioactive elements made in a supernova explosion less than five billion years ago. Old Mother earth is still young enough to have kept some traces of this event. After ten billion years, the uranium would be much rarer, half of it decaying to lead every 4.5 billion years…
The Earth’s childhood having been particularly tumultuous, few rocks older than three billion years are to be found today. Nevertheless, the specialists are convinced the solar system was formed 4.6 billion years ago…At the very beginning of this process, the condensation destined to become Earth was surrounded by a cloud consisting mainly of hydrogen and helium, with some water vapour as well…
Where then does the water of the Earth come from?…For a billion years following the birth of the earth, its surface, like the surfaces of the Moon, Mars, and Mercury, was intensely bombarded by meteorites, some of which contained water. The marks of these impacts have, for the most part, long been erased by erosion on Earth, to a lesser extent also on Mars, but they are still clear on the pock-marked surfaces of the Moon and Mercury…it is difficult to calculate exactly how many tons of impacting meteorites were necessary…The water needed to fill the oceans must have come with enough debris to make a layer a hundred kilometres thick, much thicker than the Earth’s crust as we know it today…Water arrived from the skies, but the atmospheric water of the first ages of our planet must have been lost if not recycled in the Earth long ago. Water arrived as the first solid matter condensed to form the proto-Earth, it arrived during the accretion phase as the planet acquired its final mass, perhaps also during the following billion years. It arrived in solid or frozen granules and in the hydrated minerals that accumulated as the planet formed, perhaps also with the rain of comets or meteorites, the debris of asteroids…Today the oceans cover 71 per cent of the planet’s surface; their average depth is 3,700 meters (over 12,000 feet), so that they contain 1.35 billion cubic kilometres or 1,350 billion billion litres of water. Enormous as such a figure is, it still represents only .02 per cent of the total mass of the Earth. – pages 24-25
All three titles are available in NZ libraries, and I’ve added Amazon links. Happy reading!