Monday, October 19, 2015
Book Review 355: Air
I wouldn’t have thought you could write 350 pages about “Air” without mentioning what gases make up Earth’s air and in what proportions, but William Logan has done it.
On the other hand, I’d have thought you could write 350 pages about “Air” without scatology, but William Logan hasn’t done that.
This is a very strange book in which we learn more about the untouristy places William Logan has visited than we do about trace gases in the atmosphere. When he does refer to the physical characteristics of air, he doesn’t always get them right; notably when he writes that the mass of the air is 500 trillion tons. That’s only one-eleventh of the accepted value.
Perhaps if he had spent less time on the vaporings of Maritain and Merton and more with reference books, he’d have gotten it right.
“Air” is not without its moments. Though he cannot be bothered to discuss the gaseous constituents of air, he is eloquent about the particles that the air supports, like fungus spores. He writes interestingly about learning to fly an airplane and sail in a hang glider; about weather; and about smells.
He also spends way more pages writing about the sonata form in western music than you’d expect —I’d have expected nothing — but what that has to do with air is not stated. He does point out that the sounds of music travel through air, but they travel also through water and steel.
The failure to discuss the constituents of air and their relative proportions is a very serious thing. Though Logan makes less of a fuss about climate change than I’d have expected, it is clear that he is among those who believe that the air’s share of carbon dioxide is titrated so delicately at three parts per 10,000 that it is ideal for humans, but that 4 parts per 10,000 would be a disaster.
The closest he gets to discussing proportions of gases comes in a discussion of oxygen levels (which, typically, he sets too low), which today are around 21%. He mentions they were very low before the evolution of photosynthesis, but there’s no hint that they seem later to have been very high — perhaps 50% above current levels.
You’d think that a discussion about why they dropped back and have settled, for quite a long time, at a lower level would have been part of a book about “Air.” But, again, you’d be wrong.