Air: The Restless Shaper of the World

by William Bryant Logan

It’s what we breathe. On the move, it brings wind and weather. As it vibrates, it communicates sound. It’s hard to imagine a facet of life in which air is not a prime player. That’s Logan’s thesis, and he has constructed a veritable symphony of variations on it.

An arborist by profession and aviator by avocation, Logan takes readers from the soil, through plant roots, into the near surface air and then on up above the clouds. In most instances, the transitions work — if not seamlessly, at least engagingly. And that’s because he doesn’t present a musty treatise on air. Earth’s atmosphere is merely the theme about which his anecdotes pirouette.

And there are plenty of anecdotes. Some are personal; Logan relates his experience of 9/11 in New York City, in which caustic gunk rained down on trees under his care. In chapters on flight, in addition to gee-whiz statistics on how birds and insects wing it, he tells the story of wingless critters that rely on breezes to migrate. Then there are tales of hang gliders out West riding thermals to heights of 7,300 meters (24,000 feet) — altitudes normally reserved for airliners with pressurized cabins.

A few chapters, regrettably, drift afield. Sections on parrot calls and bat echolocation will at least entertain. But when Logan moves on to human song, the narrative falters. It almost feels as though he felt compelled to devote a few chapters to people, and suddenly the book begins to reflect on scripture, pre-Christian mythology and philosophy. But these chapters are minor misses in an other­wise fascinating attempt to see our world through one volatile common denominator. 

W.W. Norton & Co., 2012, 416 p., $26.95

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

More Stories from Science News on Science & Society

From the Nature Index

Paid Content