Sowing the Wind: Reflections on the Earth's Atmosphere

By Louise B. Young

(Prentice Hall Press, New York)

185 pp.; $17.95

For centuries, people have struggled to develop a narrative for the workings of the sky. Five thousand years ago, we used stories of gods and goddesses to explain the beauty of shifting patterns of wet and dry, cold and hot, wind and calm. Today, we use numbers to explain the same mysteries.

Supercomputers, for instance, render atmospheric operations into billions of mathematical equations. And NASA's newest satellites, called the Earth Observing System, will gather enough data about the climate and its effect to fill eight football stadiums with magnetic tape a year.

When the atmosphere belonged to the gods, laypeople understood the story. Now that the atmosphere belongs to scientists, few of us comprehend at all. Although everyone is aware of the debate about the greenhouse effect, many people still don't know the difference between the ozone hole and global warming. And few people know why the sky looks blue, how rain forms or the manner in which plants convert carbon dioxide into oxygen. Atmospheric science has become Big Science. And it has left the little people far behind.

Louise B. Young's book provides a strong antidote to techno-speak and its resulting confusion. In less than 200 pages, she outlines the healthy workings of the Earth's atmosphere and the primary threats against it. For those who know little about the atmosphere or its problems since the dawn of the Industrial Age, this is a great primer.

In a clear, fluid, almost poetic rendering of the wonders of the sky, she discusses the chemical composition of air, the layers of the atmosphere, the movement of major wind systems, the formation of clouds, even photosynthesis. Her style carefully combines a "gee whiz" attitude with scientific precision. Such an approach is contagious; readers will finish the first part of the book with a heightened appreciation of the elegant inter-connectedness of the atmosphere.

This is a fine foundation for the second section, which explores three contemporary threats: global warming, the ozone hole and acid rain. Nothing in Young's analysis is earth-shattering; she neither offers new numbers nor does she criticize old interpretations. But her description of all three processes are admirably comprehensive. And her gentle urgings for us to pay attention to these threats are quite moving. "There are many places on Earth where fireflies still dance and mourning doves still greet the dawn," she writes in the chapter on the ozone hole. "It is still possible to preserve them." But only if we let nature put the ozone back "in the thin, transparent layer that filters the sunlight but does not obscure our view of the Moon and the evening star and Orion riding high in the night sky."

Young is a physicist and author who specializes in earth sciences. Like many leading climatologists and environmentalists, she recommends tree planting, reductions in the levels of carbon dioxide, energy efficiency and a shift to alternative sources of power as ways to save the planet. And she notes that one source of the problem is the enormous gap between what is happening, atmospherically, and what the public is told or perceives. This is an interesting note in an era in which science, like politics, is increasingly becoming a game of public relations.

One of the more interesting aspects of this book is Young's use of explorers' tales. When she explains the nature of the troposphere -- the atmosphere zone between 5 and 10 miles above the surface characterized by water vapor, vertical winds and decreasing temperatures -- she describes how Britons James Glaisher and Henry Coxwell, who in 1862 were the first scientists to take measuring devices up in a hot air balloon, nearly died from oxygen deprivation at 28,000 feet. And in explaining jet streams, she tells us the Japanese used these powerful winds in World War II to send balloons loaded with bombs to the United States, thereby setting forests afire, littering streets with rice paper and killing five children in Oregon. When inserted into scientific narrative, it is drama at its best and most valuable.

The primary flaw in this book is its lack of illustrations. The atmosphere is both intangible and magnificent. Maps and drawings illuminate what we cannot imagine: global wind patterns, photosynthetic exchanges, the destruction of ozone molecules. Photos and paintings can underscore what is awesome: piled clouds, Northern Lights and atmospheric layers. Such representations would have complemented Young's prose.

Since 1988, when news of the greenhouse effect first hit the press, dozens of books and thousands of articles have been published on the atmosphere. Many contain more detailed explanations of the science and the politics behind the science than does this book. But none could be as thorough, or as poetic, in documenting the elegant multiplicity of our atmosphere nor as simple in rendering the tragedy of its potential demise.Susan Davis is a writer in San Francisco.