cover image It’s a Gas: The Sublime and Elusive Elements That Expand Our World

It’s a Gas: The Sublime and Elusive Elements That Expand Our World

Mark Miodownik. Mariner, $28.99 (304p) ISBN 978-0-358-15715-1

In this captivating study, Miodownik (Stuff Matters), a materials scientist at University College London, examines how gases and the inventions that utilize them have shaped human civilization. He notes that though nitrogen constitutes 78% of air, it remained difficult to “harvest” until the early 1900s when German chemist Fritz Haber realized that hydrogen reactions could draw nitrogen out of the air; because crops require nitrogen-rich soil, Haber’s breakthrough led to the production of fertilizers that boosted crop yields worldwide. Surveying the many uses of the “humble air valve,” Miodownik explains how its incorporation into brass instruments in the early 1800s enabled the instruments to vary pitch for the first time, and how its use in rubber wheels transformed bicycles from clunky wood and steel contraptions into a viable form of personal transportation. Elsewhere, Miodownik covers how CO2 ’s heat-trapping qualities are driving sea level rise, how the proliferation of cyanobacteria 2.4 billion years ago generated the oxygen-rich atmosphere later organisms came to depend on, and how large-scale differences in air temperature and air pressure produce wind. Miodownik combines a specialist’s erudition with a generalist’s broad scope, producing an expansive inquiry that bounds from human history to natural science and climate research without missing a beat. It’s an exemplary work of pop science. Photos. Agent: Jo Wander, Jo Wander Management. (Sept.)