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Study Guide

Air: Contexts and Questions

Air: The Restless Shaper of the World is a tour de force of all things elemental about air, the medium common to all terrestrial life. As the publisher’s description notes of the author’s broad purview, “Air sustains the living. Every creature breathes to live, exchanging and changing the atmosphere. Water and dust spin and rise, make clouds and fall again, fertilizing the dirt. Twenty thousand fungal spores and half a million bacteria travel in a square foot of summer air. The chemical sense of aphids, the ultraviolet sight of swifts, a newborn’s awareness of its mother’s breast—all take place in the air.” Logan’s ambitious scope calls our attention to the myriad ways in which air connects everything above and beyond the sea.

• The sheer breadth of Logan’s book begs important questions about its medium and message. What can we learn about life from the many diverse manifestations of atmospheric phenomena that support it? Does the scope of the author’s inquiries expand our sense of air without diluting the subject? Alternatively, does it elucidate otherwise latent, perhaps interdisciplinary, associations among subjects that have more in common than we think?

Air is in many ways a story about the author’s wide-ranging experience of our atmosphere. What stories might you yourself tell about the air you’ve breathed? What might it mean to remark upon something we are often prone to overlook? What connections might the idea of air help you make about your own experience?

• Perhaps because air is so difficult to see (much less understand), air quality tends to be one of the least visible environmental conditions. Why might we be prone to overlook such fundamental dynamics? What can we learn about the health of our environment by attending to its air?

• As Logan says on his website, “Ignorance of the air is costly. The artist Eva Hesse died of inhaling her fiberglass medium. Thousands were sickened after 9/11 by supposedly ‘safe’ air. The African Sahel suffers in drought in part because we fill the air with industrial dusts.” This, of course, is to say nothing of the poor air conditions we regularly endure in the San Joaquin Valley—many of whose cities are routinely listed as having the worst air quality in the nation. What health conditions—and, by extension—might we alleviate simply by improving our air? What steps do you propose we take to make our air cleaner?

• Are the UC Merced campus and facilities designed in ways that facilitate environmentally healthy flow of air? What characteristics of our built environment help or hinder our air quality?

• The subject of air is an excellent focus for the study of physics and/or chemistry. What physics concepts can we learn by observing what it takes to be airborne? What fundamental chemical processes does air enable?

• What is nature? Does it encompass culture, or does culture encompass it? In what ways do perceived distinctions between nature and culture inform our attitudes toward air (or vice versa)?

• In what ways might air be said to facilitate “communication,” in the broadest sense of the word? By what means does air occasion voice and sound? What other exchanges—between gases, particles, odors, etc.—does air support, enhancing and expanding the idea of communication to include such concepts as transportation, dissemination, saturation, etc.?

• The movement of air affects weather and climate, and contributes directly to precipitation patterns. What climate trends can we track by attending to atmospheric conditions? In your experience, how have such conditions changed over time? What is it like to experience the power of air as manifested in strong winds or storms?

• By manipulating the physics of air, we make music—such that in understanding the one we might also understand the other. Along these lines, what might science and art owe each other? In what ways do their intersections enhance our understanding of air?

• Wind power is among our most promising renewable energies. To generate power via wind is literally to harness the air. Like any energy, there are tradeoffs involved in wind power—for instance, the extensive infrastructure it requires, and its negative effects on bird populations. Where do you stand with respect to the pros and cons of wind power?

• Are attitudes toward air universal, or do they differ from culture to culture and country to country? What might we learn by looking at ways in which air is regarded elsewhere in the world?