Oxygen: A Four Billion Year History

Oxygen: A Four Billion Year History

by Donald E. Canfield
     
 

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The air we breathe is twenty-one percent oxygen, an amount higher than on any other known world. While we may take our air for granted, Earth was not always an oxygenated planet. How did it become this way? Donald Canfield—one of the world’s leading authorities on geochemistry, earth history, and the early oceans—covers this vast history,

Overview

The air we breathe is twenty-one percent oxygen, an amount higher than on any other known world. While we may take our air for granted, Earth was not always an oxygenated planet. How did it become this way? Donald Canfield—one of the world’s leading authorities on geochemistry, earth history, and the early oceans—covers this vast history, emphasizing its relationship to the evolution of life and the evolving chemistry of the Earth. Canfield guides readers through the various lines of scientific evidence, considers some of the wrong turns and dead ends along the way, and highlights the scientists and researchers who have made key discoveries in the field. Showing how Earth’s atmosphere developed over time, Oxygen takes readers on a remarkable journey through the history of the oxygenation of our planet.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
10/14/2013
As ecologist Canfield explains it, “Oxygen is a signature feature of Earth; the high levels in our atmosphere define the outlines of our existence, as they also generally define the nature of animal life on Earth.” But this has not always been the case. Canfield’s work explores the atmospheric composition of the planet in past and seeks to understand the processes that led to the changes that have occurred. He blends heavy doses of biology with geology and geochemistry to present current hypotheses about how the Earth’s “great oxidation” took place “between 2.3 and 2.4 billion years ago,” resulting from the rise of cyanobacteria coupled with a reduction in the Earth’s tectonic activity as the planet’s core cooled. Much of the work Canfield discusses was conducted by him and his direct collaborators and mentors. Beyond the actual science—which is often presented in a way that is complex enough to deter a general readership—his excellent descriptions of the scientific process show how competing hypotheses, and the scientists who present them, vie for supremacy. Canfield also offers a philosophical perspective: scientific understanding provides true insight into the structure of the natural world and reveals that “science will converge on these ideas, if not now by one scientist, then later by another.” (Jan.)
From the Publisher
Winner of the 2014 ASLI Choice Award, Atmospheric Science Librarians International

One of Nature.com's Top 20 Reads for 2014

One of Science Friday's Best Science Books of 2014

"His excellent descriptions of the scientific process show how competing hypotheses, and the scientists who present them, vie for supremacy. Canfield also offers a philosophical perspective: scientific understanding provides true insight into the structure of the natural world."Publishers Weekly

"Engaging and authoritative."Nature

"An ecologist's ambitious, engrossing primer on the key atmospheric element, ranging from the 'great oxidation event' to photosynthesis."—Barbara Kiser,Nature

"Concise and easily read, Oxygen provides an ideal starting block for those interested in learning about Earth's O2 history and, more broadly, the function and history of biogeochemical cycles. . . . The endnotes provide valuable entries for readers who wish to explore particular points in greater depth and, in other cases, enable brief digressions for interesting personal notes without disrupting the logical thread of a given concept. And the detailed bibliography captures a vast swath of the relevant primary literature. I highly recommend Canfield's book for anyone with even a remote interest in Earth history, as O2 singularly encompasses much of what makes our planet special."—Woodward W. Fischer, Science

"Oxygen takes readers on a remarkable journey through the history of the oxygenation of our planet."—Devorah Bennu, GrrlScientist at The Guardian

"This is the sort of science writing we would all do well to read more of. . . . Engage[s] with the ambiguity of a world where evidence is imperfect, knowledge evolves, and mistakes can be made in interpreting the data."—Ian Scheffler, Los Angeles Review of Books

"Oxygen: A Four Billion Year History will be an entertaining and informative read, however, for anyone with a serious interest in the long-term history of the Earth: students contemplating working in the area and specialists in related disciplines as well as engaged general readers."—Danny Yee, Danny Reviews

"Written as an accessible introduction, with anecdotes sprinkled throughout, bringing the scientists' personalities to life. . . . It would make a solid overview for any university biology or geology student."—Wade M. Lee, Library Journal

"Scientific understanding of the role of oxygen in the ancient oceans and atmosphere has taken major steps forward only recently; this book . . . is written by a man who made significant contributions to this new understanding. Canfield wrote a seminal paper on ancient ocean chemistry and has spent his career studying the geochemistry of lakes and oceans. . . . To make the discussion more accessible to nonscientists, the technical portions of the discussion are provided as notes at the end of the book."Choice

"Given the complexity and breath of the material, the narrative has a light touch and is scattered with anecdotes about the scientists and adventures involved in the story, giving a real sense of the human endeavor. As well as the fascinating subject matter itself, the overriding impression is one of exhilaration and sheer enjoyment in pursuing this most fundamental, yet challenging, of scientific quests. Highly recommended."Chemistry World

"Canfield shows us how his science is done, and weaves together molecular biology, geology, geochemistry to tell this history of the air we breathe."—David L. Kirchman, Key Reporter

Library Journal
05/01/2014
Canfield (ecology, Univ. of Southern Denmark; director, Nordic Ctr. for Earth Evolution) attempts to describe the "big picture" of interrelated systems and self-regulating mechanisms that have controlled the presence of oxygen in Earth's air, oceans, and rocks throughout its history. Because of the constant cycling of elements among and within these systems, major changes in oxygen levels must often be deduced through proxy measures—for example, slight differences in isotopic ratios of other elements such as molybdenum and sulfur. Rather than presenting the book's contents as settled fact, Canfield weaves together the evidence gathered by his colleagues, mentors, and dissenting scientists in the field of geochemistry to put forth competing explanations in a logical order. An epilog recapitulates the arguments into a "best guess" time line. VERDICT Though written as an accessible introduction, with anecdotes sprinkled throughout, bringing the scientists' personalities to life, this work requires the reader's close attention and a bit of background knowledge in chemistry and biology in order to appreciate it fully. It would make a solid overview for any university biology or geology student.—Wade M. Lee, Univ. of Toledo Lib.
Kirkus Reviews
2013-11-04
Nordic Center for Earth Evolution director Canfield (Ecology/Univ. of Southern Denmark; co-editor: Fundamentals of Geobiology, 2012 etc.) delivers "the history of atmospheric oxygen on Earth." The author's project is directly relevant to efforts to discover life elsewhere in the universe. He explains that geobiologists are currently attempting to correlate the evolution of life on Earth to transformations in the levels of atmospheric oxygen that began somewhere around 580 million years ago. He sets the stage by looking back to the earlier history of life, beginning with the first organic molecules. The evolution of oxygen-producing cyanobacteria, which released oxygen into the atmosphere through photosynthesis, was a major step along the way. Around 2.3 billion years ago, the rate of oxygen production exceeded the flux of hydrogen. Canfield, however, believes that this is only part of the story. The question remaining to be answered is, "when and how did oxygen become more than a whiff and a permanent feature of Earth's atmosphere?" The author claims that a crucial element in our current understanding of the abundance of oxygen in our atmosphere is the process through which it was concentrated in the oceans. He explains that scientists believe this process began with "the evolution of tiny animal plankton, so-called zooplankton, [which] completely changed the carbon cycle and the distribution of oxygen in the oceans." They produced "fast-sinking fecal pellets" that slowly dissolved as they sank to the bottoms of the oceans. In the author's opinion, it was animal activity that created a major "redistribution of oxygen in the oceans…rather than an increase in the levels of atmospheric oxygen"--and that created a tipping point. Canfield's text will be illuminating for scientific-minded readers but difficult for those not already somewhat familiar with the concepts. A mixed-success attempt at a popular treatment of the complexities of a fascinating subject.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781400849888
Publisher:
Princeton University Press
Publication date:
01/19/2014
Series:
Science Essentials
Sold by:
Barnes & Noble
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
216
Sales rank:
303,692
File size:
3 MB

Meet the Author

Donald E. Canfield is professor of ecology at the University of Southern Denmark.

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