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Oxygen: A Four Billion Year History (Science Essentials) Hardcover – January 19, 2014

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Product Details

  • Series: Science Essentials
  • Hardcover: 216 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press; First Edition edition (January 19, 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0691145024
  • ISBN-13: 978-0691145020
  • Product Dimensions: 0.9 x 6.5 x 9.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (21 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #157,405 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews


"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

"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

From the Inside Flap

"With humor and humanity, Oxygen captures the excitement of scientific discovery and describes the amazing natural history of how Earth's oxygenated atmosphere came to be."--Ed DeLong, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

"A fascinating, accessible tour through the history of atmospheric oxygen, written by one of the world's top geobiologists. Canfield takes the reader from the anaerobic early Archean Earth up through the modern highly oxygenated environment, providing pointers to the relevant scientific literature along the way. Even experts in this field will learn things from his book."--James Kasting, author of How to Find a Habitable Planet

"In Oxygen, Don Canfield recounts two epics in one--the evolution of breathable air over the entirety of Earth history, and the equally engaging account of how scientists have reconstructed this history from chemical details in ancient rocks. Even those who know the story well, or think they do, will find much food for thought."--Andrew Knoll, Harvard University, author of Life on a Young Planet: The First Three Billion Years of Evolution on Earth

"Canfield takes us on a journey through the discovery of what produces oxygen, how oxygen evolved on the planet, and how that evolution influenced other aspects of planetary evolution. An enjoyable book."--Lee Kump, coauthor of The Earth System

"This is a wonderful introduction to the most important event in Earth history--the rise of oxygen in the atmosphere. Canfield shares his broad and deep grasp of the field, his research leadership, his respect and admiration for the work of others, and his excitement and healthy skepticism about what we know--and still need to know."--Timothy W. Lyons, University of California, Riverside

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Customer Reviews

This is pretty detailed stuff, though interesting if you have a good background in geology and chemistry.
Lewis T. Fitch
I highly recommend this book for those readers who choose to understand the importance and the future of the air we breath.
Rick B
The writer writes well for a scientist, which is no small feat, however this book is not really for the everyday reader.
Frederick S. Goethel

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

10 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Roger Sweeny on October 30, 2014
Format: Hardcover
I would recommend this book to geology grad students, advanced chemistry majors, the many PhDs, post-docs, and professors whose research is mentioned, and people who are willing to stop often, do some outside research, figure out exactly what the author is saying, think about how it fits with the rest of the book, and continue reading. I would not recommend it to the proverbial “intelligent layman”–even if that person had some background in chemistry and biology and geology. If you think the word diagenetic (which Canfield uses without definition) has something to do with the double helix, this book is probably not for you.

Canfield really knows his stuff. There is an awful lot here about how much oxygen was in the earth’s atmosphere when, and what processes might be responsible.

But, OMG, there are so many problems with the writing and organization. Orson Scott Card’s one star review is unfair (it is NOT easy to make all this information “entertaining and absolutely clear”) but his statement about “telling things way out of order and assuming knowledge that most readers won't have” rings true. Canfield needs to explain things early, in a way that readers can understand and use for the rest of the book. E.g.,what does it mean to say “sulfate is reduced to pyrite” and why does it matter?; what is the difference between ferrous and ferric iron and why does it matter? This one made me crazy: On pages 89 and 90 (out of 158) are a series of paragraphs about the chemistry of iron. “To understand this,” he begins, “we need to know something about the chemistry of iron (Fe).” But he’s been talking about iron reactions for a good deal of the last 89 pages–as if we not only know something about the chemistry of iron but know a lot!
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16 of 19 people found the following review helpful By P. Treadwell on February 21, 2014
Format: Kindle Edition
Unfortunately the rights holder to Plate 5 was not willing to grant rights to include it in the digital edition. We share the customer's frustration, but many readers who prefer Kindle to print are enjoying the book in spite of this one missing illustration.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Little Teacher on the Prarie on March 17, 2014
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I found Canfield's obsession with inclusion of academic chit-chat and academic crediting in the text to be distracting, not endearing as he perhaps intended. I spent years in academia and I understand it is important to give out atta-boys and atta-girls, but not in the middle of the story. Save it for publication in specialist academic journals where such score keeping really matters and keep it in footnotes in a book like this aimed at a wider audience. For an example, see p. 43 and the digression on hotel repairs by his mentor Dave Des Marais.

A glossary would have been helpful, too. I've also been reading Nick Lane's book on oxygen for an overlap in coverage, which is a much more no-nonsense style of writing.
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56 of 75 people found the following review helpful By J. C. Petts on January 28, 2014
Format: Kindle Edition
I started reading this with interest but returned it very quickly.

Now Donald Canfield is a respected geochemist and I'm sure he has a great story to tell: indeed the opening print material was excellent.

I'm sure the print edition is fine, but I definitely didn't like the black square with the words "Please refer to the print edition for this content" or similar message when I clicked on an image link. The Kindle edition is just over $15, with the print edition a little over $20. This is a huge rip-off for the Kindle edition.

When something like this happens the price should be $3-5, with a BIG warning saying "BE CAREFUL: critical content which is essential to getting the message across in a scientific fashion is flat out missing, which is why this is so much cheaper than the print edition!"

I ended up with "Oxygen: The molecule that made the world", by Nick Lane. Yes, it's a little bit less up-to-date, and the images aren't perfect, but at least they are there.

Princeton University Press should be ashamed - they are doing nobody any favors with this gobbler.

Correcting error on 31 Jan 2014 - Canfield is a geobiologist, not geochemist.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By emma hammarlund on April 3, 2014
Format: Hardcover
I think the storytelling in this book works really well, especially considering the daunting challenge to merge a personal account with accurate science - while keeping the flow. The book explains what we understand today of oxygen dynamics on Earth, covering all its time, while it also gives us the road to this knowledge, the evidence, the people involved and the implications. It is really not a text book, luckily. Instead, the voice simultaneously tells us about current science and of a personal and spectacular journey along this front. You sort of get to watch an evolving scientific landscape, from the author’s shoulder, while it still is in motion. The book also made me see what kind of jet fuel we really have in curiosity itself. How it constantly makes us dig for clues so that we, together, dare attempt to figure out what made us show up on exactly this scene. I'm grateful for this account, for the perspectives, for the rare and personal packaging of science and for being welcome aboard to hear and see it all.
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8 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Frederick S. Goethel VINE VOICE on February 27, 2014
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
When people think of oxygen, if they think of it at all, it is that it is produced by plants and is necessary for most life on earth. There really is never any thought to how the concentration of oxygen stays at about 21% (at sea level) or where oxygen comes from. It's just there, and nothing I ever had in biology gave any other answers…it was always the "respiration loop" of carbon dioxide being absorbed by trees and oxygen produced which is then breathed in by animals which creates carbon dioxide and around we go. So, it was a surprise to discover there was so much more to the oxygen story and that oxygen wasn't even present on the planet when it first began.

The writer writes well for a scientist, which is no small feat, however this book is not really for the everyday reader. I was a biology major in college (oh so many years ago) and had the mandatory amount of chemistry, but absolutely no geology. And, to fully appreciate the story the author is telling, you need a working knowledge of both of these subjects. The writing was clear…it was the subject matter that made the reading extremely difficult.

Even with the above caveat, I enjoyed the book. It took me a while and I had to reread a number of sections before I got it, but I eventually did get through it and found it to be fascinating. My warning is not to get this thinking it is a popular science book…it is real science and it can be very dense reading.
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