Breathe in the Mystery: My New York Times Column on Oxygen

One of the most important things that makes Earth special is that the abundant oxygen in its atmosphere. How it got that way is a surprisingly complicated story that’s just coming to light. It’s a story I delve into for this week’s “Matter” column in the New York Times. Check it out.

2 thoughts on “Breathe in the Mystery: My New York Times Column on Oxygen

  1. We know quite a bit about the changes in the compositon of Earth’s atmosphere over time, but I don’t know of any record of changes in it pressure. Was the ancient atmosphere thicker? Did this allow Pterodactyls the size of Piper Cubs to fly? Dragonflies with 2′ wingspans need more than oxygen to fly. Venus is smaller than earth but has a thicker atmosphere, so it could have happened. But how would one answer the question? Where to look?

  2. @Roland: Pressure and composition are closely related, at least in terms of the indicators they leave behind. Increasing our atmospheric pressure for example increase the flammability of all organic materials, how oxygenated the ocean is and other processes. It’s quite possible then for atmospheres of two different compositions to leave similar traces if they are at different pressures.

    Given the evidence we can be quite confident that atmospheric pressure has not deviated too much from its current level recently. If it had done so it should have left traces in life such as larger insects (Less limited by passive oxygen diffusion into their systems) and reduced reliance on breathing apparatus like lungs.

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