Science Takes on the Gods

Weather Experiment.jpg

Weather Experiment: The Pioneers Who Sought to See the Future

By Peter Moore

Farrar, Straus & Giroux 2015

What’s the weather going to do tomorrow? It’s an innocuous question you could answer using a dozen sources, from your smart phone to the nightly newscast.

It wasn’t always like this.

Well into the nineteenth century, the idea that one could predict the weather not only generated raucous laughter in the British House of Commons, many considered it blasphemous. For millennia the sky had been a mysterious realm, terrain of fickle gods who punished humans with the wrath of storms. To pretend to understand what the gods would do was the province of priests and shamans. What were clouds made of, and how did they stay in the sky? Where did wind come from? Or, for that matter, snow? Well into the nineteenth century these were widely believed by Britons to be unanswerable questions.

Even today, in moments of crisis, people pray to their deity for relief from a hurricane’s wrath or a crushing drought, and we think little of it. Old habits die hard. Yet the idea that mere mortals never could comprehend the fickle ways of the celestial gods and should do no more than fall on their knees in supplication (or perhaps sacrifice the occasional goat)—well, that idea didn’t sit so well after the Enlightenment. By the eighteenth century science was discovering amazing things about the world, such as steam power and how to measure longitude. What if the earth was not god’s secret domain? What if god wanted humans to understand his works? That wouldn’t be blasphemous, would it now?

That was the way some enterprising “philosophers” of the era saw things (philosophy encompassing, at the time, what we call science), and with this world view they gave themselves permission to explore natural phenomena. Moore’s book chronicles the evolution of this work, from about 1800 to 1870, in England. His protagonist is Robert FitzRoy, better known to history as the captain the Beagle, the British ship that carried Charles Darwin to his fateful rendezvous with the finches of the Galapagos.

FitzRoy and Darwin’s entanglement is perhaps the most extraordinary leitmotif within the book. Darwin himself came reluctantly to his theories of evolution and sat on them for several years. Eventually he was spooked by Alfred Russell Wallace’s competing work into rushing his own ideas into publication. Darwin did not necessarily want to believe that evolution, rather than an omnipotent god, had shaped the world, but he bent his understanding to the ineluctable facts he had observed and conclusions they implied. FitzRoy was even more deeply conservative about the omnipotence of god and split bitterly with Darwin over evolutionary theory. Yet FitzRoy also was the leading proponent of the idea that science could understand the atmosphere and predict the weather—a stance frowned upon by the clergy. He was, in other words, a walking contradiction during an era of extraordinary disruption and change. I won’t spoil the book but will note that he proved how difficult it is for a man to encompass such fundamentally opposed beliefs.

FitzRoy was the founder of the modern British Weather Service and progenitor of the idea that weather could be forecast. When Parliament first funded his small office they did so with the understanding that its task was to map the ocean’s winds, thus giving British ship captains valuable information for plotting efficient routes and saving the Empire money. FitzRoy soon realized he could do more than simply say what had happened. He could see what might happen. He was determined to share that vison.

Moore takes an important digression into the development of the telegraph, an essential technology for the creation of weather forecasts. Forecasters needed to gather data from remote locations quickly, and to distribute forecasts back with equal rapidity. Students of innovation will recognize this phenomenon, wherein a technology cannot flourish until it is supported by an ecosystem of other essential technologies. (For example, Kodak invented the pixel camera in the 1950s, but couldn’t do anything with it, for the necessary computing and storage power to actually use the camera didn’t exist until the 1990s. Kodak’s failure to capitalize on its own invention is another story altogether, but the point remains that the pixel camera was useless without essential adjacent technologies.)

FitzRoy’s forecasts were disparaged in the House of Commons, where critics believed he was working without a scientific basis and misleading the public with inaccurate predictions. In a poignant and insightful twist, Moore shows how the current criticism of climate science—whether climate change is manmade and whether we even can understand if it is happening—is almost identical to the criticism levied against FitzRoy’s forecasts 150 years ago. FitzRoy’s critics eventually put an end to his “unscientific” forecasts, but public clamor for their restoration brought them back. We have come to rely on the daily weather forecast as essential, unremarkable, and largely reliable. I wonder when we’ll come to the same understanding about climate science.