INVENTING ATMOSPHERIC SCIENCE by James Rodger Fleming

  • Written by  Mick Herron
  • Published in Books
INVENTING ATMOSPHERIC SCIENCE by James Rodger Fleming
07 Aug
2016
Every generation, writes Fleming, has felt itself on the brink of decoding the mysteries of ‘the ocean of air’ we live beneath

Initially, the goal was to be able to travel through it safely; subsequently, there’s been a drive to understand the damage we’re doing to it. Fleming’s book is both a study of the science of meteorology and the biography of three men responsible for broadening its reach throughout the 20th century.

Along the way, there are glimpses into the scientific hinterland: the obstacles to female involvement (Vilhelm Bjerknes’ wife Honoria, the first female maths student at Kristiana University, ‘was never able to pursue her interest in numbers and geometry other than through embroidery’), and the rivalry between practitioners – returning from a conference, Bjerknes wrote of an Asian scientist that ‘the turban and the oriental eloquence have been good cards in his hand’. Like many a scientist before him, Bjerknes perhaps focused too strongly on his own concerns – ‘I hope,’ he wrote in 1914, ‘that the most unnecessary and most cruel of all wars shall not disturb the work which I am performing.’

Carl-Gustaf Rossby speny much of his career working for the American Weather Bureau, making the skies safe for aeroplanes, a task not made easier by ‘free spirits’ such as Charles Lindbergh ignoring his ten-day forecasts. The American Wexler, meanwhile, – known as ‘Hurricane Harry’ after being flown into a hurricane to observe its effects at close hand – was a pioneer of ‘trajectory studies of radioactive debris’, and helped confirm the first Soviet nuclear test in 1949. This is a comprehensive account of meteorological breakthroughs and those who made them.

This review was published in the August 2016 edition of Geographical magazine.

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