29 October 2015 ESSC Brown Bag/Climate Dynamics Seminar
11:15 am, 529 Walker

Inventing Atmospheric Science: The Quest for Prevision and the Gordian Knots of Meteorology

James R. Fleming
Professor of Science, Technology, and Society, Colby College

Atmospheric researchers have long attempted to untie the Gordian Knot of meteorology — that intractable and intertwined tangle of observational imprecision, theoretical uncertainties, and non-linear influences — that, if unraveled, would provide perfect prevision of the weather for ten days, of seasonal conditions for next year, and of climatic conditions for a decade, a century, a millennium, or longer. This big picture history examines the first six decades of the twentieth century, from the dawn of applied fluid dynamics to the emergence, by 1960, of the interdisciplinary atmospheric sciences. Using newly available archival sources, this presentation documents the work of three interconnected generations of scientists. Vilhelm Bjerknes (1862–1951) initiated a neo-Laplacian program — to measure atmospheric conditions with sufficient accuracy and to calculate the future state of the weather with sufficient precision using the equations of hydrodynamics and thermodynamics. Falling short of analytic solutions to the non-linear equations of atmospheric motion, he founded the Bergen school of meteorology, where graphical methods prevailed. His protégé, Carl-Gustaf Rossby (1898–1957), established the graduate schools of meteorology at M.I.T., Chicago, and Stockholm that focused on upper-air dynamics and, after 1947, on global environmental issues. Rossby identified upper-air planetary waves as the keys to long-range forecasting, treating them as idealized cases suitable for computation by digital computers. Rossby’s student Harry Wexler (1911–1962) and his colleagues, notably Jule Charney, prepared the foundations for the emergence of the interdisciplinary atmospheric sciences and introduced a number of transformative technologies into meteorology including radar, nuclear tracers, digital computers, sounding rockets, and weather satellites, that helped cut into, if not through, the Gordian Knot. In 1960, using a simple computer and a simple, but profound, non-linear model, Edward Lorenz (1917-2008) introduced chaos theory into meteorology and demonstrated that the forecasting “knot,” if it even existed, could never be untied, at least not by mortals. The atmospheric sciences are still coming to terms with this limitation.

Inventing Atmospheric Science will be published by M.I.T. Press in 2016.

Speaker Bio:

Jim Fleming is Professor of Science, Technology, and Society at Colby College, a research scholar at Columbia University and a research associate at the Smithsonian Institution. He has earned degrees in astronomy (B.S. Penn State University), atmospheric science (M.S. Colorado State University) and history (Ph.D. Princeton University). His teaching bridges the sciences and the humanities, and his research interests involve the history of the geophysical sciences, especially meteorology and climate change. He has written extensively on the history of weather, climate, technology, and the environment including social, cultural, and intellectual aspects. His books include Meteorology in America, 1800-1870 (Johns Hopkins, 1990), Historical Perspectives on Climate Change (Oxford, 1998), The Callendar Effect (AMS, 2007), Fixing the Sky (Columbia, 2010), Klima, Osiris 26 (2011), and Inventing Atmospheric Science (MIT, 2016).

Jim is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Meteorological Society, series editor of Palgrave Studies in the History of Science and Technology, founder and first president of the International Commission on History of Meteorology, and editor-in-chief of History of Meteorology, He has spent productive sabbaticals at MIT, Harvard, the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and Columbia University. His engagement with public policy includes frequent media appearances, writing and reviewing for the International Panel on Climate Change, testimony before Congressional committees, consultations with the General Accountability Office, and service on two National Academies of Sciences study panels: on Earth Observations from Space (2007), and Climate Intervention (2015). He is the recipient of the 2015 Eduard Brückner Prize in interdisciplinary climate research.

Jim is a resident of China, Maine (not Mainland China!) He enjoys fishing, good jazz, good BBQ, seeing students flourish, and building the community of historians of the geosciences. "Everything is unprecedented if you don't study history."