Now science was threatening to explain the future

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In 1800 the weather remained a mystery. Standing on the quarterdeck of the Victory at Trafalgar, Horatio Nelson had no scientific way of measuring the winds. Rising up in his hydrogen balloon, the daredevil aeronaut Vincenzo Lunardi could not have explained why the sky appeared blue.

J.M.W. Turner

A young J.M.W. Turner, who was forging a reputation as a landscape artist, had no vocabulary to describe the clouds he painted, nor could he explain how they stayed suspended in the air. Thomas Jefferson, founding father, President of the United States and keen weather diarist, had no way of knowing how high the earth’s atmosphere extended over his mountaintop home at Monticello in Virginia. And Mary Shelley, who would write so vividly of a storm on the night of Victor Frankenstein’s wedding, had no scientific understanding of what a storm actually was, how it functioned or where it came from.

Calais Pier Turner.

Various theories attempted to fill the void. Some believed the weather was cyclical, that temperatures of one year would be repeated in another somewhere along the line. Others thought that weather was governed by the orbit of the moon or the planets, the pulse of the sun, the soil of the earth or the electricity in the sky. ‘The powers of reason have been bewildered in the inextricable labyrinth of causes and effects,’ wrote one frustrated theorist in 1823.2 For most, weather was a divine force, mood music conducted by God sent to foreshadow change or to punish sin. As Psalm 19 asserted, ‘The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.’1 Helpless in the face of nature, Christians rang church bells when storms approached hoping these would drive bad weather away.

It was only right. The sky was God’s wilderness, a place apart, an impenetrable barrier between God’s divine kingdom and the tainted world below. (Pg.3)

The Beagle

When one MP suggested to the Commons in 1854 that it might soon be possible to know the weather in London twenty-four hours in advance, the House roared with laughter.

It took a further seven years, the amassing of ledgers of data and the application of a new term, ‘forecast’, before national weather predictions were first officially issued, in 1861. But even then the project was fraught with difficulty. It was only two years since Charles Darwin had plunged the Church into an existential crisis with the publication of On the Origin of Species. Now science with its forecasts was threatening to explain the future just as the theory of evolution had explained the past.

Robert FitzRoy

By a quirk of history the man behind these forecasts, Robert FitzRoy, had been Darwin’s captain on the Beagle’s famous voyage thirty years earlier. (Pg.6)

By the 1850s meteorologists were no longer isolated figures. They were increasingly clustered into networks, their data shared over the wires of a bewildering new technology: the telegraph. Conceived a century before as a plaything, by the 1860s the telegraph had developed from its origin as an optical device to become fully electrified. It was the machine that made weather forecasting possible.

The invention of the telegraph, the evolution of meteorological theory, the contributions of those behind the progress – Beaufort, Constable, Redfield, Espy, Reid, Glaisher, Loomis – add up to something more. They unite to form what I have come to think of as a generational experiment: a quest to prove that earth’s atmosphere was not chaotic beyond comprehension, that it could be studied, understood and, ultimately, predicted. Like a scientific experiment this story splits into its component parts – seeing, contesting, experimenting and, most importantly of all, believing. (Pg,6)

The action blows across territory like a keen spring breeze. It travels from the Irish Midlands to the vales of Suffolk, from New York City to Tierra del Fuego at the tip of South America. Whether in the bristling beauty of a frosty winter’s dawn, the dewy meadows, the fading blues, pinks and oranges of a summer’s evening, or the aftermath of a transatlantic hurricane, those who sought the truth did so with growing confidence that they had the ability to find it. (Pg.8)

“The Weather Experiment: The Pioneers Who Sought to See the Future” by Peter Moore

WE&P by Ezorrilla.

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