Science history: the man who tried to measure weather and war


Lewis Fry Richardson believe morality should always trump science. Jeff Glorfeld reports.


The record of Lewis Fry Richardson's exemption from military service on the grounds of his Quaker faith.

The record of Lewis Fry Richardson's exemption from military service on the grounds of his Quaker faith.

quakerstrongrooms.org

Lewis Fry Richardson was one of the first people to apply maths and physics to the science of weather forecasting.

Next time your picnic is rained out despite the weather report calling for clear and sunny skies, spare a thought for Richardson – mathematician, physicist, meteorologist and psychologist – dubbed by the BBC in 2013 as “The man who invented weather forecasting”.

He was born on October 11, 1881, in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Northumberland, England, and died at his home in Kilmun, Argyll, Scotland, on September 30, 1953. This, the BBC reports, was “the year before the first weather forecaster appeared on television”.

The headline to a 2014 article in The Independent newspaper says: “Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world. But could his predictions of war do the same?”

The mention of war refers to Richardson’s Quaker upbringing, which saw him serve as a conscientious objector during World War I – he joined an ambulance unit between 1916 and 1919 – and led to extensive writing on what he called “the mathematical psychology of war” and the “statistics of deadly quarrels”.

He believed “science should be subordinate to morals”, and that with the right data and equations, war might be predictable, and thus preventable, The Independent says.

Richardson’s Encyclopaedia Britannica entry says he made “major contributions to methods of solving certain types of problems in physics”.

On the matter of working out if it was going to rain later in the week, however, he encountered some problems.

“The main drawback to his mathematical technique for systematically forecasting the weather was the time necessary to produce such a forecast,” the encyclopaedia explains. “It generally took him three months to predict the weather for the next 24 hours.”

(The BBC says he needed six weeks to produce a weather forecast for the next six hours - “and even then it was not very accurate”.)

In 1922, he published his book Weather Prediction by Numerical Process. He reckoned it would require 60,000 people working with slide rules to predict tomorrow's weather before it arrived.

His methods became more practical with the advent of electronic computers after World War II.

Some of Richardson’s more important work was inspired by Norwegian meteorologist Vilhelm Bjerknes and the notion that the laws of physics could be used to predict weather.

According to The Independent, to get around the many variables involved in forecasting the weather, Richardson “reworked the maths to replace the infinitesimals of calculus with discrete measurements occurring at discrete time intervals.

“Like a series of snapshots of a ball flying through the air, Richardson’s ‘finite difference’ equations only approximated the reality of the constant change they described. But they could be solved, with simple algebra or even arithmetic.

“And their solutions would be far more precise than any obtained with a chart.”

A passion for the weather ran in Richardson’s family. His great-nephew, Julian Hunt, went on to become a meteorologist, becoming Director General and Chief Executive of the British Meteorological Office in 1992.

Jeff Glorfeld is a former senior editor of The Age newspaper in Australia, and is now a freelance journalist based in California, US.
  1. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-south-scotland-23242953
  2. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/lewis-fry-richardsons-weather-forecasts-changed-the-world-but-could-his-predictions-of-war-do-the-9679295.html
  3. https://www.jstor.org/stable/2009316?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents
  4. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Lewis-Fry-Richardson
  5. https://maths.ucd.ie/~plynch/Dream/Proofs/0521857295c01_p1-28.pdf
  6. https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Features/Bjerknes
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