Predicting the Weather

This review appeared in the Times Literary Supplement on 2 September 2005

Katharine Anderson, Predicting the Weather: Victorians and the Science of Meteorology, 331pp. The University of Chicago Press. £27.50/$39.00

You have to feel sorry for Robert FitzRoy, the first director of the Meteorological Office, whose disastrous public battles with the demons of prediction culminated in his gruesome suicide in 1865. He had always been highly strung — his temperament was described by Charles Darwin as “one bordering on insanity” — but the combined effects of over-work, under-resourcing, and the public derision that was heaped upon the sequence of notoriously unreliable weather forecasts that he published during the early 1860s, appear to have driven him to despair. On the morning of 30 April, he slashed his throat with an open razor and slowly bled to death in his dressing room. As his Dutch counterpart Christoph Buys Ballot sadly remarked, “we must remember that anyone who has to forecast the weather, if he does it earnestly and conscientiously, is in great danger of going off his head through nervous excitement.”

FitzRoy’s death was a troubling episode for many among his scientific peers, especially those for whom the very idea of weather prediction posed a threat to the much-vaunted dignity of the pursuit of natural knowledge. Science, they maintained, should concentrate its efforts on the establishment of certainties, not hazard its reputation on unknowable outcomes. All such forecasting was “vulgar and fallacious”, and FitzRoy’s successor at the Meteorological Office went out of his way to promise “facts, not prophecies”, much to the relief of his fellow meteorologists, for whom the circumstances of FitzRoy’s death had been the cause of a great deal of unwanted attention.

Yet the consequences of that attention turn out to have been surprisingly far-reaching, and for Katharine Anderson, whose fine book, Predicting the Weather, supplies an unrivalled account of the feuding arena of Victorian meteorology, FitzRoy’s death, or rather, “the welter of inquiries, committees and public dissension” that his death set in train, “lifted the lid on doubts and investigations already proceeding”, for “in a remarkable manner, this personal tragedy exposed concerns about the scientific status of weather forecasting and showed how personal character entered Victorian evaluation of the role of government science.”

The “welter of inquiries” to which Anderson refers is preserved in a remarkable collection of documents, the centrepiece of which remains the full-scale report compiled by a government committee that was set up to investigate the activities of FitzRoy’s department in the years leading up to his death. Much of the report appears to have been written by Francis Galton — best known today for his discredited work on eugenics — who was appointed as the Royal Society’s spokesman on the committee, with other representatives sent by the Admiralty and the Board of Trade. Free to cast their investigations as widely as they saw fit, the members of the panel took nearly a year to reach their conclusions, which, when published in their final report in 1866, turned out to be as damning a judgement as any produced in the period. Admiral FitzRoy, the committee concluded, had engaged in activities “inconsistent with the position and functions of a government department [and] prejudicial to the advancement of true science”, his forecasts having caused the public “to confuse real knowledge with ill founded pretences, and, in the end, to despise the former because the latter proved to be ill-founded.”

This judgement, as Anderson points out, went right to the heart of what Victorian society expected from its salaried scientists, comprising as it did “an implicit description of proper science” as well as a staking out of the boundaries of “the proper relations between government, scientific work, and the public.” FitzRoy and his forecasts, fatally empirical and notoriously imprecise, had “undermined the processes of legitimate scientific work.”

The posthumous trial of Robert FitzRoy is one of a number of episodes in Anderson’s book which have been chosen for the light they shed on the wider scientific preoccupations of the Victorian era, a period which saw large-scale collaborative endeavour established as the framework for state-funded science. Anderson shows how the growing emphasis on collective science served to shift the weight of intellectual authority from individual scientists to collegiate institutions, while also introducing a new set of logistic complications to which meteorology was particularly prone, relying as it did upon the cooperative capacity of a wide-spread network of individual observers. Meteorology, as she reminds us, is “a science of observation and of arguments about observation”, and some of the best passages in her book describe the numerous practical and philosophical problems associated with organizing a familiar science on an unfamiliar scale. Shortage of money was a recurring theme, and there are many telling instances scattered throughout the book, such as the fact that Britain’s privately owned telegraph companies refused to give the Met Office a discounted rate for sending on its weather reports, so FitzRoy devised a complex code for his field observers in an effort to maximise their bulletins’ content at the cheapest possible cost; or the fact that the Royal Society turned down the government’s gift of Kew Observatory — which by the 1840s was run down and disused — on the grounds that they couldn’t afford to keep it going either.

But the biggest problem of all, at least for the team of civil servants who laboured at the Met Office, was what to do with the overwhelming quantity of local weather information that kept pouring into their central department day after day. It had been from that same statistical avalanche that FitzRoy had tried — and failed — to create what Anderson calls “a science of the future tense”, but one of the inevitable consequences of his public humiliation was that government meteorology abandoned all attempts at forecasting, becoming a specialised branch of archival history instead. As one frustrated observer complained in 1876, ten years after the Met Office suspended its forecasts, the weather reports that were printed in the newspapers remained entirely without value: “Our authorities, apparently unconscious of the inane absurdity of the proceedings, inform us placidly day after day of the weather of the day before, giving no hint whatever as to the weather probably approaching.” Cartoons published in Punch, meanwhile, openly mocked the uselessness of official weather reporting with a series of badly drawn synoptic charts populated by a flurry of made-up symbols. One, which appeared in September 1881, was prefaced with an appeal for the readers’ indulgence, “as the young man who was engaged (on his own representations) for the purpose, apparently knows nothing about drawing, and still less about Meteorology”. Little wonder, then, that when Sir Napier Shaw took over the directorship of the Meteorological Office in 1907, he was quoted as saying that “the best thing for meteorology would be for everyone to stop observing for 5 years”.

From a twenty-first-century perspective, it is obvious that the rise of meteorology as a branch of modern physics was closely allied to the rise of powerful computing technology — the new supercomputers at the Met Office in Exeter process 100 billion pieces of information every day — but one of the striking features of Anderson’s book is the realisation that although the technologies of state-funded weather prediction have changed beyond all recognition, public reaction to the spectacle of the forecast remains hard to distinguish from the scepticism and hostility so often displayed by the Victorians. In February 2002, for example, when FitzRoy’s name replaced that of Finisterre in the BBC’s daily Shipping Forecasts, the decision was greeted with a storm of protest, with letters appearing in the press demanding to know who this FitzRoy was, and why his name had been chosen to replace that of the nation’s favourite sea area. “Farewell to Finisterre, here comes FitzRoy”, as a Met Office press release announced at the time, in an ill-judged attempt to soothe the public’s irritation: “now he is all set to become a household name”. The Victorians may have had “different weather”, as Katharine Anderson suggests in her book, but the special scorn that they reserved for meteorologists is still in the air today.

Richard Hamblyn


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