Invisible in the Storm: The Role of Mathematics in Understanding Weather
Ian Roulstone and John Norbury
Princeton University Press
The weather on April 10, 1934 was of little note to the three seasoned meteorologists stationed at the Mount Washington Observatory in New Hampshire.
"A perfect day," they wrote in the log book. "Cloudless and calm. Hazy."
The next day began the same way, with a brilliant sunrise, and from their lofty perch in the White Mountains the men could clearly see the Atlantic Ocean, 120 kilometres to the south-east.
But then the observatory's cats - Oompha and her five kittens - abandoned the great outdoors and started to huddle around the observatory's coal stove.
By late afternoon, everything had changed. Clouds, fog and thick ice set in and by nightfall, the isolated building was being buffeted by winds of more than 218kph.
The meteorologists hadn't anticipated the dramatic weather shift - and it was far from over. By 1.21pm the following day, the winds peaked at 372kph - a super hurricane, and the fastest surface winds recorded on Earth, before or since.
Fortunately, the remote hurricane caused no damage or deaths, but off-the-mark forecasters have not always been so fortunate.
Few people in Britain have forgotten or forgiven the TV weatherman Michael Fish, who on October 15, 1987, told the nation: "Earlier on today apparently a woman rang the BBC and said she'd heard that there was a hurricane on the way. Well," he said, "don't worry, there isn't."
But there was. That evening, south-east England and northern France were struck by hurricane-force winds, gusting up to 220kph in some places; 22 people died, millions of trees were felled, electricity supplies failed and numerous vessels were wrecked at sea.
The problem was - and remains - that although meteorology is one of the most intensively studied scientific endeavours of the modern world, supported by technology such as radar, satellites and supercomputers performing countless calculations a second, the efforts of the best minds on the planet to predict the weather are continually thwarted by a factor that refuses to yield to our desire for order: chaos.
This is the somehow heartwarming admission at the core of Invisible in the Storm, a fascinating if challenging new book from Princeton University Press that examines the role of mathematics in forecasting.
The authors, Ian Roulstone and John Norbury, are mathematicians at the UK universities of Surrey and Oxford and at times their attempt to demystify "the crucial role of mathematics in understanding the ever-changing weather" reads like an advanced textbook and succeeds only in baffling the lay reader.
But between the blocks of incomprehensible formulae - considerately fenced off from the general narrative in pens which should absolutely not be strayed into by anyone armed with less than a bachelor's of science degree in applied mathematics - can be found a fascinating account of science's admirable but ultimately inadequate attempts to get to grips with the natural environment upon which we depend for life itself, but which is equally capable of visiting death and destruction upon us.
In part, the story of forecasting they tell is the history of some of the great names of science - the likes of Archimedes, Galileo, Newton, Joule and Kelvin - who "across the centuries laid the foundations, the mathematical laws, upon which modern meteorology would be built".
From the beginning, meteorology has been one strand of humankind's effort to impose order, and the supremacy of the species, upon our environment, but it has never been solely an academic conceit. Life-or-death interest in what tomorrow's weather might hold is as old as mankind's dependence upon crops for survival, an interest only heightened when fishermen and traders began taking to the high seas in pursuit of food and profit, and when aircraft began soaring into the skies.