Lumpers v. Splitters

Lorraine Daston

  • Predicting the Weather: Victorians and the Science of Meteorology by Katharine Anderson
    Chicago, 331 pp, £31.50, July 2005, ISBN 0 226 01968 3

On the morning of 30 April 1865, Vice-Admiral Robert Fitzroy, head of the British Meteorological Department, slit his throat. Because Fitzroy had been the captain of the Beagle, which several decades earlier had carried the young Charles Darwin around the world to conduct the research that eventually bore fruit in On the Origin of Species (1859), and because he was a devout evangelical, some historians have chalked up his suicide to guilt over his unwitting complicity in the genesis of a scientific theory he detested. But it is more likely, as Katharine Anderson suggests in her engaging and enlightening study of Victorian meteorology, that the depressive Fitzroy was pushed over the edge by a quite different scientific controversy. Could the weather, and more particularly storms, be predicted? As a seaman and a scientist, Fitzroy had campaigned for a system of storm warnings, based on collations of data telegraphed to the Meteorological Department by observers from more than a dozen sites, six mornings a week. His elaborate signal code of cones and drums to alert ships to approaching gales was well enough known to figure in parodies and political cartoons in the London press. But the accuracy, and even the possibility, of his forecasts was doubted by some of the most prestigious scientific authorities, as Fitzroy was painfully aware. The Royal Society had been notably cool, intimating that his forecasts were more oracular than scientific.

‘Forecast’ was a word Fitzroy had chosen advisedly, in an attempt to steer a path between the solid ‘predictions’ of astronomers and the wild ‘prophecies’ of astrologers. Peering into the future was a crowded business in Victorian Britain, and a brisk business at that, as the sales of almanacs and ephemerides testified. Astronomy set the gold standard of futurology, with its precise predictions of eclipses and planetary positions. The discovery of Neptune in 1846, just where and when calculations indicated it would be, cemented astronomy’s reputation for near infallibility. Notwithstanding repeated attempts to correlate the weather with the phases of the moon, however, astronomical predictions turned out to be all but useless in foretelling rain or shine, hail or gale: matters of urgent interest not only to farmers and mariners, but also to any industrialist or merchant who depended on British ships to import and export goods; it was no accident that the Meteorological Department was subsumed under the Board of Trade. Need to know was the mother of belief, and almanacs offering tips on the upcoming year’s weather never wanted for customers, any more than economic modellers offering tips on next month’s stock market do nowadays. In both cases, an accuracy rate little better than chance proved no deterrent to either buyers or sellers. Mid-19th-century meteorology aspired to keep company with patrician astronomy, but couldn’t shake off the more plebeian associations of the almanacs: hence Fitzroy’s gingerly ‘forecast’, precariously positioned between science and charlatanism.

It wasn’t as if meteorology was a new science, still struggling to get its bearings. As early as the late 17th century, the Royal Society had enlisted volunteer observers to record barometer and temperature readings on a daily basis and send them to London to be tabulated and – somehow – synthesised to reveal the laws of the air. John Locke was one of scores of weather-watchers who interleaved their observations with entries in journals and commonplace book jottings. The diurnal rhythms of most of an adult life could be set by the metronome of the morning measurements of temperature, air pressure and wind direction. Even mental crisis could not shake meteorological routine. The German physicist Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, writing in 1771, might have been on the edge of despair – ‘Heart, head and all are infected, where shall I go?’ – but he still methodically noted in the margin that the barometer stood at 27’ 2’’ (Paris measurement scale) at 7.00 a.m. after a bad storm. Yet all these thousands and thousands of measurements failed to yield reliable regularities.

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