A reader suggested that I write about the British mathematician Lewis Fry Richardson (1881–1953). I knew the name: in my book of differential equations I mention “Richardson’s extrapolation”, a shrewd technique for improving the accuracy of the equation’s solution without making the calculation more complicated. But that was all I knew about the guy.
A survey revealed that he is indeed a very interesting figure, with a unique trajectory and fundamental contributions in at least two domains: weather forecasting and warfare modelling.
Regular weather forecasting began in the 1850s, under the impetus of Vice Admiral Robert Fitzroy (1805–1865) of the British Navy. Fitzroy was no ordinary sailor: he was the captain of the ship HMS Beagle on the famous voyage that inspired naturalist Charles Darwin to develop the Theory of Evolution.
Already retired, shocked by the Royal Charter storm that caused more than 800 shipwreck deaths in 1859, Fitzroy spearheaded the creation of a network of weather stations along the coast that telegraphed his observations in real time to headquarters in London. From these data, Fitzroy made what he called “weather forecasts”, a shocking concept for a time when meteorological weather was considered an act of the inscrutable divine will.
The first weather forecast was on July 31, 1861 and it was right. But, despite all his determination, Fitzroy was also wrong: he predicted bad weather that would not happen, irritating fishermen who were unable to work for nothing; and let go of storms that actually happened, calling into question the usefulness of all the effort. Depressed by criticism of his failures, and by his financial difficulties, Fitzroy ended up taking his own life.
The science of meteorology, which at this point seemed definitively doomed, was saved by advances on two fronts: mathematical modeling and scientific computing. Lewis Fry Richardson played a pioneering role in both.
Richardson was a pacifist by religious conviction, but participated in the 1a World War as a volunteer, driving an ambulance for three years. In the long hours of waiting in the French trenches, he distracted his mind (and preserved his sanity) by reflecting on how to improve the weather forecast. In the book “Weather Forecasting by Numerical Process”, published in 1922, he laid the foundations of modern meteorology. I will continue next week.
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