One reader suggested that I write about the British mathematician Lewis Fry Richardson (1881–1953). I knew the name: in my book on differential equations, I mention “Richardson extrapolation,” a nifty technique to improve the accuracy of solving the equation without complicating the calculation. But that was all I knew about the guy.
A survey found that he is a very interesting personality indeed, with a unique trajectory and fundamental contributions in at least two areas: weather forecasting and warfare modeling.
The regular weather forecast began in the 1850s under the initiative of Vice Admiral Robert Fitzroy (1805-1865) of the British Navy. Fitzroy was no ordinary seaman: he was the captain of the ship HMS Beagle on the famous voyage that inspired the naturalist Charles Darwin to develop the theory of evolution.
Already in retirement, shocked by the Royal Charter storm that wrecked more than 800 shipwrecks in 1859, Fitzroy led the creation of a network of weather stations along the coast that telegraphed his observations in real time to London headquarters. From this data, Fitzroy made what he called “weather forecasting” a shocking concept for a time when meteorological weather was viewed as an act of unfathomable divine will.
The first weather forecast was on July 31, 1861, and it was correct. But for all his determination, Fitzroy was also wrong: he predicted bad weather that wouldn’t happen and irritated fishermen who couldn’t work for free; and letting go of storms that actually happened and question the usefulness of all the effort. Depressed by criticism of his failure and financial hardship, Fitzroy committed suicide.
The science of meteorology, which at the time seemed definitely doomed to fail, was saved by advances on two fronts: mathematical modeling and scientific computing. Lewis Fry Richardson pioneered both.
Richardson was a religious pacifist but volunteered in World War I and drove an ambulance for three years. In the long hours of waiting in the French trenches, he distracted his mind (and kept his sanity) thinking about ways 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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