What does war have in common with weather forecasts? – 16.06.2021 – Marcelo Viana

Despite being discharged from military service for conscientious objection, Lewis Fry Richardson (1881 “” 1953) volunteered to drive an ambulance on the battlefields of World War I. For three years he spent his dead hours in the trenches thinking about ways to improve the weather forecast. His book “Weather Forecasting by Numerical Process” published in 1922 began with scientific meteorology.

Richardson realized that time is a global phenomenon: it is not possible to understand it in one region without also analyzing the neighboring regions and their neighbors, etc. Then he suggested dividing the earth’s surface into thousands of “squares” and developed numerical methods to calculate the evolution of time in each square and to compare the results globally.

He also designed the physical space in which the calculations should be performed: “After so much deliberation, can we play with a fantasy? Imagine a large theater, the floors and walls of which are painted with a map in the shape of a sphere. Thousands of computers compute the time of the region of the map in which they are seated, but each computer only works on one equation. Small signs show the results obtained in real time so that nearby computers can read them. “Back then,” computers “were people, especially women, who were considered more focused and reliable than men on complex calculations.

Richardson’s dream, of course, was unfeasible for the time, and his predictions were initially poor. But the architecture he designed turned out to be well adapted to electronic computing: the theater was replaced by the inside of supercomputers in which thousands of processors solve various parts of the equations and communicate with each other in real time. Coupled with the advances made in mathematics, this has enabled us to turn into science what was previously little more than guesswork.

As a pacifist, Richardson was also interested in studying the causes of war. She proposed mathematical models for the armament rate of the countries in relation to their respective arsenal and that of their neighbors. He was the author of the theory that the likelihood of war between two countries depends on the length of their common border. This led him to attempt to calculate the length of boundaries and thus discover fractal geometry, many years before the subject made Benoit Mandelbrot (1924 ”“ “2010) famous.

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