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The Weatherman

Brian Hayes

Off the Tenure Track

Before diving into the differential equations, it is worthwhile pausing to look back over Lewis Fry Richardson's life and career, which were no less strange and wonderful than his scientific work. He came from a prosperous family in Newcastle upon Tyne, the industrial port in the far north of England. They were Quakers, and Lewis was sent to Bootham, a distinguished Quaker boarding school, where his interests in science and natural history were cultivated by J. Edmund Clark, a prominent member of the Royal Meteorological Society. "Another master," Richardson later wrote, "left me with the conviction that science ought to be subordinate to morals."

At Cambridge, Richardson's mentor was J. J. Thomson, the Cavendish professor of physics (and the discoverer of the electron). Richardson took first-class honors in natural sciences. Later he sought a fellowship at King's College, but he was passed over. There followed a decade of short-term, low-ranking jobs in out-of-the-way places, like the succession of postdoc appointments so many graduates face today. In the end Richardson never did hold a chair at any of the major British universities.

In 1913 he became superintendent of the Eskdalemuir Observatory in the Scottish Southern Uplands. Talk about out-of-the-way places! This small institution, run by the Meteorological Office, had been founded to measure variations in the earth's magnetic field, and it was deliberately put as far as possible from railroads and power lines. Richardson described it as a place of "bleak and humid solitude," but this was probably not a complaint; when he was once asked if he had any hobbies, his answer was "solitude."

In any event, the solitude was soon interrupted. "In August 1914," Richardson wrote later, "I was torn between an intense curiosity to see war at close quarters and an intense objection to killing people, both mixed with ideas of public duty and doubt as to whether I could endure danger." He requested a leave of absence but was refused. In 1916 he resigned his post and joined the Friends' Ambulance Unit.

After the war, Richardson returned to the Meteorological Office, working at the Benson research station near Oxford, but that job also ended prematurely. In 1920 the Meteorological Office was put under military administration, and Richardson felt compelled to resign again. After that, he never got back on the tenure track.

Some biographers emphasize the price that Richardson paid for his convictions. According to family members, his pacifist principles cost him a university appointment. Family memoirs also describe an anguished moment when he destroyed his research on atmospheric turbulence because it was attracting the attention of "the 'poison gas' experts." On the other hand, it would be misleading to portray Richardson as an outcast from the scientific establishment. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society; he served as secretary of the Royal Meteorological Society; he had well over 100 scholarly publications (recently collected in two fat volumes by Cambridge University Press). Today there is a Richardson Institute for Peace Studies and Conflict Resolution, and one of the dimensionless numbers of fluid mechanics is called the Richardson number.

Whether for reasons of conscience or pure predilection, Richardson did turn away from work in meteorology after the mid-1920s. He took a degree in psychology (at age 48), and then for the last 15 years of his life focused on the study of war and its prevention. He took a mathematical approach to these problems as well. For most people, the idea that mathematics might be the key to world peace seems naive and implausible, but maybe we shouldn't be too quick to give up on it. In Richardson's day, mathematics also looked like an outlandishly unsuitable tool for weather forecasting.

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