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137 Reviews Predicting theWeather: Victorians and the Science of Meteorology by Katharine Anderson: pp. ix + 331. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005. $45.00 cloth. More than forty years ago, Marshall McLuhan predicted that as electronic extensions of our nervous systems continued to grow more sophisticated, the weather report would take centre stage in television news broadcasts.We would sit in our living rooms, effortlessly seeing and“feeling” weather conditions hundreds of miles away. He was right, of course.With satellite imagery, Doppler radar scans, and elaborate computerized maps, the weather report is now the most visually compelling part of most local newscasts, and the success of cable weather channels testifies to the seemingly insatiable public appetite for such information—especially for forecasts. Reports of past and current weather conditions may be interesting, but what most of us really want to know is whether or not it will rain tomorrow. The desire to know tomorrow’s weather is hardly new, and in her fine and thoughtful book, Katharine Anderson recounts and analyzes the origins of scientific weather forecasting inVictorian Britain. In a touch that would have pleased McLuhan, she traces much of the impetus for the development of such forecasting to the growth in the 1840s and 1850s of telegraph networks that, for the first time, made it possible for word of an advancing storm to arrive before the storm itself. She also pays due attention to the print media that disseminated weather information, ranging from popular almanacs like Zadkiel’s, filled with astrological prognostications of the weather for months ahead, to daily newspapers and the sober pages of official meteorological compendia. Anderson also touches on such topics as the problematic status of traditional “weather wisdom,” the role of the state in financing and directing meteorological research in both Britain and India, and recurrent religious disputes about determinism, providence, and the power of prayer. All of this is interesting enough, but the real heart of the book is the story of Robert Fitzroy, the first head of the government Meteorological Department, and the daily forecasts he began to issue inAugust 1861. (Though remembered today as the captain of the Beagle, the ship that carried Charles Darwin around the world in the 1830s, in his own day Fitzroy was best known for his meteorological work.) Those forecasts came to an abrupt end when Fitzroy took his own life in April 1865, but the controversy surrounding them rumbled on for years afterwards. Anderson recounts the main outlines of the episode quite briefly but then returns to it repeatedly in later chapters—and rightly so, for it crystallizes most of the chief questions she addresses.The main one can be stated quite simply, though its answer was more complicated than one might expect: should meteorologists try to predict the weather? The power of accurate prediction has long been taken as the mark of a true science, and the ability of astronomers to foretell solar eclipses and planetary positions years in advance has been a principal source of the high prestige of their sci- victorian review • Volume 33 Number 1 138 ence.Weather, by contrast, is notoriously capricious and unpredictable, and in venturing to offer forecasts,Victorian meteorologists were not only entering into the suspect company of astrologers and soothsayers but were putting at risk the credibility of their science and perhaps of the sciences in general.The urge to make meteorology practically useful by offering forecasts threatened to undercut its claim to be truly scientific, for anyone trying to forecast the weather could not help but be wrong much of the time. Many of Fitzroy’s scientific contemporaries warned against the dangers of “prognostication,” advising his department to limit itself to gathering observations in hopes that these might someday contribute to a fuller understanding of atmospheric dynamics, rather than pretending that it was yet in any position to predict the weather. After Fitzroy’s suicide—widely ascribed to the relentless mental strain of preparing daily forecasts—a Royal Society committee under Francis Galton issued a scathing report condemning all forecasting and calling for the Meteorological Department (soon renamed the Meteorological Office and put under Royal Society control) to stick to the safe scientific...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1923-3280
Print ISSN
0848-1512
Pages
pp. 137-138
Launched on MUSE
2015-10-07
Open Access
No
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