Thursday, November 01, 2012

The first weatherman

We were been keenly following the path of Hurricane Sandy. For the second year in a row, a hurricane has hit our Bahamas hideaway dead on, then plowed up the Atlantic to whop us in New England.

The folks at NOAA get better every year at forecasting the paths of storms. Satellites, automated weather stations and ocean buoys, patrolling airplanes, super powerful computer models: Never again will be caught unawares as were New Englanders during the devastating Great Hurricane of 1938.

So let's give a nod to the first weatherman, Captain Robert Fitzroy, remembered to history almost entirely as commander of H.M.S. Beagle, the vessel that carried young Charles Darwin around the world on his famous voyage of discovery.

The seasoned seaman and the brash young naturalist seem to have got on well enough aboard ship, although Darwin's growing sense of the geological depths of time clashed with Fitzroy's biblical creationism. Both men were in their twenties, and eager to establish themselves in their respective careers. As Fitzroy mapped the coast, Darwin observed clues to the Earth's deep past.

For his contributions to marine cartography, Fitzroy was awarded the gold medal of the Royal Geographic Society and elected to the Royal Society, Britain's foremost scientific institution. But it is Darwin's Voyage of the Beagle that has come down to us as a classic of the history of science, while Fitzroy's narrative has sunk into obscurity.

In 1854 Fitzroy was appointed as statistician to the newly-formed meteorological department of the Board of Trade, and it was here that he was to make his most significant contribution to science. He was not content to merely compile weather data; he wanted to warn sailors and coastal communities of approaching gales. He supplied cheap barometers to sea-going fishermen with the understanding that they maintain records, and established a series of coastal stations that telegraphed weather data to the Meteorological Office in London. Within this mass of data he looked for patterns, and soon was drawing weather charts and issuing forecasts. When the Times of London began printing daily weather forecasts in 1860, it was on the basis of Fitzroy's work. Many of his meteorological innovations remain today a familiar part of British culture.

In the summer of 1860 Fitzroy came to the annual meeting of the British Association at Oxford to deliver a paper on "British Storms." He was in the audience at a later session of the meeting for the famous debate on evolution between Thomas Huxley, Darwin's young protégé, and Samuel Wilberforce, Bishop of Oxford. In the ensuing uproar Fitzroy leapt to his feet in a rage, waving a copy of the Scriptures. "Here is truth," he cried, "nowhere else." He was shouted down. Once again the day went to Darwin.

Meanwhile, back at the Meteorological Office, more trouble was brewing. When Fitzroy's weather forecasts failed, as they often did, he was severely criticized by the public. His scientific colleagues were even more vehement. He had been hired to compile data, they said, not use it. All his life Fitzroy was subject to bouts of depression. This latest controversy was too much to bear. On Sunday morning, April 3rd, 1865, at 59 years of age, he slit his own throat with a razor.