Inventing Atmospheric Science:
Gordian Knots and the Quest for Prevision
James R. Fleming
Charles A. Dana Professor of Science, Technology, and Society, Colby College
Atmospheric researchers have long attempted to untie the Gordian Knot of meteorology—that intractable and intertwined tangle of observational imprecision, theoretical uncertainties, and non-linear influences—that, if unraveled, would provide perfect prevision of the weather for ten days, of seasonal conditions for next year, and of climatic conditions for a decade, a century, a millennium, or longer. This presentation, based on Inventing Atmospheric Science (The M.I.T. Press, 2016), examines the work of three interconnected generations of scientists and the influence of three families of transformative technologies in the first six decades of the twentieth century, from the dawn of applied fluid dynamics to the emergence, by 1960, of the interdisciplinary atmospheric sciences.
Anti-skyscapes and Anti-soundscapes: public engagements
James Rodger Fleming (Colby College)
How might we see and even listen to the climate? Historian James Fleming, author of Fixing the Sky and Inventing Atmospheric Science, and founder of the International Commission on History of Meteorology will discuss anti-skyscapes and anti-soundscapes at the Royal Anthropological Institute conference on weather and climate change at the British Museum on May 29.
Anti-skyscapes can be gloomy, menacing, and increasingly, in the case of climate change, invisible. Performance artists and environmental scientists render them and their ominous audio counterparts into tangible objects for public engagement. Professor Fleming will be available during the meeting for interviews on any aspect of weather and climate history.
Contact information Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
UK Cell: +44 7906 692 249
Boston Globe (April 17, 2016),
STS Program, Colby College
There has never been a history of atmospheric maintenance, but there could be. “Atmosphere” is a shape-shifting noun whose meaning has changed dramatically, over time from the surface weather of 1900, to the upper atmospheric planetary waves of the 1930s, to the near-space environment of sounding rockets and meteorological satellites. Currently, Earth’s magnetosphere and solar flares define the “space weather” environment.
“Atmosphere” is also spatially contingent, meaning different things in different spaces and places. On a “clear” day in Beijing the air may brown, use of artillery in the service of weather control is considered mainstream, and portent astrology takes its cues from t’ienwen (literally, the manifestation of the heavens). In many African societies, rain is regarded as a sacred phenomenon. In some tribal languages the same word refers to both god and rain, and some say, “god is falling” when it rains. Rain connects time and eternity, survival in the here and now, and blessings for the next generation. African rainmaking practices invoke rites of fertility and are full of fertility symbolism.
Having recently completed histories of atmospheric intervention, invention, and innovation, I turn now to a history of atmospheric maintenance, or the maintenance of something that is not a thing. The atmosphere is certainly not maintenance-free. But if not, how, where, and by whom has it been maintained? And with what implications for gender, race, class? History meets with historical geography and mixes with epistemological musings in this romp through popular culture.
The visual imagery of innovation is dominated by old Edison-era lightbulbs:
Or a disembodied, a-historical globalism:
Maintenance, however, is tool based,
heavily gendered, and not always flattering, as in this image search for Maintenance Men:
Which you can compare with an image search for Maintenance Women (as in high maintenance):
The cartoon archives of maintenance date at least to 1951 as in this issue of PS, The Preventive Maintenance Monthly, which was the successor to Army Motors:
Atmospheric maintenance is an ancient practice.
Priests, diviners, and astrologers monitored natural phenomena, including the weather, comets, meteors, and earthquakes (all aspects of ancient “meteorology”). They interpreted how these phenomena determined the present welfare and future destinies of both individuals and the social order. Health and sickness, feast and famine were apportioned to mortals in part by the vagaries of the weather and in part by the pleasures of the gods. Some of the earliest climatic records were compiled by temple scribes. Changes in the seasons and in the configuration of the heavens necessitated annual rituals to appease the gods of rain and harvest.
Atmospheric maintenance is a gendered practice.
In many African societies, rain is regarded as a sacred phenomenon and rain queens are the primary agents of change. In some tribal languages the same word refers to both god and rain, and some say “god is falling” when it rains. Rain connects time and eternity, survival in the here and now and blessings for the next generation. Those that study the rhythms of the seasons, the nuances of the clouds, and the natural phenomena attending the onset of rainy and dry seasons are held in high esteem; those who can bring rain or stop the rain are divinized. Sometimes month-long rituals take place during drought emergencies that involve the rain queen, royal leaders, tribal members, descendants, and ancestors—that is, the rituals are fully intergenerational and communal, emphasizing the centrality of tribal continuity and solidarity.
Western practitioners, almost exclusively male, first demonized the storms then accused women of witchcraft. St. Thomas Aquinas called it a “dogma of faith” that the demons produce wind, storms, and rain of fire from heaven. The Papal Bull Summis Desiderantes, issued by Pope Innocent VIII in 1484, exhorted the clergy to “not suffer a witch to live” and to uncover those, who, by evil weather destroy vineyards, gardens, meadows, and growing crops. Since the seventeenth century, the Baconian expectation that increasing knowledge would lead to new technologies “for the common good” has been widely applied to all scientific fields, including, notably, meteorology and climatology. His goal was to replace Aristotelian natural philosophy and eventual gain control of nature. Recently, advocates of climate engineering, with vanishingly few exceptions, are Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic (WEIRD) males with superman complexes. Their views are short-sighted, dangerous, and “barking mad.”
In the 1870s in the U.S., telegraphic reports “for the benefit of commerce and agriculture” formed the primary rationale for the weather service, the enlisted men in thee U.S. Army Signal Corps served as both meteorological observers and at times as secret service agents reporting to him on domestic threats such as striking workers, Indian uprisings, and natural hazards to commerce and agriculture. Signal service observers reported on the hatching and migration of locust swarms, on frost and drought in the cotton, corn and tobacco-growing regions, on hazards to shipping along the coast. Mercantile interests were advised of weather conditions affecting the packing and shipment of perishable goods such as oysters, pork, and ice. Sailors received notice of fogs, storms, and fair winds. Insurance companies received data useful to them for setting rates for shipping. River reports warned of floods and low water conditions; railway reports announced heavy snows and track conditions; sanitary reports tracked the course of cholera and yellow fever epidemics in the interest of public health.. All of these missions, including daily weather reports, involved potential threats to commerce, agriculture, and the domestic order.
Atmospheric maintenance is an ideological practice.
In the post-Paris COP-21 world, in most Integrated Assessment Models, the mythical target of 2 °C, or even 1.5 °C is held sacrosanct, In order to reach this target, modelers adjust carbon budgets artificially by adopting “negative-emission technologies.” This a euphemism for carbon dioxide capture and reliable storage on a planetary level – a suite of geo-engineering technologies that are currently at little more than a conceptual stage of development. Nowhere is this more evident than in the IPCC’s scenario database. Of the 400 scenarios that have a 50% or better chance of resulting in no more than 2 °C warming, 344 assume the successful and large-scale deployment of negative-emission technologies. Even more worryingly, in all 56 scenarios without negative emissions, global emissions peak around 2010, which is contrary to available emissions data. In such cases, scientists must make their assumptions transparent and defensible, however politically uncomfortable the conclusions.
Atmospheric maintenance is a mediated practice.
Atmospheric maintenance is huge!
May a thousand more brainstorms form in Hoboken.
Jim Fleming will be discussing his books Fixing the Sky (Columbia University Press, 2010) and Inventing Atmospheric Science (MIT Press 2016) at 2:00 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 20, 2016 at the Old Professors Bookshop, 99 Main Street, Belfast, Maine.
Fixing the Sky won the 2011 Sally Hacker Prize from the Society for the History of Technology and the Louis J. Battan Author’s Award from the American Meteorological Society.
Inventing Atmospheric Science is one of the monthly recommended books in the March 2016 issue of Scientific American: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/recommended-march-book-reviews-roundup1/
From: “Barbara C. Shutt” <email@example.com>
Subject: Save the Date: Thu Feb 18 Book Launch Party with Jim Fleming
You are invited to an author’s event on Thursday, Feb. 18 at the Colby Bookstore, starting with snacks and mingling at 4:30 p.m., and where, at about 5:00, Professor Jim Fleming (STS) will give very short remarks about shooting chickens out of a cannon, building an artificial volcano, nuking the north pole, and his new book, Inventing Atmospheric Science, just published by the M.I.T. Press.
Please join us. Copies will be available for sale, and you will be able to get your first edition copy (always collectible) autographed, as well as enjoy snacks and commentary.
The Colby Bookstore is located in Cotter Union on the campus of Colby College. Year round hours: Mon – Sat 8am – 5pm. Swing on by,