Book reviews


The Weather Book: A Manual of Practical Meteorology

Figure 1.

Robert FitzRoy

Cambridge University Press, 2012 Paperback rrp £32

516 pp inc. 28 pages of b/w illustrations

978–1108048309

Robert FitzRoy wrote The Weather Book in 1863. Cambridge University Press has added it to their Cambridge Library Collection, a group of books of historical importance because they were milestones in their particular field. This, therefore, enables us to study FitzRoy's book in detail: I had never read it before and assumed that it was purely a scientific treatise. Not so - only the first third of it is scientific in nature. I also expected that the style of prose would be recognisably Victorian, with long sentences describing processes/systems in minute detail. In fact, though, the text is easy to read and the technical aspects are eloquently explained in plain English that does not require you to grope for the meteorology dictionary on every page. In the middle of the volume the text slowly changes to one of anecdotal description. FitzRoy had captained many vessels in his Royal Navy career and his experience at sea is encyclopaedic. I enjoyed the first half of the book, but I was enraptured by his descriptions of seafaring situations in the final pages. I read this book in a few days, but I will read it again, in a more leisurely manner: perhaps a chapter at a time, to get maximum enjoyment from it.

Cambridge University Press have focused on making the text more readable, and the book benefits from being produced using the latest printing technology. It is a paperback, to trim costs somewhat, but overall it is beautifully produced and should last a long time. I wholeheartedly recommend it: there has been almost 150 years of scientific development in our discipline since then, and there are some areas that are different in modern meteorology, but that does not matter. It is a good read and it is enjoyable to recognise the differences between the state of meteorology in the mid-Victorian era and today.

Useful websites:

http://www.cambridge.org/gb/knowledge/isbn/item6844278/The%20Weather%20Book/?site_locale = en_GB

http://blogs.law.harvard.edu/preserving/2012/05/20/: a useful piece of background to FitzRoy and this book (Harvard University)

Martin Hutchins

Fixing the Sky: The Checkered History of Weather and Climate Control

Figure 2.

James Rodger Flemming

Columbia University Press, 2010

Hardback rrp £19.95

352 pp

978–0231144124

This book is a tour through the history of attempts at controlling weather and climate, from centuries-old traditions in the form of ceremonial duties such as rain dances, where societies and cultures felt they had influence over the skies, through serious attempts at changing the weather as far back as the 1800 s, then right up-to-date with current thinking on geo-engineering and climate control.

The first chapter, unfortunately, I found rather disjointed and difficult to read. It focuses on where literature, stories, plays, film and television have included items on weather control. There are some interesting examples, such as John Milton's Paradise Lost, in which the Earth's axis is shifted and therefore the climate changes. Then there is the Warner Brothers’ 1936 cartoon Porky the Rain-Maker, where Dr Quack sells an assortment of ‘rain pills’. But there are so many quotes included within the author's own text that I found it a little clumsy at times.

The rest of the book, though, reads much more smoothly, with successive chapters focusing on a particular area of weather control, from rain to fog, by serious scientific thinkers to pure charlatans. The book mainly concentrates on American history, largely because the author's dissertation was on the history of meteorology in America. I would personally have liked a little more information on the reports of Soviet authorities using cloud-seeding technology to clear the air after the Chernobyl nuclear incident, or the rumours that UK government experiments in weather control had been conducted nearby on the day that Lynmouth in Devon suffered flash flooding which killed 35 people. Both these stories were skimmed over very quickly.

The final chapters focus on climate control and geo-engineering. Here, the author repeatedly makes the point that we cannot rely (in his opinion) on inferior computer climate models, and scientists alone, to come up with ‘solutions’ to global warming. He speaks of the dangers of meddling with nature on such huge scales, and suggests that intervention of that sort could potentially do more harm than good. He reiterates that discussion and decisions should involve a combination of historians, ethicists and policy-makers as well as international and intergenerational participants (as opposed to the largely white, western, scientifically- trained males who tend to make up a large proportion of the geo-engineering community). He also touches on the potential threat of conflict, and even world wars, if weather- and climate control were ever to become a true reality.

This book is well worth a read. James Flemming is extremely thorough in his research and covers many areas of meteorology and climate science, as well as history, literature and ethics, all under the umbrella (excuse the pun) of people, organisations or governments, who for one reason or another want to ‘fix the sky’.

Helen Roberts

Authors wishing to see their books reviewed, and those interested in submitting reviews of recent books, should contact

helen.roberts@metoffice.gov.uk

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