Lewis Fry Richardson as meteorologist.

“Big whirls have little whirls that feed on their velocity, and little whirls have lesser whirls and so on to viscosity—in the molecular sense.”[1]

We’ve touched on Richardson’s work in mathematical psychology, and his efforts to make quantitative the study of the origins of international conflict, and more. We now turn to how he came to study meteorology…

After graduating from Cambridge, Richardson took a position at Britain’s National Physical Laboratory. He then taught at Aberystwyth and Manchester Universities, before serving as a chemist with the National Peat Industry, Ltd. from 1906-1907. Thus in a span of a few short years, Richardson touched all three bases of what we refer to today as the public-private-academic sectors.

[Hmm. These days, those of us in the weather-climate-water enterprise view such folks as a rarity. We see these three cultures and their goals and ways of doing business as disparate. But Richardson made transitioning across each of these three sectors look easy.]

While with National Peat, Richardson developed the interest in the approximate numerical solution to differential equations that was to bring him much of his scientific reputation. This interest continued to grow over the next few years despite the negative response of the Royal Society to his journal submissions on the subject and the disfavor of Kings College, Cambridge to his application for a fellowship. Hunt says this:

“So LFR never returned to Cambridge and for the rest of his career he did not work in any of the main centers of academic research. At the time he did not regret this, commenting (apropos of Manchester) that he liked to work “somewhere where

there are fewer people buzzing around.” But this isolation probably affected the development of his research and hindered its appreciation in the scientific community. Perhaps the lack of collaboration with colleagues explained why the presentation of his research was often idiosyncratic, and it probably also meant that he did not receive suggestions from other researchers as to how a line of research might profitably develop. It may explain why he moved from one subject to another suddenly, and often. Yet one must also recognize that the lack of the guiding influences of colleagues may have been a factor in the great originality and diversity of his research: GI Taylor commented, LFR was “a very interesting and original character who seldom thought on the same lines as his contemporaries and often was not understood by them.”

[An aside: let Richardson’s challenges and his surmounting of them serve as inspiration and encouragement to every early-career scientist. Life never looks easy when you’re starting out. But if Richardson met these trials, so can you And look at the results!]

Hunt supplies this additional vignette: when news of the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 reached Richardson, it inspired him to think: perhaps acoustic echo-location (analogous to radar) could be used to warn ocean liners of nearby icebergs. We’re told he had his wife row him offshore in a small boat, while he blew on a whistle and recorded the time delay of the whistle’s echo from a pier on shore to estimate its distance. He apparently used an umbrella… to concentrate the echo? shield his ears from wind noise? Both? In any event, this experiment succeeded to such an extent he applied for a patent.

The great meteorologist Napier Shaw, then heading the UK Met Office, saw potential in Richardson. He hoped Richardson might bring some much-needed rigor to meteorological science and services at the Office. He offered Richardson work as superintendent of the Eskdalemuir Observatory in southern Scotland. There Richardson was charged with observations and science ranging from magnetic fields to seismic vibration to meteorological conditions. He set about immediately on what would develop into a lifelong interest…to transform the Navier-Stokes equations into a finite-difference form. But when the work of the observatory began to slant toward support for the war effort (e.g., using those seismic observations to detect artillery barrages and the like), Richardson stepped down. As a conscientious objector, he served as an ambulance driver supporting French forces at the front.

That may have slowed, but did not stop, his research.  Throughout the war he remained preoccupied with the idea of finite-difference approaches to predicting the weather. He worked on this research and a manuscript whenever he found a spare moment. During this period, Richardson even attempted to make a six-hour numerical weather hindcast using some May 20,1910 data. At the time, the attempt appeared to fail. More recently, however, others have returned to his original calculations, applied present-day numerical smoothing techniques unknown to him at the time, and discovered some considerable degree of correspondence between his hindcast and the actual observations.

Richardson actually lost his manuscript at one point, during a battle of several days. Miraculously, it would resurface some months later from under a coal pile (!).

After the war, Richardson asked for permission (which was granted) to return to UKMO employ. As part of his research he started investigation of the planetary boundary layer and turbulence, studying smoke plumes and the behavior of tagged particles in turbulent flows. One outcome was his discovery of what we now know as the Richardson-number criterion for the development of turbulence. That work sowed the seeds of modern-day research into the atmospheric instabilities. Building on his early ideas, it’s now possible to forecast clear-air turbulence (CAT) that makes air travel occasionally uncomfortable and/or actually dangerous.

Want to hear more on this bit of the story? John Knox – an Associate Professor at the University of Georgia – has done remarkable work in CAT . [For details, the interested reader can consult the publications on Knox’s website and the references therein.]

In 1919, Richardson submitted his book Weather Prediction by Numerical Process for publication. It finally was printed in 1922. His contemporaries thought his work imaginative but impracticable at the time. Even Richardson himself conceded he might need a team of 60,000 “computers” (the term used back then for human mathematicians thus occupied) to predict weather changes at a rate faster than they actually evolved. [While waiting for the technology to catch up to the vision, Richardson contented himself by writing 30-some additional papers on the idea.]

It would be another three decades before Charney, von Neumann and others would make numerical weather prediction work on early (vacuum-tube) computers at Princeton.

One biographer would later say of him:Research for Richardson was the inevitable consequence of the tendency of his mental machine to run almost, but not quite, by itself. So he was a bad listener, distracted by his thoughts, and a bad driver, seeing his dream instead of the traffic. The same tendency explains why he sometimes appeared abrupt in manner, otherwise inexplicable in one of his character. In the motor convoy in France he evoked the affection of all and demonstrated the dignity of service by the simplicity with which he performed the most menial tasks; that character of kindness and service was maintained at Westminster and Paisley [sites where he would later work].”

What a guy. There’s much more we could learn from him, and much we would do well to emulate.

Coming up… some thoughts on how we might channel this great man and improve the outlook for humankind at the same time.


[1] Offered by Richardson in 1922 to explain the workings of turbulence, with apologies to Daniel Defoe.

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