Catch the Christmas/AMS Centennial Spirit

the actual James Glaisher — not to be confused with Eddie Redmayne

By now, you may have committed to coming to the AMS 2020 Annual Meeting, along with what looks to be a record number of others. Maybe you want to celebrate the closeout to our 100thanniversary year. Perhaps you want to take in the best Earth-science-and-services jam session on the planet – a once-a-year week of sharing data, ideas, and application of environmental intelligence like no other.

Still on the fence? You’re running out of excuses for not coming. In particular, it seems feds have dodged a repeat of last year’s government shutdown that resulted in so many no-shows in Phoenix. You can no longer plead that excuse. Or you may have secretly hoped that AMS members had learned a simple lesson from the past century of weather and climate study – that on any given January, holding a meeting somewhere along the ITCZ makes so much more sense than convening in Boston. But by now there’s no room for denial – Boston is where the action is.

Barring an apocalyptic snowstorm, that is. 

(Don’t shoot the messenger – just saying. At this writing the National Weather Service is still agnostic on any such prospects, but according to some private services that see this period as already within a zone of predictability, the outlook seems to be for warmer-than-usual weather approaching-and-at-the beginning of the meeting, dropping to colder-than-usual toward the end.)

So the question becomes: not whether to go, but rather: how to get the most out of the occasion? 

The answer is simple – by actively engaging as much as possible. Don’t wait until the day-of to crack open the Meeting program. Start boning up now on what’s happening, all the usual scientific sessions plus a huge gaggle of town halls, and a number of special sessions that this year’s AMS president Jenni Evans has organized. Let register the fact that this year the annual awards ceremony takes place Sunday afternoon, and that the usual Wednesday banquet has been replaced by a special evening of celebration. Channel your inner Aaron Burr: you want to be in the (right) room where it happens. 

Take some time between now and the meeting to reflect on what the AMS has meant to your career and life over these past years. Recall AMS-member contributions to science and services over the past century. Reflect on their efforts to develop radiosondes, weather radar, satellite instruments and platforms, digital computing and numerical weather prediction and to harness these. Admire the recent work of social scientists to improve uptake of forecasts and warnings. You and I only add few extra bits to the accomplishments of our predecessors.

But don’t stop there. Think through what AMS needs to do to remain as relevant in the next 100 years as it has for the past century. Inventory what you have to offer. Join with others attending the forward-looking sessions and events salted throughout the Meeting. Better yet, commit to actions you’ll take to put your gifts and potential to work over the next 5-10 years. Shape your own legacy.

The current holiday break provides the perfect opportunity for you to put yourself in the right frame of mind. Here’s a final suggestion that might help – especially when it comes to giving yourself a feel for what those early days of the Society might have been like: find a couple of hours to watch the Amazon streaming video entitled The Aeronauts.

This film doesn’t just take you back 100 years – but more like 150. It’s a fictionalized account of James Glaisher’s altitude-breaking balloon flight of September 5, 1862. Glaisher at the time was Superintendent of the Department of Meteorology and Magnetism at the Greenwich Royal Observatory. (He would later also serve as the president of the Royal Meteorological Society.) On that 1862 flight he took meteorological measurements up to an altitude of 29,000 feet, at which point he lost consciousness. The balloon continued to climb, according to estimates reaching a height somewhere between 31,000 and 36,000 feet ASL. Glaisher survived only because Henry Coxwell, his co-pilot, despite having lost all sensation in his hands, ultimately managed to pull the balloon’s valve cord with his teeth before losing consciousness himself.

One caveat: don’t look for historical accuracy. The movie claims only to be “inspired by actual events.” (I love this phrase, whose use by the film industry is relatively recent. It appropriately lowers expectations. In prior times, you’d tend to see the phrase “based on a true story,” which often over-promised.) A few of the movie’s departures from fact: in reality, Glaisher at the time was in his fifties, his scientific reputation well-established, and his balloon investigations stoutly supported by the community. In the film, he’s depicted as at an early-career stage, his reputation is in jeopardy, and more-senior scientists are keeping their distance. He has to seek private-sector funding for his enterprise. Added to the list of discrepancies, Henry Coxwell doesn’t appear at all. His place is taken by Amelia Wren, a fictional woman character who is a composite of several historical female balloonists of the time: one Margaret Graham, who was the first British woman to make a solo balloon flight, and a Sophie Blanchard, a balloonist widowed when her husband, French balloonist Jean-Pierre-Francois Blanchard, died in 1809 when he fell from his balloon after suffering a heart attack.

But these weaknesses add corresponding plusses. The cheat on Glaisher’s age and the substitution of Miss Wren allow the movie to cast Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones in the starring roles, bringing back to the screen the skills and chemistry that made them such a hit in the Stephen Hawking biopic, The Theory of Everything

Jones (who also was a compelling RBG in On the Basis of Sex) comes across in this film as the braver, stronger, savvier, and better-grounded (okay, not the best metaphor for an aeronaut) figure of the two. Nevertheless, her character and the way it was developed and she was portrayed became the target of critical reviews in the Washington Post (in fact, the reviewer found very little to like in the movie as a whole), refinery29, and Time.

The reviewers make good points. But the film’s flaws and the critiques together can serve as a springboard for private reflection, as well as dialog with others on issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion – as played out with respect to both gender and early-career. To a lesser extent, it raises questions of private- versus public funding for science. What’s not to like[1]?

Want to get into the Christmas spirit? You can watch, for the nth time, reruns of It’s a Wonderful LifeMiracle on 34thStreet, and White Christmas (each worth an (n+1))But then prepare for the AMS 2020 Annual Meeting; give The Aeronauts a look. Draw inspiration from both the real and re-imagined James Glaishers.

See you in Boston!


[1]Full disclosure? Have to confess I also fully enjoyed The Day After Tomorrow, when it came out in 2004, and Michael Crichton’s State of Fear, which came out the same year, both to robust scientific criticism for their distortions and mis-handling of climate–change findings. C’mon, folks! Let’s all lighten up! Fiction is fiction.

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