Introducing Lewis Fry Richardson (October 11, 1881-September 30, 1953).

“Science ought to be subordinate to morals.”                                                                  “Science only has to be subordinate to morals.”

 – attributed to Lewis Fry Richardson, as a young man[1].

I promised you more on Richardson. Here’s the next installment… largely extracted from the Wikipedia article on him, and from a 1998 biography of Richardson written for the Annual Reviews of Fluid Mechanics by Sir Julian Hunt, himself a brilliant boundary-layer physicist, the former head of the UK Met Office, and now a member of Britain’s House of Lords. Each source is rather lengthy, and worth reading in its entirety. They’re in turn extractions from larger bodies of material. What follows here? Mere snippets.


Richardson was a Fellow of the Royal Society. A rather illustrious group, that! They saw him as a mathematician, physicist, meteorologist, and psychologist. Embodying such a full spectrum of physical and social sciences? Amazing, even making allowances for the fact that to undertake such an intellectual span was “simpler” back 100 years ago. [Whatever that might mean.]

What on earth did he do to command respect for his mastery of so broad a range of disciplines?

It turns out that to understand this fully, we have to grasp something of Richardson’s private/spiritual life. Hunt expressed it this way:

Knowing about the lives and beliefs of creative people helps in the understanding and appreciation of their work. This is especially true in the case of Lewis Fry Richardson, much of whose scientific work changed and evolved as a direct result of—and from his reaction as a Quaker to—the political and technological changes that occurred during his lifetime. His life is an inspiration, showing how a mathematical scientist can respond to the problems of the world around him, while not necessarily being in accordance with the ways favored or promoted by the established organizations that direct and finance science.

Richardson’s special contribution to all these fields was to apply quantitative and mathematical thinking to problems that were considered to be outside the scope of mathematics, and to have been so effective in it that his formulae and methods are still being used daily by working scientists and mathematicians. His personal stamp on the work is such that many of his results are still referred to by his name.”

Richardson was raised part of a large Quaker family – the youngest of seven (!) children, and was educated at a Quaker boarding school, Bootham (in York). Bootham’s history has been shaped in large and small ways by an interest in and emphasis on the natural sciences. One faculty member, Silvanus Thompson, worked with Michael Faraday on electricity and magnetism. The school was one of the first to have its own astronomical observatory; this was an ongoing concern by the time Richardson arrived. In 1899, a year after Richardson left, the school apparently “suffered a serious fire, caused by the inattention of a pupil to some snails he was heating for a science experiment, and rebuilding of the premises used for teaching was necessary…” A few years passed before the school could be reopened.

[Heating snails? Where was PETA? But we digress.]

Beginning in 1898, Richardson took two years’ instruction In Newcastle University. He then attended Cambridge, graduating with a first-class degree in 1903. Early on, he seemed to have developed an intention to move eventually from the physical to the behavioral sciences, saying to himself as an undergraduate:  “I would like to spend the first half of my life under the strict discipline of physics, and afterwards to apply that training to researches on living things.” According to his own autobiographical notes, “I kept this programme a secret.”  In 1926, Richardson received a doctorate in mathematical psychology from the University of London.

Like many Quakers, Richardson was a committed pacifist. During World War I, he registered as a conscientious objector, even though this would preclude any possibility for him of university appointments after the war. He served much of the war with a Society of Friends ambulance unit attached to the 16th French Infantry Division. His transport of wounded soldiers over this period included some time under active fire. These experiences had a profound effect on his life’s work. Because he wasn’t employed at universities, he was very much outside the scientific mainstream. But either because of this or despite it, his work was quite original and groundbreaking. This wasn’t the end of things. Richardson quit other jobs when he saw their link to armed conflict. At one point he left his UK Met Office position (more on this chapter down the road) when the Office was subsumed into the Air Force. He quit chemical research when he found it had military potential. He attempted to develop mathematical models and scientific understanding to tease out the root causes for international conflict.

Here’s (just) one example of how that all went. From Wikipedia: While studying the causes of war between two countries, Richardson decided to search for a relation between the probability of two countries going to war and the length of their common border. While collecting data, he realised that there was considerable variation in the various gazetted lengths of international borders. For example, that between Spain and Portugal was variously quoted as 987 or 1214 km while that between the Netherlands and Belgium as 380 or 449 km.

As part of his research, Richardson investigated how the measured length of a border changes as the unit of measurement is changed. He published empirical statistics[14] which led to a conjectured relationship. This research was quoted by mathematician Benoît Mandelbrot in his 1967 paper How Long Is the Coast of Britain?

Suppose the coast of Britain is measured using a 200 km ruler, specifying that both ends of the ruler must touch the coast. Now cut the ruler in half and repeat the measurement, then repeat again:

Notice that the smaller the ruler, the larger the result. It might be supposed that these values would converge to a finite number representing the “true” length of the coastline. However, Richardson demonstrated that the measured length of coastlines and other natural features appears to increase without limit as the unit of measurement is made smaller. Today this is known as the Richardson effect.

At the time, Richardson’s research was ignored by the scientific community.

Thanks to Mandelbrot, today Richardson is considered one of the fathers of the study of fractals.

Whew! There’s so much more. I’ll save it for later.

[1]The above quote (s?) have been cited in these two forms by various authors. They can and should be parsed a bit differently; whether Richardson said both at various times or just one or the other, the thought is revealing, and serves as a good start for us as we get to know the man.



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