The weather forecast: a triumph hiding in plain sight

Reading The Weather Machine by Andrew Blum (Bodley Head) for the Telegraph, 6 July 2019

Reading New York journalist Andrew Blum’s new book has cured me of a foppish and annoying habit. I no longer dangle an umbrella off my arm on sunny days, tripping up my fellow commuters before (inevitably) mislaying the bloody thing on the train to Coulsdon Town. Very late, and to my considerable embarrassment, I have discovered just how reliable the weather forecast is.

My thoroughly English prejudice against the dark art of weather prediction was already set by the time the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts opened in Reading in 1979. Then the ECMWF claimed to be able to see three days into the future. Six years later, it could see five days ahead. It knew about Sandy, the deadliest hurricane of 2012, eight days ahead, and it expects to predict high-impact events a fortnight before they happen by the year 2025.

The ECMWF is a world leader, but it’s not an outlier. Look at the figures: weather forecasts have been getting consistently better for 40 straight years. Blum reckons this makes the current global complex of machines, systems, networks and acronyms (and there are lots of acronyms) “a high point of science and technology’s aspirations for society”.

He knows this is a minority view: “The weather machine is a wonder we treat as a banality,” he writes: “a tool that we haven’t yet learned to trust.” The Weather Machine is his attempt to convey the technical brilliance and political significance of an achievement that hides in plain sight.

The machine’s complexity alone is off all familiar charts, and sets Blum significant challenge. “As a rocket scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory put it to me… landing a spacecraft on Mars requires dealing with hundreds of variables,” he writes; “making a global atmospheric model requires hundreds of thousands.” Blum does an excellent job of describing how meteorological theory and observation were first stitched together, and why even today their relationship is a stormy one.

His story opens in heroic times, with Robert FitzRoy one of his more engaging heroes. Fitzroy is best remembered for captaining the HMS Beagle and weathering the puppyish enthusiasm of a young Charles Darwin. But his real claim to fame is as a meteorologist. He dreamt up the term “forecast”, turned observations into predictions that saved sailors’ lives, and foresaw with clarity what a new generation of naval observers would look like. Distributed in space and capable of communicating instantaneously with each other, they would be “as if an eye in space looked down on the whole North Atlantic”.

You can’t produce an accurate forecast from observation alone, however. You also need a theory of how the weather works. The Norwegian physicist Vilhelm Bjerknes came up with the first mathematical model of the weather: a set of seven interlinked partial differential equations that handled the fact that the atmosphere is a far from ideal fluid. Sadly, Bjerknes’ model couldn’t yet predict anything — as he himself said, solutions to his equations “far exceed the means of today’s mathematical analysis”. As we see our models of the weather evolve, so we see works of individual genius replaced by systems of machine computation. In the observational realm, something similar happens: the heroic efforts of individual observers throw up trickles of insight that are soon subsumed in the torrent of data streaming from the orbiting artefacts of corporate and state engineering.

The American philosopher Timothy Morton dreamt up the term “hyperobject” to describe things that are too complex and numinous to describe in the plain terms. Blum, whose earlier book was Tubes: Behind the Scenes at the Internet (2012), fancies his chances at explaining human-built hyperobjects in solid, clear terms, without recourse to metaphor and poesy. In this book, for example, he recognises the close affinity of military and meteorological infrastructures (the staple of many a modish book on the surveillance state), but resists any suggestion that they are the same system.

His sobriety is impressive, given how easy it is to get drunk on this stuff. In October 1946, technicians at the White Sands Proving Ground in Nevada installed a camera in the nose cone of a captured V2, and by launching it, yielded photographs of a quarter of the US — nearly a million square miles banded by clouds “stretching hundreds of miles in rows like streets”. This wasn’t the first time a bit of weather kit acted as an expendable test in a programme of weapons development, and it certainly wasn’t the last. Today’s global weather system has not only benefited from military advancements in satellite positioning and remote sensing; it has made those systems possible. Blum allows that “we learned to see the whole earth thanks to the technology built to destroy the whole earth”. But he avoids paranoia.

Indeed, he is much more impressed by the way countries at hammer and tongs with each other on the political stage nevertheless collaborated closely and well on a global weather infrastructure. Point four of John F Kennedy’s famous 1961 speech on “Urgent National Needs” called for “a satellite system for worldwide weather observation”, and it wasn’t just militarily useful American satellites he had in mind for the task: in 1962 Harry Wexler of the U.S. Weather Bureau worked with his Soviet counterpart Viktor Bugaev on a report proposing a “World Weather Watch”, and by 1963 there was, Blum finds, “a conscious effort by scientists — on both sides of the Iron Curtain, in all corners of the earth — to design an integrated and coordinated apparatus” — this at a time when weather satellites were so expensive they could be justified only on national security grounds.

Blum’s book comes a little bit unstuck at the end. A final chapter that could easily have filled a third of the book is compressed into just a few pages’ handwaving and special pleading, as he conjures up a vision of a future in which the free and global nature of weather information has ceased to be a given and the weather machine, that “last bastion of international cooperation”, has become just one more atomised ghost of a future the colonial era once promised us.

Why end on such a minatory note? The answer, which is by no means obvious, is to be found in Reading. Today 22 nations pay for the ECMWF’s maintenance of a pair of Cray supercomputers. The fastest in the world, these machines must be upgraded every two years. In the US, meanwhile, weather observations rely primarily on the health of four geostationary satellites, at a cost of 11 billion dollars. (America’s whole National Weather Service budget costs only around $1billion.)

Blum leaves open the question, How is an organisation built by nation-states, committed to open data and borne of a global view, supposed to work in a world where information lives on private platforms and travels across private networks — a world in which billions of tiny temperature and barometric sensors, “in smartphones, home devices, attached to buildings, buses or airliners,” are aggregated by the likes of Google, IBM or Amazon?

One thing is disconcertingly clear: Blum’s weather machine, which in one sense is a marvel of continuing modernity, is also, truth be told, a dinosaur. It is ripe for disruption, of a sort that the world, grown so reliant on forecasting, could well do without.

“Bloody useless at objects. Bloody brilliant at space”

Playing Lunatick by Antony Gormley and Priyamvada Natarajan for New Scientist, 27 March 2019

VISIT The Store X, a venue for art and design in London’s West End, and you are in for quite a journey. Wearing an HTC Vive headset, you are given an island to explore in Lunatick, a glossy, game-like virtual-reality experience that starts at Kiribati in Micronesia. For a while, you have the run of the place by means of hand controllers, although producers Acute Art plans to use EEG to let you control it with your thoughts.

Don’t get too comfortable. Wandering past a stone platform triggers the space elevator. It lifts you gently off your feet, then propels you through the stratosphere. This long, beautiful and increasingly uncanny transit carries you into the void between the moon and Earth.

Take a breath. Look around you. The geometrical relationship between the sun, Earth and its moon unwinds around you as time skews and the moon swells. Before you know it, you are skating around lunar crater rims, plummeting into craters, flying high, until, losing control again, you are flung into the sun.

Lunatick is the first joint work by British artist Antony Gormley and astrophysicist Priyamvada Natarajan from Yale University. Natarajan visualises the accretion history of black holes, and maps the granularity of dark matter by studying the way it bends light – a phenomenon called gravitational lensing. But she couldn’t resist the idea of giving space a sensual dimension by making the vastness and loneliness of the cosmos tangible.

Artist and scientist bonded over their early love of science fiction. H. G. Wells’s 1901 novel The First Men in the Moonwas Natarajan’s contribution: a fictional journey powered by the mysterious gravity-less mineral cavorite. Gormley, in his turn, recalled C. S. Lewis’s space trilogy that began with Out of the Silent Planet, in which a man travels the solar system pinned in a coffin.

Both influences emerge clearly enough in Lunatick, but the real star of the show isn’t fictional: it is the flyable lunar terrain wrestled into shape by Rodrigo Marques, Acute Art’s chief technology officer, from data sent back by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. “There’s something both moving and funny about skating over the surface of the moon,” says Gormley. “I’ve got very fond of skiing along the ridges then down into the crater bottoms.”

Gormley’s art is popular globally, not least because people find it easy to grasp. Never mind the cosmological and philosophical dimensions: what strikes the viewer is how he renders, in solid matter, the building blocks of our lives.

Gormley has been making sculptural art out of wireframes and voxels (three-dimensional pixels), even as architects and games designers having been moving away from model-making into a purely virtual 3D design space. “Until recently, I had no idea what a voxel was,” says Gormley, who has spent more than five years making oddly expressive low-resolution sculptures assembled from cubes and cuboids. His wireframe experiments (assembled from real wires and rods) are older still, dating back to the late 1990s.

Why has Gormley chosen to enter the virtual realm now? First, Lunatick was a chance to explore a medium that, he says, is “bloody useless at objects and bloody brilliant at space”. Objects, ultimately, are bodies: VR is hobbled because it can’t convey their mass and tactility. But space is different. We perceive space primarily through seeing, which means VR can convey scale and immensity to a sublime degree.

But why should an artist best known for exploring the sculptural possibilities of the human body (particularly his own) be keen on disembodied space? The image of body-as-spaceship crops up intermittently in Gormley’s work, but rarely so urgently. He says he is haunted by an image of long-haul flight, where the shutters are down and everyone is watching movies: virtual versions of human life.

“I want this piece to say to people, ‘Break out!’,” he says. “Of course we get very obsessed with human matters. But there are bigger affairs out there. Recognise your cosmic identity!”

Northern lights

Penelope Umbrico, 30,400,020 Suns from Sunsets from Flickr (Partial) 04/04/16, photographs, machine c-prints, in the Collection of the Artist

The Starry Skies of Art, Serlachius Museums, Mänttä, Finland, to 8 January 2017. For New Scientist, 20 July 2016.

A FEW hours north of Helsinki, Finland, on the shores of a lake, sits an art museum, opened in the 1930s and much expanded since. Now one of its galleries is filled with 200 years’ worth of artistic visions of the skies, the work of Helena Sederholm, an art-education professor, and science writer Markus Hotakainen.

Scientific approaches to the cosmos are affectionately parodied in Andy Gracie’s Drosophila Titanus – a breeding project to adapt fruit flies for life on Titan, Saturn’s largest moon – and Agnes Meyer-Brandis’s Moon Goose Analogue: Lunar migration bird facility (MGA), which tries to realise, NASA-style, English bishop Francis Godwin’s story The Man in the Moone, whose hero flies to the moon in a chariot towed by “moon geese”.

Reductive approaches to the cosmos reach pathological levels in Marko Vuokola’s Been There, Seen It, Done That, in which the phases of the moon are reduced to a pattern of shadows cast by glass discs resting on a glass shelf.

A more elegaic exploration of the same idea (that we murder to dissect) lies in Petri Eskelinen’s 2016 installation Dying Star. After a few minutes, the viewer’s dark-adapted eye makes out a beautiful and convincing cloud of stars. At regular intervals, lights come on, revealing the cloud for what it is: smeared, worn Perspex sheets stuck with scraps of Post-it note and scrawled over with whiteboard pens: “Yes”; “No”; “No life field”. The night sky is reduced to a bitterly precise, tiresome, anthropocentric hunt for an earthlike planet.

The lights go out. The magic reasserts itself. To comprehend the world, we must reduce it. But as Penelope Umbrico ably reveals in 30,400,020 Suns from Sunsets from Flickr, the world is big enough to take our abuse. And in the moonlit landscapes by 19th-century artists Fanny Churberg and Hjalmar Munsterhjelm, it swallows us whole.

Kosmos Day

The_star_dreamer_01

Saturday July 16 is Kosmos Day at BFI, London Southbank, “a day of documentary, art and discussion inspired by the pioneering Russian cosmonauts.”

The programme’s still to be finalised but I’ll be hosting the morning session – among other things chatting with novelist James Flint and filmmaker Simon Pummell. In the afternoon we welcome Sergei Krikalev – the cosmonaut who found himself stuck in orbit during the collapse of the Soviet Union. I’ll post up times etc. when I know them; meanwhile the homepage is here.