My history hero: Lewis Fry Richardson (1881 - 1953)

Writer Giles Foden enthuses about this principled, pacifist pioneer of weather forecasting







Lewis Richardson was an influential physicist and a pacifist. He joined the Met Office in 1913 where he began to develop his ideas about using mathematical techniques to forecast the weather. After a stint as an ambulance driver in the First World War he returned to the Met Office and codified his theories in Weather Prediction by Numerical Process (1922). It was however to be over 30 years before Richardson’s work could be successfully applied. He finished his career in academia. Writer Giles Foden’s (left) new novel Turbulence features a character based on Richardson who is sought out to assist with the weather forecast for D-Day. 

When did you first hear about Lewis Richardson?
Richardson’s wife was the great-aunt of my father-in-law so I was introduced to him through that. Then when I was becoming interested in the D-Day weather forecast, it struck me as odd that probably the world’s greatest weather scientist was up there in remote Scotland in 1944 and down in England you had all those people desperately trying to do this forecast. I thought it would be intriguing if these two stories could come together as fictional speculation.

What kind of person was Richardson?
He was someone passionately committed to the idea of measurement. Richardson tried to measure everything, beginning with meteorology, where he invented numerical weather forecasting. He moved from that to applying measurement to other areas, including the frequency and likelihood of war and even wrote papers on things like which colour might be in fashion one year.

What made him a hero?
Without Richardson’s work, the computing of weather and other continuous processes that happened in the 1950s and 1960s wouldn’t have got anywhere. He also laid the ground for all sorts of areas of maths and physics. For example he was working on fuzzy logic, fractals and a whole load of mathematical techniques, which have since become tremendously important. He’s a hero as well because of his commitment to peace. This was a man who left the Met Office in the 1920s because he discovered his work was secretly being used for chemical warfare. He then took his mathematical work and applied it to peace studies.

What was his finest hour?
He lost the manuscript for his book
on weather prediction by numerical process under a pile of coal during the First World War. I think his finest hour was when he found it again! 

Is there anything you don’t particularly admire about him?
I think Quaker conscientious objectors like Richardson had a much stronger case in the First World War than in the Second. I would have found it very hard to maintain a pacifist stance during the latter stages of the Second World War. When other great scientists were sitting on war office scientific committees and things like that, Richardson would have nothing to do with it. Although, having said that, I’m beginning to suspect that he may have been doing some things quietly behind the scenes.

Can you see any parallels between his life and your own?
Not really but his ideas have changed my approach to writing novels. Numerical weather forecasting linked up ideas of uncertainty and predictability and this fascinated me when I started thinking about it in terms of a narrative. At the beginning of a book almost anything can happen, but as it develops, the number of possible outcomes gets smaller and smaller, which is what happens in numerical weather forecasting as well.

Giles Foden was speaking to Rob Attar

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