Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The weather forecast
[Here’s the pre-edited version of my review of Giles Foden’s new book Turbulence, which appears in the latest issue of Nature.]


Giles Foden
Faber & Faber, 2009
353 pages, £16.99
ISBN 978-0-571-20522-6

It’s a rare enough thing to encounter a novel based around one of your favourite obscure scientists; but when two of them appear in the same book, you feel Christmas must have come early. Add to this a plot that hinges on one of my pet nerdy topics – fluid dynamics – and I couldn’t help suspecting that Giles Foden had written Turbulence especially for me.

The result is compelling. Whether it fully works as fiction is another matter, to which I’ll come back. But Foden’s book one of the most attractive additions to the micro-genre of science-in-fiction for a long time.

Fluid dynamics features here in the context of weather prediction. That may seem like deeply unpromising material for a gripping story, but Foden has dramatized what has been called the most important weather forecast every made: that for the D-Day landings, the invasion of continental Europe at Normandy by the Allied forces towards the end of the Second World War. General Eisenhower, in overall command of the operation, had to be sure that the crossing of the English Channel would not be disrupted by bad weather. And he needed that information about five days in advance – a length of time that stretches today’s forecasting techniques to their limit, and which was in all honesty beyond the capability of the primitive, pre-computer prediction methods of meteorologists in 1944. Adding to that the need for a low tide to evade the German sea defences, the task confronting the Allies’ weather experts was all but impossible.

Foden tells this story through the eyes of Henry Meadows, a (fictional) young academic attached to the forecasting team led by British meteorologist James Stagg. The process by which Stagg and his fractious colleagues, including the brash American entrepreneur Irving Krick and the arrogant but astute Norwegian Sverre Pettersen, made their decision occupies the final third of the book. Stagg and Pettersen both published their own accounts in the 1970s.

Before that, Meadows is sent to rural Scotland to glean some vital clues about forecasting from the leading authority of the day, the difficult genius Wallace Ryman. Ryman is a fictionalized version of Lewis Fry Richardson, who Foden rightly calls ‘one of the unsung heroes of British science’ (he is perhaps best known for his work on fractal coastlines). Like Richardson, Ryman is a Quaker whose experiences in the Friends’ Ambulance Unit in the First World War have convinced him that war must be avoided at any cost. He therefore shuns collaboration with the military, and Meadows has to pursue his mission by stealth – an attempt that he mostly bungles in spectacular style.

In Scotland Meadows also runs into the second wayward genius in the book, this time without a pseudonymous disguise: Geoffrey Pyke, the man behind the Habbakuk project to build gigantic aircraft carriers out of ice reinforced with wood pulp. This so-called Pykrete is extraordinarily resistant to impacts and melting. There is also a fleeting appearance by ‘Julius Brecher’, a döppelganger for Max Perutz, who assisted Pyke during the war. This part of the plot may strike readers as far-fetched if they don’t know that it is quite true.

The more serious problem, however, is that Habbakuk feels like something Foden couldn’t resist cobbling on simply because it is such a striking tale. It’s certainly entertaining, and the portrayal of Pyke rings true, but there’s no real need for any of it in the plot, despite the framing device that has Meadows recounting his wartime exploits on board an ice ship built in 1980 for an Arab sheikh. When Meadows joins Pyke in London only to see the project terminated a week later, it feels like a cul-de-sac.

One could carp at a few other points of creaky plotting or narrative – Foden sometimes seems over-concerned to ensure that the reader gets the point, telling us twice why ‘Habbakuk’ is misspelled and revealing the purpose of a subplot about blood analysis in three successive encounters on the same day. But these are quibbles in a book that does a splendid job of animating a buried story of scientific endeavour and triumph. It is no mean feat to make meteorology sound both heroic and intellectually profound.

In any book like this, one has to ask whether the author succeeds in creating scientists who are fully fleshed individuals. In some ways Foden complicates his task by making Meadows explicitly withdrawn (the result of a childhood trauma in Africa) and awkward. One might argue that Meadows’ constant recourse to the turbulence metaphor and his narrow frame of reference skirt the caricature of a dry scientific life. Brecher similarly refracts everything through the prism of his own research topic (blood), while Ryman is the crabby boffin and Pyke the dotty one. But there’s motive in all this. Through Meadows we sense the dour, buttoned-up character of wartime Britain. And when he talks about turbulence and hydrodynamics, there is none of the breezy ‘beginner’s guide’ flavour that is the usual hallmark of undigested authorial research. Foden had the immense benefit of advice from his father-in-law Julian Hunt, one of the world’s leading experts on turbulence and meteorology and, fittingly, a recipient of the Lewis Fry Richardson medal for nonlinear geophysics. Skilfully balancing fact and fiction, Turbulence is a tale that is dramatic, intelligent and convincing.


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Tinworm said...
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Tinworm said...

This review is superb!

I haven't yet finished Turbulence but was intrigued enough to go and Google the characters to try and find out who was real and what, if any of it, had really happened.

What you have written here has really helped!

One thing still bothers me, though. My Googlings suggest that there really was a Ryman Number, is that not right? So, who was Ryman?

Best Wishes

Tinworm said...

Was it skilfully balanced between fact and fiction? I'd rather have had a faithful representation of Richardson than the peculiar invention of Ryman (with those odd, undeveloped diversions about his wife's miscarriages and requests for Meadows to stand in because Ryman couldn't deliver).

Undeveloped but repeated references to Africa, and the silly repetition of the Habbakuk [sic] spelling (and the patronising explanation) all irritated me too.

Very disappointing.

(do you read these comments?)