Never Wish on the Weather

It's unpredictable, and it's out of our hands. A look at weather forecasting with a humorous angle.

| August/September 1995

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    Just hold your finger up to the wind.

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The index of the 14th edition of Bartlett's Familiar Quotations contains 46 references to "weather." As an obsessive subject, then, "weather" can hardly compare to "love," which has more than 800 references. It may affirm, however, what most of us already know and indeed contribute to: People talk excessively about the weather but seldom say anything worthwhile.

People talk about it, celebrate it, condemn it, curse it, implore it, slander it, draw morals from it, rage against it, pray for it, and-on rare occasions-thank it. More than that, they listen to "experts" talk authoritatively about the weather on television. TV weather reporters remind me of sideshow barkers at county fairs: "Step right up, folks, and I'll show you the inside of cumulonimbus cloud." And we have newspapers that devote countless pages, in glorious primary colors, to the weather.

All of this palaver is, I suspect, the reflection of an unwavering truth: There is not a thing we can do about the weather. The weather is simply there, an enormous presence. Unable to change it, we resort to talk, mindless talk. In the wake of months of unrelenting rain this past winter, some of us in California find a little comforting banter our only shelter.

Nor can we really predict the weather with any certainty. Weather forecasters are mistakes waiting to happen. I know, because I once tried to forecast the weather-and failed. Let's go back a bit.

In early 1942, right after Pearl Harbor and with the draft snapping at my heels, I shopped around for a military program that would keep me out of the infantry. The infantry was not my cup of tea. I found an Air Corps meteorology training program at MIT.

For nine months I struggled with the calculus of weather, both differential and integral. It seemed very abstract; tenuously related to raindrops. My most vivid memory of that instruction is a lecture by a distinguished professor who said that three of his colleagues had evolved a series of equations that would forecast the weather a week in advance. The only trouble, he said, was that the equations contained so many variables that it took six months to solve them. By which time the forecast ...well, we saw what he meant. My second most vivid memory is that I was never able to master the theodolite. Don't even ask me what a theodolite is.

Nevertheless I graduated, was commissioned a second lieutenant, and assigned to active duty as the head of a weather detachment at Morris Field near Charlotte, North Carolina. It seems unreal now, but you can look it up.


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