Review by Linden Ashcroft
Defining the Wind: The Beaufort Scale and How a 19th-Century Admiral Turned Science into Poetry
by Scott Huler
The Beaufort wind scale is simple metric that has been used by sailors, meteorologists and kite enthusiasts for more than a century to classify whether their days will be boring (i.e. 0=calm, smoke rises vertically), fun (4=moderate breeze, leaves and small twigs constantly moving) or terrifying (12=hurricane, debris and unsecured objects hurled about). It’s namesake, British Rear Admiral and hydrographer Sir Francis Beaufort, is generally regarded as a meteorological superhero.
But, as writer Scott Huler discovers in this engaging book, the development of the Beaufort Scale was anything but simple. And as for hero? Well, that’s not quite right either.
Told through the story of his own 20-year fascination with the scale, Huler explores the history of one of meteorology’s most famous tools with determination and humour.
He learns about the power of the wind from the top of a sailing ship, and the belly of a windmill. He delves into the history of wind scales in the basement of the UK Meteorological Office and among the reams of paper at the London National Archives.
It’s almost as much fun learning about his journey to get to the heart of the Beaufort Scale, as it is to discover the history itself!
As it turns out, the development of Sir Francis Beaufort’s scale is actually not the simple story of one clever guy who used numbers instead of words to describe the wind. It is a messy tale of maritime exploration, the scientific revolution, incest (yep), communication and obsession.
Huler’s lively overview of this complex history is very well structured. He links the past and present together without too many historical figures to get confused, or so many numerical tables that your eyes glaze over. Given the increasing importance of computerised and automatic weather observations in the early 2000s, the book’s release may have been quite timely too.
The fact that Beaufort’s story is not a Hollywood tale of a lone genius does not dampen Huler’s infectious passion either. I soon found myself caught up in his enthusiasm as I read this book, and began estimating the wind force almost daily, watching trees and flags to see how they were behaving.
While Defining The Wind is mainly about the history of observing the movement of air, it could easily be a history of early science communication as well. In particular, the desire to effectively communicate things simply and clearly.
Beaufort and his peers were champions of this, even starting a society in the 19th century to share science with “the layman”. Beaufort’s scale itself is a powerful exercise in clear communication: not describing the wind using complex equations, but by what everyone can see around them. Huler really takes this philosophy of “simple is best” to heart.
The other life lesson that Huler extracts from his research, is that observing the world around you—really noticing what is happening, as Beaufort did—is a better way to live. In fact, he suggests that the human body is the best observing instrument there is.
While I won’t argue with the benefits of being more observant, I did baulk at this idea from a climate research point of view. Historical climate studies show that human observations can be extremely prone to inaccuracies and biases!
But I won’t let that get in the way of a good story. This is a fine book for anyone interested in science and maritime history, natural observations, or the early beginnings of effective science communication.
It’s also a good selection for someone who wants to read a bit of science history, but is looking for something more engaging than a traditional historical tome.
In any case, I highly recommend finding a copy of the Beaufort Scale online, sticking it to your fridge, and having a go at defining the wind for yourself. You’ll be surprised at how fun it can be!
Linden Ashcroft is an Australian climate scientist working in Spain. She studies historical weather observations from Australia and Europe, and eats too much paella.