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6.1 Lewis Richardson’s Fabulous Forecast Machine

The dream of representing the world inside a machine--of generating a robust, detailed, real-time forecast of climate states--reaches all the way back to the early days of meteorology. In 1922, the English mathematician Lewis Richardson proposed a thought experiment that he called “the forecast factory.” The idea is so wonderfully articulated (and so far-seeing) that it is worth quoting at length here:

Imagine a large hall like a theatre, except that the circles and galleries go right round through the space usually occupied by the stage. The walls of this chamber are painted to form a map of the globe. The ceiling represents the north polar regions, England is in the gallery, the tropics in the upper circle, Australia on the dress circle, and the Antarctic in the pit. A myriad computers[1] are at work upon the weather of the part of the map where each sits, but each computer attends only to one equation or one part of an equation. The work of each region is coordinated by an official of higher rank. Numerous little ‘night signs’ display the instantaneous values so that neighboring computers can read them. Each number is thus displayed in three adjacent zones so as to maintain communication to the North and South on the map. From the floor of the pit a tall pillar rises to half the height of the hall. It carries a large pulpit on its top. In this sits the man in charge of the whole theatre; he is surrounded by several assistants and messengers. One of his duties is to maintain a uniform speed of progress in all parts of the globe. In this respect he is like the conductor of an orchestra in which the instruments are slide-rules and calculating machines. But instead of waving a baton he turns a beam of rosy light upon any region that is running ahead of the rest, and a beam of blue light upon those who are behindhand.

Four senior clerks in the central pulpit are collecting the future weather as fast as it is being computed, and dispatching it by pneumatic carrier to a quiet room. There it will be coded and telephoned to the radio transmitting station. Messengers carry piles of used computing forms down to a storehouse in the cellar.

In a neighboring building there is a research department, where they invent improvements. But there is much experimenting on a small scale before any change is made in the complex routine of the computing theatre. In a basement an enthusiast is observing eddies in the liquid lining of a huge spinning bowl, but so far the arithmetic proves the better way.[2] In another building are all the usual financial, correspondence, and

  1. At the time when Richardson wrote this passage, the word ‘computer’ referred not to a digital computer--a machine--but rather to a human worker whose job it was to compute the solution to some mathematical problem. These human computers were frequently employed by those looking to forecast the weather (among other things) well into the 20th century, and were only supplanted by the ancestors of modern digital computers after the advent of punch card programming near the end of World War II.
  2. Here, Richardson is describing the now well-respected (but then almost unheard of) practice of studying what might be called “homologous models” in order to facilitate some difficult piece of computation. For example, Bringsjord and Taylor (2004) propose that observation of the behavior of soap bubbles under certain conditions might yield greater understanding of the Steiner tree problem in graph theory. The proposal revolves around the fact that soap bubbles, in order to maintain cohesion, rapid relax their shapes toward a state where surface energy (and thus area) is minimized. There are certain structural similarities between the search for this optimal low-energy state and the search for the shortest-length graph in the Steiner tree problem. Similarly, Jones and Adamatzsky (2013) show slime molds’ growth and foraging networks show a strong preference for path-length optimization, a feature that can be used to compute a fairly elegant solution to the Traveling Salesman problem.