Huler: Defining The Wind

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Scott Huler, Defining the Wind : The Beaufort Scale, and How a Nineteenth-Century Admiral Turned Science into Poetry. New York : Crown Publishers, 2004. 290 pages, illustrated, with appendix, "notes on sources", and index.

Some books are interesting, some are worthwhile, some are fun; this book manages all three. Not many books lead me to exclaim or even giggle while reading them, but this one did. Odd, isn't it, for that to happen with a book whose title sounds so dull? But overlook the bit about "The Beaufort Scale" and take your clue from the word "Poetry". Huler has an unusual perspective on the Beaufort Scale, which describes the strength of the wind, and it's good fun and high scienticity to read his thoughts.

The book starts out sensibly enough. The author has had his attention drawn to the Beaufort Scale and he wondered about its origins, so he decided to learn more about Admiral Beaufort and his scale. He first came upon it in the pages of the Merriam-Webster New Collegiate Dictionary (9th edition) when he was working as a copyeditor.

I had never read anything quite like this. I was awestruck by its economy, by the vigor of its prose, so I showed it to other editors on the staff. They politely smiled and nodded and returned to their editing, but not me. I felt I had discovered a species of gem, a small miracle, and I pored over it like a poem or koan. [p. 8]

He quickly discovered that he was in for more than he bargained for. There was a lot to learn about Beaufort, including the fact that Beaufort didn't actually create the scale we associate with his name, but following Huler's adventure is definitely worth the price of admission. The book thus reads as a personal memoir crossed with an extended essay about the author's research and pursuit of his mission to learn everything he could on the arcane topic.

The search for meaning and understanding took him to distant lands and far-away times. Dusty nooks and crannies of forgotten corners of early science get investigated and swept out during Huler's investigation, which he attacks with a very scientific outlook. Obviously there was a time before our modern understanding of the atmosphere when people must have thought about what made the wind, but I hadn't even thought about it before.

Defoe did not know any of this [about the physical reasons for the wind when he wrote The Storm, about an unprecedented wind-storm in Britain in 1703]. His contemporaries didn't know it either, and it wasn't for lack of trying. Only a few years before, people still thought winds were generated by exhalations from the Earth, or came from holes in the ground or the mountains. In 1684, for example, Dr. Martin Lister, writing in the Philosophical Transactions, opined that the trade winds were caused by the "constant breath" of seaweed. The regularity of the trade winds across the ocean, compared with the variability of breezes on land, made their differeing sources obvious: "the matter of that Wind, coming (as we suppose) from the breath of only one Plant it must needs make it constant and uniform: Whereas the great variety of Plants and Trees at land must needs furnish a confused matter of Winds." [p. 62]

It's amazing the stuff that one can turn up in an investigation like the one chronicled here. This example below is entirely parenthetical, fascinating science and cultural history, outside the main course of the narrative but still close enough to merit peripheral attention.

(The Chronometer Office [of Great Britain], among other things, organized the first "time ball" in the world. A certain Captain Wauchope of the Royal Navy suggested that perhaps the best way to help captains rate their chronometers [so important for navigation]—that is, to set them and make sure they were running accurately—would be to make a consistent visual signal at a specified time each day, much as morning or noon cannons were sometimes used. The Admiralty tried out this plan in 1829 in Portsmouth, and in 1833 the Royal Observatory at Greenwich began dropping a red ball from a windvane atop its main building each day at 1:00 P.M. Captains in port could train a telescope on the ball and thereby set their chronometers. The system worked so well that time balls spread throught the world, and the Greenwich ball still drops daily. The first ball dropped on New Year's Eve in New York, by the way, 1in 1907.) [p.133]

The sensation of reading this book, I felt, was something akin to spending a warm, sunny afternoon on a shady porch, sipping lemonade and listening in thrall as the author recounts anecdotes about his researches and relates tales related to Beaufort and his eponymous scale and the times that produced both.

Once my fascination with the Beaufort Scale had surpassed mere interest and I had accumulated a thickening file of strange Beaufort Scale photocopies, letters, and artifacts, I could be depended on to pull it out to entertain friends who came to dinner. I worried I had become like one of those people who are obsessed with the overlarge electric train setup in the basement, or like the old woman in the joke with the trunk full of pancakes in her attic—that my fascination wasn't dangerous, but perhaps I should just keep it to myself. Instead, people expressed interest, and one of the things they like to do was go to the Merriam-Webster Ninth New Collegiate and scan the spread of pages the scale fell on for its companion words. "Oh, look!" on friend cried. "You have 'be-all and end-all'"! Also "beautiful people" (with or without initial caps). "Beau Brummell," and, especially delightful because of its proximity to the wind scale, "becalm". [p. 173]

Huler sees poetry in the Beaufort Scale, and he sees science as a very humanizing activity that brings one closer to nature. In his eyes the Beaufort Scale is an idea that takes something invisible—the wind—and makes it something that we can experience and measure and tell others about, putting humans into more intimate communion with the natural world. It's a remarkably wonderful viewpoint that, not surprisingly, I agree with. The point here would be that the author seems particularly adept at putting forth this idea in a very compelling manner.

He comes up with the idea of "The Beaufort Moment": "A Beaufort moment is any moment where instead of merely passing through my surroundings I notice them, notice them in a way that engenders understanding. [p. 242]" it's what the Beaufort Scale came to represent for him; he and his readers share the enlightenment.

And that is what I finally figured out the Beaufort Scale was trying to tell me. The Beaufort Scale is about paying attention. It's about noticing whether smoke rises vertically or drifts, whether it's the leaves shaking or the whole branches, whether your umbrella turns inside out or just rattles around some. More, it's about taking note of those details, filing them away, in memory or, as the Manual of Scientific Enquiry would have it, in the notebook you'd never leave the house without (along, of course, with your pencil and your map and compass). It's about being able to express what you've seen simply and clearly, in as few words as possible, so that others can share it. It's about the good of sharing that knowledge, of everyone paying attention so that, together, we can all learn as much as possible.

The Beaufort Scale is a manual, a guide for living. It's like a cross between the Boy Scout Handbook and the Old Farmer's Almanac: a bunch of cool information that you'll never be sorry you have, and a general policy of being prepared to deal with it: to notice that information and share it for the good of everybody involved. It's a philosophy of attentiveness, a religion based on observation: an entire ethos in 110 words. One hundred ten words, that is, and four centuries of backstory. [pp. 237—238]

This is a fun, informative, beautifully written and quirky little book that is bound to change the way you see the world for the better. What a delightful experience!

-- Notes by JNS

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