Aside on Lewis Fry Richardson

When I started this blog as “Scientific Quaker” back in 2016, I intended to write about science and faith (and some of the earliest posts are about the difference between religious and scientific truth and include my thoughts on faith). When people started asking me to move the Climate Lessons to a blog I did think about whether to start a new one or continue with the 2016 blog and eventually I chose to continue here.

But now my Climate Lessons have got onto Lewis Fry Richardson, I feel I can indulge myself in discussing this other “Scientific Quaker” and the difficulty of choosing between faith and career. (For what he did scientifically see here: Lesson 8: The first numerical weather forecast)

I don’t know a lot about him, beyond what is easily available on online searches, but I’d like to share what I do know.

Both “Richardson” and “Fry” are big Quaker names and I’m guessing he was brought up in families that had been Quaker for generations. In the 19th century, Quakers couldn’t go to university, and intelligent Quakers set up businesses instead. His father was a successful leather manufacturer. That had changed by the turn of the 20th century, though, and Lewis Fry Richardson went to Durham and then Cambridge Universities.

He did several different jobs – he was a generalist who found it hard to find the subject that really spoke to him – but eventually he settled in the Meteorological Office where he started to think about weather forecasting. In those days forecasts were based on pattern recognition – in other words they would find the last time the weather map most closely matched today’s map and then assumed that tomorrow’s map would be what the day after that last one was. Richardson realised that it might be possible to predict the weather based on an understanding of the physics behind the processes instead.

Lewis Fry Richardson’s Friends’ Ambulance Unit personnel card. From:

In January 1916 Britain introduced conscription when they realised that the war was going to go on far longer than earlier optimism had suggested. Quakers generally do not believe that any violent conflict can be compatible with a Christian faith and the young men of Britain’s Quaker meetings struggled with the decision of how to respond to the Peace Testimony of their faith and the conscription law. Some Quakers became absolute conscientious objectors – refusing any form of military activity and going to prison for these beliefs. A small number felt that their conscience required them to fight with their fellow countrymen. The majority of Quakers, though, joined the “Friends’ Ambulance Unit” which was created in 1914 as a response to the horrors of casualties in the war. The Friends Ambulance Unit served in both world wars to treat the injured of all sides – and after the second world war in helping displaced people and people released from concentration camps. (My grandmother’s cousin also served in it in the second world war).

At the end of World War One, Lewis Fry Richardson returned to the Meteorological Office, but in 1920 it became part of (what was to become) the Airforce, and he felt he had to resign. (It remained linked to the Ministry of Defence until 2011, when it became linked to the governmental department BEIS: when I graduated in the late 1990s intentionally ignored adverts for the MetOffice for the same reason that Lewis Fry Richardson did).

He did, however, write up his thoughts on weather forecasting in his book Weather Forecasting by Numerical Methods, which he published in 1922 and he worked on new ideas – but he destroyed all his work when he realised the military could use it to predict where poisonous gas bombs (chemical weapons) would disperse.

Instead, he applied the same concepts to trying to predict the likelihood of war – using equations to understand how much countries were preparing to fight each other. For those calculations he had to work out the length of the border between two countries – and that’s when he realised that borders were fractal (if you make your straight ruler shorter, it goes round more wiggles, and the border is measured as longer). But other than a few details like that (his fractal borders were described in the famous 1967 paper by BenoĆ®t Mandelbrot who developed the concept of fractals more generally), Richardson’s work in predicting the chance of war was ignored by everyone (I understand a few modern researchers of peace studies are looking at it now – Lancaster University now has a “Richardson Institute” for Peace Studies named after him). He ended up being a physics teacher in a tech college – the only job he could get with his record as a conscientious objector and his unwillingness to work for the MetOffice.

This story challenges any Quaker working in science today. In hindsight it seems a huge waste of his talents for him not to have worked for the Met Office. And yet, the Met Office was heavily involved in decisions in World War 2 that chose the best dates for bombing civilians in Germany. They still are used for the military. However, his resignation did not stop any of that happening.

I have always refused to work on military projects and, fortunately, that has had no real impact on my career (and has even got me out of a few projects that went wrong). But there are always grey areas. I’m setting up a large consortium at the moment that involves lots of scientists working on the observations that form the basis of climate models – and there are scientists from the navies of two countries who have asked to join the consortium.