Saturday, June 06, 2009

'Turbulence' by Giles Foden

Lewis Fry Richardson was a scientist of the first half of the twentieth century. A founding father of meteorology, he developed the concepts for numerical weather forecasting fifty years before the computing technologies became available to make this method practically useful. Richardson's number, the ratio of potential to kinetic energy in the atmosphere, is used today in a variety of fields.

Yet Richardson was also a Quaker and pacifist. A member of the Friends Ambulance Unit in the first war, and thereafter barred from subsequent academic positions, he destroyed his own work when he discovered it was being applied in chemical warfare labs. He later developed some of the first mathematical conflict models.

In Turbulence, Giles Foden has lightly fictionalised Richardson as "Wallace Ryman". Set in the months preceeding D-Day, the protagonist, Cambridge maths graduate Henry Meadows, is sent up to Scotland where Ryman is pursuing his pacifist modelling. In the infancy of scientific forecasting, Meadow's mission is to understand Ryman's meteorological theories to help produce a forecast adequate for D-Day.

Foden captures time and place well. The war has transformed everything: Scotland, near Holy Loch, is full of warships, submarines and American servicemen; down in the south of England, you cannot move for soldiers and supplies whirling in a logistical maelstrom.

We forget how critical the weather forecast was. A weather window of a few days was essential to land the troops by sea and air. Every allied country's weather forecasters were brought into the loop to politically share the fruits of success, or the blame for failure. Naturally they could never agree on a forecast.

Foden skillfully moves the plot along. Ryman is suspicious and uncooperative, Meadows is a brash young man at the mercy of his superiors' caprice, the randomness of events and the tantalising lack of cooperation from the girls he meets. And he has a back story, based (like the author) on a childhood set in Africa.

Will Meadows save the day? And how does it all turn out afterwards? These are the issues which drive the novel forwards.

Turbulence is the title of the book, and also the bane of forward prediction. Foden uses it as a metaphor for life itself, and its deployment does not always avoid a certain clunkiness. This is an arts person imagining how someone trained in science might use concepts from fluid dynamics to weave the kind of descriptive writing which literary fiction loves. But a lot of this book is first-person science-obsessed Meadows and he doesn't come across as the type. Nevertheless there is a lot to like about this book, not least that it introduces Lewis Fry Richardson to a wider audience.