Lewis Fry Richardson

Reading John Houghton’s Global Warming: The Complete Briefing this evening, I was reminded of one of my favorite episodes in the history of science: Lewis Fry Richardson and the first numerical weather forecast.

Richardson was of that era that ended with the burst of modernism in the early 20th century – a generalist, dabbler in many things. A pacifist, he was working as an ambulance driver in World War I when he envisioned the calculations necessary to forecast the weather. “With much painstaking calculation with his slide-rule,” Houghton writes, “he solved the appropriate equations and produced a six-hour forecast.” The problem, as Houghton notes, was that it took him six months of work, which doesn’t really meet the timeliness requirements of a usable forecast. (He also seems to have gotten it wrong, I’m told, not understanding the importance of the relationship in his model of grid size to time step.)

But the coolest part is the solution he envisioned to get a forecast done in a reasonable time. Houghton again:

To apply his methods to real forecasts, Richardson imagined the possibility of a very large concert hall filled with people, each person carrying out part of the calculation, so that the integration of the numerical model could keep up with the weather.

I riffed on this last year in a story about the new Red Storm supercomputer (sub. req.), which uses an architecture conceptually quite similar to Richardson’s.

Richardson just wanted a way to forecast the weather, and he could not possibly have imagined much of the computer technology at Red Storm’s heart.

But the basic concepts he envisioned— a way for many calculations to swiftly be shared and integrated into a useful whole— lie at the heart of the machine to be built at Sandia.

Cray Inc. is building the $90 million Red Storm for Sandia’s nuclear weapons work. It will use 11,648 computer chips identical to the ones that power desktop computers.

The chips will be tied together in an architecture that bears a striking resemblance to Richardson’s idea.

“The guy was so far ahead of his time,” said Dave Gutzler, a University of New Mexico climate researcher and aficionado of Richardson’s work. “Almost nobody understood the significance of what he was doing.”