Studying a Pioneer of Modern Weather Forecasting: Q&A with Jonathan E. Martin

We talked to Jonathan E. Martin, the author of Reginald Sutcliffe and the Invention of Modern Weather Systems Science.

Reginald Sutcliffe and the Invention of Modern Weather Systems Science recounts the life and scientific contributions of Reginald Sutcliffe, an understudied and underappreciated pioneer of modern weather forecasting.

Q: What motivated you to spend this amount of time documenting Reginald Sutcliffe’s life and accomplishments?

Jonathan E. Martin: When I was first hired at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1994, my first assignment was teaching a senior undergraduate course in synoptic-dynamic meteorology – the study of the theory and observations of mid-latitude weather systems.  It was a dream come true since the phenomenology of these storms had fascinated me since childhood and my education and research experience to date had only heightened my enthusiasm for them as it had revealed to me their wondrous physical and dynamical nature.  As I prepared my notes for the course I was to teach that fall, it became clear that Sutcliffe had singularly elucidated the fundamental dynamics of the development of these cyclones, a process known as cyclogenesis, as well as the dynamical explanation for the coincidence of the characteristic frontal zones of such storms and the production of the clouds and precipitation associated with them.  This was the whole franchise of modern weather systems science and it had seemingly sprung from the mind of a single scientist in the late 1930s.  I was struck by the discrepancy between the importance of these contributions to modern understanding of weather systems (which informed the subsequent great advance in numerical weather prediction) and the relatively low profile of the man who had brought them forth.  Twenty years later a sabbatical afforded me the opportunity to begin examining Sutcliffe’s life in detail and perhaps remedy this unjust set of circumstances.


Q: When researching for this project were there any surprises that significantly altered your view on Sutcliffe or his legacy?

Martin: The core of my interest in Sutcliffe was his seeming monopoly on fundamental contributions to understanding mid-latitude weather systems juxtaposed with an incongruous obscurity as a scientist.  Nothing in the research that went into the book altered that basic view.  Nonetheless, it was surprising to discover that he was not interested in weather as a boy and, in fact, turned to the Meteorological Office upon graduating with his Ph.D. in Mathematics because there were virtually no other options at the time.  The Meteorological Office officially discouraged research and so a very talented Ph.D. in math was set to really boring tasks in the largely unscientific approach to weather forecasting then employed at the Office.  How, despite such intellectually suffocating circumstances, young Sutcliffe began to wriggle free and eventually elevate the forecasting enterprise to a hard science is an inspiring story.  Another unexpected aspect of Sutcliffe’s intellectual life was that he was a persistent skeptic of numerical weather prediction, perhaps the most unheralded scientific advance of the late 20th century.  Throughout the 1950s, when the enterprise was in its infancy, his main complaint was that it was not as good as what could be rendered by deep knowledge and expert judgement.  This was indeed the case and remained so for a good part of his professional career.  His perspective was sweeping; at the beginning of his career forecasting was a truly unscientific activity.  Then his own contributions elevated it to something much more rigorous.  It seems as though his skepticism was rooted in a frustration that too large a share of forecasting research effort in the 1950s focused on the computer, which was still quite limited.  He commented more than a couple of times later in his life that he thought the computer came too early – implying that important conceptual and theoretical work might have been displaced by an emphasis on tool development.




Q: The availability of an accurate forecast and our ability to check it is no small feat, yet it has become so routine it is almost taken for granted. What kind of challenge does this provide in touting the accomplishments of someone like Sutcliffe?

Martin: My experience has long suggested to me that most people have some level of interest in the weather.  In fact, I’d venture to guess that meteorology, in the form of weather forecasting especially, is the physical science with which the general public makes is most frequent and familiar contact.  By extension, I imagine that a good number of us who benefit from the easy availability of accurate forecast information probably harbor a companion desire to know something more about where it comes from – to peer behind the curtain a little.  To the extent that such a desire does exist in some segment of the population, I think it provides motivation for coming to know Sutcliffe, his life and his influential accomplishments.  In fact, given the increasing profile of weather and climate issues in the public consciousness, this may the perfect time to begin telling the stories of the pioneers, like Sutcliffe, who helped fashion the modern scientific infrastructure upon which so much of our current predictive capability is built.


Q: In the preface of the book you mention that Sutcliffe’s life, in many ways, “was unusually illustrative of the progress often associated with the century in which it was lived”. What do you mean by this?

Martin: The pace of progress in the 75 years since the end of WWII probably exceeds that of any other period in human history regarding advances in medicine, physical science, social issues, technology, and a host of other human endeavors.  Sutcliffe was born into a world where children were still working in factories as opposed to getting a basic education, male life expectancy in Britain was 50, and a reasonably reliable weather forecast hardly existed for the next day.  By the end of his life, child labor was nearly non-existent in the West, a typical British man could expect to live until 74, and outlooks as long as 5-7 days were as routinely accurate as the 1-day forecast had been in 1905. Sutcliffe himself was an agent of substantial change despite the catastrophic interruption to his professional life imposed by the war.  Like so many of his generation, he answered the call to duty without hesitation or complaint, served admirably, and went about rebuilding the world upon returning to civilian life.  I believe that the progress that was made in so many dimensions in the post-war world was a direct result of the intestinal fortitude of men and women whose perspective on civic duty and citizenship mirrored Sutcliffe’s.

Thank you to Jonathan! If you would like to know more about this book you can order your own copy or request it from your local library.

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