Professor’s history of modern meteorology receives major honor

A Florida State University researcher whose 2008 book detailed the modern history of meteorology is garnering international acclaim for her work from those who know the topic best.

Kristine C. Harper, an assistant professor of history at Florida State, has received Atmospheric Science Librarians International’s 2008 ASLI’s Choice Award in the history category for her book, “Weather by the Numbers: The Genesis of Modern Meteorology” (MIT Press). The award was presented Jan. 14 during the 89th annual meeting of the American Meteorological Society in Phoenix.

“I could not have written ‘Weather by the Numbers’ without the research help I received from many archivists and librarians around the United States,” Harper said. “For the atmospheric-science librarians to recognize my book as being the best in the history category this year is a tremendous honor.”

In her book, Harper writes that for much of the first half of the 20th century, meteorology was more art than science, relying heavily on an individual forecaster’s lifetime of local experience. She tells of the field’s transformation from a “guessing science” into a sophisticated scientific discipline based on physics and mathematics.

The greatest factor making the transformation of meteorology possible was the development of the electronic digital computer, Harper notes. Earlier attempts at numerical weather prediction had foundered on the human inability to solve nonlinear equations quickly enough for timely forecasting.

“A weather forecast is of little use if it is made several weeks after the weather has come and gone,” Harper said.

Kristine Harper accepts her Atmospheric Science Librarians International award from Maria A. Latyszewskyj, Head, Environment Canada Library, Downsview
Kristine Harper accepts her Atmospheric Science Librarians International award from Maria A. Latyszewskyj, Head, Environment Canada Library, Downsview

After World War II, the combination of an expanded observation network developed for military purposes, newly trained meteorologists savvy about math and physics, and the nascent digital computer all came together to create a new way of approaching atmospheric theory and weather forecasting, Harper writes.

In “Weather by the Numbers,” Harper also examines the efforts of meteorologists to professionalize their discipline during the interwar years and the rapid expansion of personnel and observational assets during World War II. She describes how, by the 1950s, academic, Weather Bureau and military meteorologists had moved atmospheric modeling from research subject to operational forecasting.

“Not only did they have to contend with barely effective models and balky computers, they faced having to convince their colleagues that numerical modeling techniques would lead to better and more timely predictions,” Harper said.

Challenging previous accounts that give sole credit for the development of numerical weather prediction to digital-computer inventor John von Neumann, Harper points to the crucial contributions of Carl-Gustav Rossby, founder of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s meteorology program and a member of the renowned “Scandinavian tag team” of meteorologists who worked with von Neumann. (In 1945, von Neumann had settled on weather prediction as a suitably difficult scientific problem amenable to a numerical solution to showcase the capabilities of his proposed computer.) The team’s transformation of the discipline, Harper writes, was the most important intellectual achievement of 20th-century meteorology and paved the way for the growth of computer-assisted modeling in all of the sciences.

“Having spent many years working with these models as a meteorologist, discovering their history was a fascinating experience,” she said.

While “Weather by the Numbers” is Harper’s first academic book, it won’t be her last. She is currently writing another book on the use of weather control as a tool of the state in mid-20th-century America. Like “Weather by the Numbers,” it will address issues related to the history of science and technology, and environmental history.

Atmospheric Science Librarians International ( offers its annual ASLI’s Choice Awards for books in two categories: technical and history.