Science: Man's Milieu

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From the missile-testing station at Cape Canaveral, Fla.. a modified Viking rocket soared up 125 miles one night last week, its bright exhaust glowing briefly like a wrong-way shooting star. Its flight was a partial test of the "vehicle" that will lift the U.S. artificial satellite in 1958, and the instruments that will steer it, into its orbit around the earth. When the satellite is established there, one of its most important jobs will be to keep track of the global movements of the white clouds far below. It will then be busy at the homely old task of forecasting the weather, doing in essence what a farmer does when he looks up at the sky and holds a wetted finger to the wind.

Young Science. Between the farmer's wetted finger and the cloud-watching satellite lies the young and booming science of meteorology. A hundred years ago it hardly existed, and for another 50 years few people took it seriously. The "weatherman" was a popular joke, and his vague daily forecasts had little more prestige than the guesswork predictions in farmers' almanacs.

This attitude is slowly changing. The public still makes jokes about the weatherman from force of habit, but it relies on him too. Last year the U.S. public made more than 200 million telephone calls asking about the weather, and this year the score will be higher. Farmers called, hoping for rain. Vacationers, picnickers, soft-drink bottlers and garden-party hostesses called, hoping for clear skies. Every year more weather facts are demanded and supplied: sailing conditions for yachtsmen, rainfall on watersheds. Newspapers and TV feature weather maps. Industries, department stores, oil companies and airlines employ meteorologists. The armed services, more at the mercy of weather than in foot-slogging days, keep thousands of them busy.

One man who did as much as anyone to raise meteorology to its present high estate is a likable, high-spirited, round-faced Swede named Carl-Gustaf Arvid Rossby. Most leaders of modern meteorology are friends or past pupils of Dr. Rossby's. The "Rossby parameter" is important in up-to-date forecasting, and the grandest movements of the atmosphere are called the "Rossby waves." The history of modern meteorology is inescapably paralleled by Rossby's career.

Fractious Cyclones. Meteorology of the weather-adage type is at least as old as the Bible ("The north wind driveth away rain"; Proverbs 25:23), and knowledge of atmospheric behavior has accumulated slowly through the centuries. In the early 19th century, for instance, it was known that large areas of low atmospheric pressure sweep across the North Temperate Zone roughly from west to east and are apt to bring stormy weather. But this knowledge was useless for weather forecasting. The stormy "lows" or "cyclones"* move much faster than letters carried by stagecoaches, so in those days countries lying in their path could not be warned of their coming before they had come and gone.

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