This “new meteorology”, as it was sometimes called, became culturally pervasive in the years following World War I. Not only did it lift the metaphors of trench warfare and place them in the air (the “weather front” taking its name directly from the battle fronts of the war), it also insisted that to speak of the weather meant to speak of a global system of energies opening, ever anew, onto different futures.
And it was reflected in the literature of the period. Writing in the 1920s, Austrian writer Robert Musil opened his masterpiece The Man Without Qualities (1930-43), a novel whose protagonist is a mathematician, with the scientific language of meteorology. “The isotherms and isotheres were functioning as they should,” we are told. “The water vapor in the air was at its maximal state of tension … It was a fine day in August 1913.”
What is interesting here is not simply that the everyday language of “a fine day” is determined by a set of new-fangled scientific abstractions, but also the fact that a novel written after the war dares to inhabit the virtual outlook of before.
Similarly to Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse (1927), where the pre-war question of whether or not the weather will be “fine” tomorrow takes on a general significance, Musil’s irony depends upon occupying a moment in history when the future was truly exceptional: what was about to happen next was nothing like the past. Musil’s novel – and Woolf’s, too – is in one sense a lament for a failed prediction: why couldn’t the war have been predicted?
Writing in the wake of his own initial failure as a forecaster in 1922, Richardson imagined a time in which all weather might be calculable before it takes place. In a passage of dystopian fantasy, he conjured up an image of what he called a “computing theater”: a huge structure of surveillance through which weather data could be collected and processed, and the future managed.
The disconcerting power of this vision, and of the mathematical model which underlay it, emerged from the idea that weather, encoded as information to be exchanged in advance of its happening, could be finally separable from experience. With the atmosphere of the future mass-managed in this way, we would never again need to feel under the weather.
Today, it has become commonplace to check our phones for the accurate temperature while standing outside in the street, and climate change has forced us to reckon with a meteorological future that we are sure will not be in balance with the past. With this in mind, it is perhaps worth returning once more to the cultural moment of “new meteorology” to contemplate its central paradox: that our demand to know the future in advance goes hand-in-hand with an expectation that the future will be unlike anything we’ve seen before.