Essay — From the June 2017 issue

Safety in Numbers

The mathematics of predicting war

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In cultivating this obliviousness we’ve had a lot of help. Evolution has bequeathed us a capacity to ignore the obvious almost as strong as our capacity to apprehend it; culture, meanwhile, lavishes us with distraction. And then there is our long history of triumph over wildness. If there is any justification for thinking that we are marching toward progress, it can be found in the freedom we have attained from everyday terror.

“Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we are put in this world to rise above,” Rose Sayer informs Charlie in the film adaptation of The African Queen, and if you’ve ever seen a wild animal up close, you know she is not just talking about sex. She means the frenzy in the eyes of the deer after you scare it up from its bed, or the frantic back-and-forth of the squirrel in the road, smart enough to know it’s in trouble, too dumb to know what to do. Animals may not be troubled by thoughts of mortality and extinction, but that’s only because they’re too busy with more immediate threats.

Say what you will about our alienation from nature, it has at least this one virtue: It relieves us of the constant confrontation with death that characterizes daily life for these beasts. We may not have been intended by a creator to rise above nature, and natural selection may not have provided us intellect specifically to moderate our fears, but it has to be counted one of the few nearly unambiguous achievements of the human race that we have used our big brains to free ourselves from panic long and well enough to sing songs, draw on cave walls, invent love.

And it’s not just those fight-or-flight moments that we’ve managed to minimize by building civilization. Hank Morgan, the Connecticut Yankee Mark Twain placed in King Arthur’s court, saves his skin and earns a place at the Round Table by predicting an eclipse, but the power to know when the sun will disappear or rise does not belong only to the wizard who can make the predictions. Knowing when is also knowing that. It is being certain that the sun will return from the eclipse or the night or winter, that it will not simply disappear and leave us in the cold and dark. To know that the heavenly bodies will make their appointed rounds is to know that the future is out there waiting to happen. The resulting confidence accrues to every poor forked radish on earth.

However accurately our forebears calculated planetary motion, they were left with one area of vast uncertainty: the sensible weather. Centuries after we learned to extract fuel from the ground, to recognize the microbes that were killing us and to kill them first, to send airplanes and rockets into the sky, to map the earth, to send instantaneous messages around it, to annihilate it with nuclear weapons: Long after all these achievements, farmers and sailors and city dwellers alike were still dependent on red-sky-at-night augury complemented by barometric observations and telegraphed accounts of what was going on upwind. Until very recently — yesterday relative to recorded history — it was hard to know whether a blackening sky foreshadowed a dangerous storm or a passing shower. But because it could be just about anything, terror was that much harder to keep at bay.

Not that no one had an idea of how to accurately forecast the weather. By 1922, a British mathematician named Lewis Fry Richardson thought he had figured out how to use atmospheric physics, direct observations, and differential equations to calculate the probability of the next day’s weather. His method, described in a book called Weather Prediction by Numerical Process, depended on brute calculation at a scale possible, at the time, only in Richardson’s imagination. He pictured an enormous indoor arena, arranged in tiers and rows like one of our sports stadiums. “The walls are painted to form a map of the globe,” he wrote. “The ceiling represents the north polar regions, England is in the gallery, the tropics in the upper circle, Australia on the dress circle, and the Antarctic in the pit.” In the seats were 64,000 computers “at work upon the weather of the part of the map where each sits.” Each computer — these were people who computed, not machines — would receive data from his district, run it through his assigned equation, and then pass the solution along to a regional boss, who would compile his section’s findings and pass them up the chain of command, which culminated in a man at a podium atop a pillar in the center of the hall, “like the conductor of an orchestra in which the instruments are slide-rules and calculating machines.” The man’s clerks would aggregate the information into forecasts and send them to the “quiet room,” where other clerks would relay them to the radiomen who would broadcast them to the world.

It would be nearly thirty years before an actual computer was built that could do the work of those 64,000 people. It took the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (ENIAC) twenty-four hours to spit out a (mostly accurate) twenty-four-hour forecast, but it proved Richardson’s point: mathematics could be used to predict the weather. Since then, satellites and supercomputers have improved the process such that we can now consult hour-by-hour forecasts of comparatively astonishing accuracy. Fearsome as they were, Katrina and Sandy were not total surprises. There was enough time to muster camera crews and correspondents. If you weren’t in the teeth of the storm, you could watch it whirl up the weather map, just another spectacle among spectacles.

Not that AccuWeather has entirely tamed the skies. The weather can still be pretty scary, even when you know what is coming. Indeed, it may be a good thing that, satellites and supercomputers notwithstanding, the weather is not yet fully domesticated. We still can’t know a hurricane will strike until just a few days before, and when it arrives, there is nothing to do but buy the milk and bread and ride it out. Whatever forecasting prowess we have achieved, we still have extensive practice at enduring the weather. It reminds us of its inescapability every time we step outside, the more so now that we are fully in the grip of climate change. The globe isn’t the only thing heating up around us. But our carefully cultivated inattentional blindness is going to come in handy.

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is a contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine and the author, most recently, of The Book of Woe: The DSM and the Unmaking of Psychiatry.

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