551: Defining the Wind by Scott Huler

by Gerard

551.518: Huler, Scott. Defining the Wind: The Beaufort Scale and How a 19th-Century Admiral Turned Science into Poetry. New York: Crown Publishers, 2004. 250 pp. ISBN 1-4000-4884-2.

Dewey Construction:

  • 500: Natural sciences and mathematics
  • 550: Earth sciences
  • 551: Geology, hydrology, meteorology
  • 551.5: Meteorology
  • 551.51: Composition, regions, dynamics of atmosphere
  • 551.518: Wind

In 1983, Scott Huler was working as a copy editor and happened upon a bit of poetry in the Merriam-Webster Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary. It was a scale for measuring the force of wind, with numbered level from 0 to 12. Each level has a name for the type of wind, a rough speed measurement, and then a description that infuses science with poetry at a level that is almost awe-inspiring.

It was the Beaufort Wind Scale.

While a member of Her Majesty’s Navy in 1806, Francis Beaufort jotted down a simple scale into his field journal to help him categorize the wind at any given moment. Each notch on the scale is tied to an observable phenomenon. 0 is calm and “smoke rises vertically”; 5 is a fresh breeze in which “small trees in leaf begin to sway. The scale ends with 12 as a hurricane in which “devastation occurs.” He was man of constant observation. From his sketches of South American coastlines to his need for perfect hydrographic maps, his keen eye made a wonderful companion for his ever-writing pen.

Huler’s Defining the Wind is as much about the man behind the scale as the scale itself. He discovers that wind scales started with Tycho Brahe in 1582. From there, each generation created and refined wind scales to help them understand and codify the natural world. From John Smeaton to Alexander Dalrymple through Beaufort, and then to the Met Office and the BBC Shipping Forecast, the Beaufort Scale has gently guided billions of lives around the world.

Huler traces the scale through history and through genres. He finds renditions of the scale in children’s books, in musical composition, and books of poetry (and even corrects a misleading typo in a dictionary). His journey shows us that science is about both the experiment and the observation. One must be constantly observing to really find out what Nature is about. All the gadgets in the world can’t replace our own sensory organs, and while Francis Beaufort may have been the last of the eighteenth-century scientists, we should find some time to gently watch and record what is going on around us. Nature, rightly questioned, never lies.