- Ada, Oklahoma

February 23, 2013

Meteors and snow aren’t hard science

Lone Beasley Publisher
The Ada News

Ada —  

In the movie Monsters, the lead character describes a friend he had in college whose major was meteorology. Asked why he had chosen that course of study, the weatherman wannabe said, “Because that’s the only profession in which you can be wrong everyday and still keep your job!”

This isn’t literally true, of course. A weatherperson who is consistently wrong would probably find it difficult to maintain credibility and airtime, and therefore employment. But that statement expresses a subtle point about the “science” of meteorology. Not that we need that point explained to us. It was demonstrated in real terms firsthand last week when our local forecast called for rain.

And for the record, it did rain, if you were awake early enough Wednesday morning to see it. But most folks probably didn’t venture outside until clear liquid plummeting to earth had already transformed into gently falling white snowflakes, and plenty of them. 

The only people (including meteorologists) this didn’t catch by surprise were those physical mystics among us who don’t depend on broadcasts from college educated weathermen nearly so much as painful aches announced by way of arthritic joints. The rest of us were dumbstruck. 

Once again we are reminded of the limitations of meteorology as a science. Even with high flying weather satellites, fancy radar, barometric pressure and pinpoint temperature gauges, etc., etc., it is difficult to imagine weather forecasting ever being as accurate as the hard sciences of chemistry or physics. In the hard sciences, the variables are known and unchanging. Not so meteorology where the variables are nearly infinite and therefore unpredictable.

It has been said a butterfly flapping its wings on one side of the world affects the weather — albeit to an imperceptible degree — on the other side of the planet. Meteorology is closer than ever before to measuring tiny variables, but it is still a very long way away from being able to factor in this kind of delicate impact. 

For that matter, it’s a long way from measuring the effect on weather of a flying object a zillion times more powerful than a butterfly. Last week, surprised Russians in the Ural Mountain region watched in amazement and near panic as a white-hot streaking meteor blazed across the sky and found its way to the ground. 

Our snowfall was quieter and did less damage, but the meteor’s appearance came as no less of a surprise. Given the unpredictable nature of these events, it seems less of a coincidence to me that “meteor” and “meteorology” share the same first seven letters. 

In my mind it means astronomy also falls a bit short of being a hard science in the sense it too suffers from the curse of unpredictable variables. 

With unexpected snowfall, the worst impact is fender benders, stranded motorists and meeting cancellations. A more damaging effect may be in the offing if a large enough undetected metal ball from outer space surprises us in the same way it did our dinosaur predecessors. 

Hard science, indeed!


Lone' Beasley is publisher of The Ada News