"Why do they always tell us about the weather at the airport? Nobody lives there."
My research answers George Carlin's question, showing how airport weather observations became integral to military and commercial power in the 20th century.
My dissertation, "Weathering Heights: The Emergence of Aeronautical Meteorology as an Infrastructural Science," explains how the development of aviation transformed the upper air from a scientific curiosity into a subject of commercial and military concern. I track a group of Scandinavian meteorologists, the Bergen School, as they spread around the world creating a global physics of the atmosphere and oceans. Funded by aviation interests, between the 1920s and the 1940s they forecast for Arctic exploration flights, established airline weather services, and trained weather officers for the military. Most influentially, they worked with aviators to reform how the weather was observed and conceptualized. The US Weather Bureau, for instance, was transferred from the Department of Agriculture to the aviation-oriented Commerce Department, moved its weather observation stations from the middle of cities to airports, and created a network for monitoring the upper air that inverted the epistemic hierarchy of weather. A generation of weathermen trained during World War II learned to value theoretical explanation over practical forecasting success, and to see surface weather as merely the local manifestation of the atmosphere's global circulation. Members of this generation dominated American meteorology into the 1980s, developed the computer models central to forecasting and climate change research today, and invented the television weather report.
Boring Science, Decisive Power
Aeronautical meteorology is one example of what I call the "infrastructural sciences," a set of purposefully boring sciences that are central to industrial life. To reliably deliver water, food, energy, goods, and information, technical workers must continually adjust large technological systems to the changing external environment; operating what environmental historians call "second nature" requires monitoring "first nature." This surveillance turns geographically-distributed, standardized observations into formulaic reports and forecasts. Because of the discipline and expense required to produce these public goods, most modern states pursue environmental surveillance as a basic aspect of governance. These sciences are culturally modest (they make few claims about what it is to be human or our place in the universe), and not oriented towards discovery. (In fact, astronomer George Biddell Airy passed up a good chance to discover Neptune because he felt the routine, precise observations his observatory made in support of navigation was more important.) But these practices do have a complex relationship to theoretical science. Academic researchers guide what and how networks monitor, and they often make theoretical claims using data repurposed from industrial use. Building on work like Simon Schaffer's and Bruce Hunt's studies of 19th century electrical metrology, Michael Reidy's explorations of tidal science, and Katharine Anderson's work on Victorian meteorology, I show how routine observation, particularly in the earth and physical sciences, became essential to the commercial productivity and military power of industrialized societies.