Sunday, 30 October 2016

Napoleon and the Weather: An Early Chaos Theorist?

Satellite image showing cloud formations over St. Helena.

There is a lot of weather on St Helena, and nowhere more perhaps than at Longwood, where Napoleon had plenty of time to dwell on it.

In the century before Napoleon's arrival there was much interest in meteorology, and there were "weather watchers" at a number of places in the British Empire, including St. Helena. (1)

Longwood in inclement weather

Some time ago I came across this interesting comment which Napoleon made to his doctor only a couple of weeks before he died:

in nature everything is linked together. The wind of today will, in a hundred years' time, cause a ship to founder off the coast of China. By this I mean to say that those who would know what the weather will be like through analysing what it has been in the past are mistaken. There is no such thing as a periodical return, and it is useless to seek to regularize the weather.(2)

This example of holistic thinking seems to me to be unusual in the Newtonian world in which scientists believed in providence and a clockwork universe of natural laws which it was their job to discover.

What Napoleon called a mistaken idea lasted for 130 years after his death. In the 1950's scientists still believed that it was posible to find regular weather patterns as with other natural systems such as tides and phases of the moon. (3)

Edward Lorenz was attempting to do this using computer models when he came to the realisation that the weather is inherently unpredictable. The father of chaos theory, Lorenz coined the term butterfly effect: a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil could determine the occurrence of a tornado in Texas.(4)

Napoleon's belief in the impossibility of finding laws governing the weather was not a St. Helena epiphany. In 1809 the famous French naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck presented to him a book on Natural History at a meeting of the French Academy of Sciences. Napoleon thought it was a book about Lamark's classification of clouds, of which Napoleon disapproved, and he treated him very unkindly:

"Do something in Natural History and I should receive your productions with pleasure. As to this volume, I only take it in consideration of your white hairs."(5)

Apparently Lamarck tried to explain, but he was brushed aside. Not surprisingly he never forgave Napoleon for that treatment

Napoleon of course was a brilliant mathematician and was fascinated by science. He had taken scientists with him on his Egyptian campagn, and gave much attention to the promotion of science during his period in power. Had he been allowed to proceed to the United States after Waterloo it was his intention to pursue a scientific career. At Malmaison as the Prussians approached Napoleon was apparently reading Humboldt's Voyage aux régions équinoxiales du nouveau continent . He wrote to Gaspard Monge, a member of the Academy of Sciences

For me idleness would be the cruelest torture. Without armies or an empire, I see only science as influencing my spirit. But learning of the achievements of others is not sufficient. I want to embark on a new career, to leave worthy undertakings and discoveries behind me. I need someone who can speedily bring me up to date on the present situation of the sciences. After this, we shall travel through the New World from Canada to Cape Horn and, in the course of this long journey, we shall examine all the phenomena of physics and of the globe.(6)

1. John D Cox Storm Watchers, The Turbulent History of Weather Prediction from Franklin's Kite to El Niño (New Jersey 2002), Charles W.J Withers Placing the Enlightenment: Thinking Geographically about the Age of Reason (Chicago 2007), Jan Golinski British Weather and the Climate of Enlightenment (Chicago & London 2007)
2. This comment was made to Dr Arnott, the British doctor who attended him in his final weeks, in response to the latter's assertion that enemas have no effect on the upper regions of the body.Memoirs of General Bertrand, Grand Marshall of the Palace, January to May 1821 (Cassel & Company, 1953) p. 180
3. John Higgs Stranger than We Can Imagine, Making Sense of the Twentieth Century (Weidenfield & Nicolson 2015) p 235
4. Higgs pp 235-7.
5.A.E.E. Mackenzie The Major Achievements of Science: Volume 1 (Cambridge 1960) p 158
6.Ines Murat Napoleon and the American Dream(English Edition, Baton Rouge & London, 1981) pp 17-18

Friday, 28 October 2016

St Helena Exhibition at Les Invalides: The Most Popular Ever at the Museum

In what seems like another age, before we realised that there were serious problems with St.Helena's new airport, I blogged about my visit to the exhibition at Les Invalides in Paris.

The exhibition of course had been planned to coincide with the airport opening, and was designed to promote tourism to the island! As part of this project the retiring Governor of St. Helena visited Ajaccio and Les Invalides and was received at the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Anyway the good news is that 90,000 people visited the exhibition over a period of a little more than 100 days, and it brought the island to the attention of many who had barely any knowledge of it. This attendance far exceeded expectations.

Congratulations to all concerned, and let us hope that 2017 brings better news about the airport, and some hope for those who have invested heavily in tourism on the island, which of course includes the French Properties.

Friday, 21 October 2016

St. Helena Airport: Light at the End of the Tunnel?

The St Helena Independent, October 21st 2016

Sometime this afternoon an Avro RJ100 is scheduled to land on St Helena. It will be using the shorter 02 runway, which avoids the major windshear problems which have caused the postponement of commercial flights. This involves landing with a tailwind, which apparently the Avro RJ100 is highly suitable for.

The Avro RJ100 is capable of carrying up to 98 passengers, though this afternoon's flight will have only 15 on board. The plane is being organised by Atlantic Star Airlines, who have long been involved in planning commercial flights from Europe to St. Helena. They have secured the services of two experienced Faroe Islands pilots. The flight should provide valuable information about wind conditions on St. Helena, and it at last offers some prospect of a resolution to the problem.

The flight began in Zurich, and made technical stops in the United Arab Emirates, Senegal and Ascension. Tomorrow it is scheduled to fly to Brazil, then Uruguay and finally to Chile. In the long run maybe it will be possible to make a combined a trip to St. Helena and Latin America. I certainly hope so.

I am keeping my fingers crossed. The Saints have had enough disappointments this year to last several lifetimes.

Postscript : The plane landed at 3.50 this afternoon.

Avro RJ100 arriving at St Helena Airport, 21st October 2016

According to the Governor's post on Facebook the plane took off again and landed into the wind with no problems. Hats off to Atlantic Star Airlines for their perseverance and commitment to the island.

Saturday, 1 October 2016

St Helen Airport - Napoleon's Revenge?

A first for St. Helena Airport: two planes side by side

The sight of two planes on the tarmac at the island's £290 million pound airport might seem encouraging. Alas one was hired by the airport contractors, and the other was removing someone for medical treatment.

It is nice to know that the airport is usable, although unfortunately not by the commercial aircraft it was designed for. Small planes can land, but the cost for tourists and certainly island residents would be prohibitive.

The economic cost to the island is tremendous. Its whole future was predicated on an expansion of tourism to remove its dependence on subsidy by the British Government.

The Legislative Council has discussed setting up an enquiry to find out who was responsible for this catastrophic decision. Whether it will ever happen is another matter. It would be tremendously costly, would probably not come to a clear conclusion, and would not in any way help to solve St. Helena's problems. It would simply confirm the prejudices of those who live on the island about the incompetence of the "white ants" i.e. expatriates, who are sent to govern them on what seem inflated salaries.

The problem, as most readers of this blog will know is windshear, which the Prime Minister was warned about at the time the decision to build the airport was made. The Guardian has published a useful diagram.

At some point the Government will have to make a decision: invest a lot of money to try and find a technical solution or build a new Royal Mail ship. The favourite technical solution seems to be take the top off one or maybe two nearby mountains! I have a horrible feeling that that might not end well!

Meanwhile the press in the UK and France has started to give the story some publicity. I would be surprised if there are not a few smiles on the continent post the Brexit referendum about another highly embarrassing British cock-up. Some on social media have described it as Napoleon's revenge, which seems a bit hard on the long suffering Saints.

The Daily Mail has published an image which is I guess worth a thousand words.