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

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