Wednesday Book: Lows, highs and quasi-science

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The Independent Culture
HERE'S AN interesting question. We are told, as children and repeatedly by the proverb, not to judge a book by its cover. So why is it that publishers expend so much time and energy poring over rival designs for upcoming works? Because people really do buy books based on a reading of its cover. If it carries a solarised picture of a woman carrying a gun with a cigarette hanging out of her mouth, it's probably by a "new wave" author showing off a journey into a weird place where people whom you wouldn't want to meet crash into each other.

On the other hand, if the cover carries pretty pictures of old maps and curlicued typefaces, and the backflap shows the author holding his or her chin in the thoughtful manner of someone doing mental algebra, then you know it is intended to be some sort of overview of a quasi-scientific field, with some history thrown in gratis. That field is rapidly becoming well-trodden by big publishers' boots: first Longitude by Dava Sobel, then Cod, and not long after that, the history of the tulip. Scientific histories are becoming publishing's equivalent of TV docusoaps.

However, as with the docusoaps, the quality is uneven. Personally, I found Longitude confusing, especially in the way that it seemed to leap around in time. Clearly, others disagreed - or did they buy it and leave it unread, as with Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time? Having begun happily enough with Air Apparent, I soon realised that I had another Longitude on my hands. The cover design recalls that book: fiddly typefaces, mysterious symbols, maps all over the place.

However, it seems doubtful that Mark Monmonier, who took a sabbatical year from his day job as a distinguished professor of geography at Syracuse University, New York, will see the same success as Dava Sobel. The book begins promisingly enough, with the shipwreck in 1898 of the Portland steamship, which foundered only hours after leaving Boston. The dead captain was criticised for ignoring weather reports which, properly read, would have told him that the balmy weather was about to turn vicious.

However, the tale soon degenerates. The grim detail that the corpses' time of death could be estimated by the watches frozen to their bodies is one of the last interesting ones in the book. It is rapidly replaced with worthy details about meteorologists and telegraphists (who were essential to the useful supply of weather data, being able to transmit it faster than the weather could travel).

Then Monmonier drops us in the deep and frankly rather boring end, to swim among a cast of 19th-century Americans seeking fame or fortune, or both, by guessing at the weather. That, though, does not have the transatlantic appeal that the struggle to measure longitude did - where there were warring personalities, grudge matches and a fortune in prize money at stake, besides a complex technical problem to be overcome.

This narrative lacks the compelling individual stories, anecdotal asides and plain intriguing facts that a book of this nature requires. The only one I could extract was the information that, in the northern hemisphere, if the wind is at your back then the depression causing it is to your left. I thought, as a comparison, of Gina Kolata's Clone, which had the benefit of a smaller scientific field, but focused effectively on both human and biological tales. Reading Longitude after Clone made the former's confused narrative painfully obvious, although both have a common thread of describing a race to be first.

There may be an interesting book to be written about weather forecasting, but this is not it. The story only becomes vaguely interesting to the casual reader once we arrive in the modern world, with TV and the Internet. But even a focus on the vanities of weather forecasters, or how a TV station so interest-challenged as the 24-hour Weather Channel can survive (it concentrates its efforts on the couple of minutes after the hour and half-hour, knowing people will have tuned out of the news for a weather update), would not have sufficed.

One thing that weather, and weather forecasting, tends not to have is that crucial race to be first. All you have to do is wait, and the weather will come to you. Everyone talks about the weather - but nobody ever does anything about it.