How do we gain knowledge about the atmosphere?
It is easy to assume that current, well-accepted scientific knowledge about anything was originally discovered by the grace of inspired geniuses armed with vastly superior intelligence than the average thinking person.
In reality, very often the key ingredient is a roving curiosity and the determination to think about something for a long time.
For instance, the fact that the flow around mid-latitude cyclones (large, organized winter storms) is counterclockwise in the Northern Hemisphere was known long before it was physically understood.
Benjamin Franklin, the first great American scientist, was very interested in a number of meteorological phenomena. He undertook voluminous correspondence with his family in Boston while he was in Philadelphia. By comparing notes about the weather in those letters, Franklin came to recognize that stormy days with northeasterly winds in Philadelphia tended to occur just before such days in Boston.
Further, he noted that when such northeasterly winds were occurring in Boston, the winds were often from the northwest or west in Philadelphia. From these observations, he concluded not only that the flow around the storms was counterclockwise but that the storms were moving entities.
Today, we continue to acquire basic knowledge of the atmosphere combining careful measurements, detailed analyses, and computer-aided simulations. The path to understanding is very often “non-linear” as in this example. That makes it particularly difficult to accurately predict what the exact benefits and applications of basic research might turn out to be. That is why the pursuit of basic research is a fantastic investment with a guaranteed return.
— Steve Ackerman and Jonathan Martin, professors in the UW-Madison department of atmospheric and oceanic sciences, are guests on WHA radio (970 AM) at 11:45 a.m. the last Monday of each month.