People of Science: Lewis Fry Richardson

People of Science with Brian Cox - Joanna Haigh (2019) by The Royal SocietyThe Royal Society

Note on "The approximate solution of various boundary problems". (1911) by Lewis Fry Richardson (1881-1953)The Royal Society

Lewis Fry Richardson (1881-1953): mathematician and more

Best known for proposing a way to compute weather forecasts and for the 'Richardson number' (a measure of turbulence in a fluid), Lewis Fry Richardson applied mathematics to solve a variety of problems, from the length of coastlines to the causes of war. Fry Richardson's curiosity for statistics formed a narrative thread throughout his scientific life. 

Photograph of Karl Pearson (early 20th century) by UnknownThe Royal Society

After studying science in Cambridge, in 1906 Lewis Fry Richardson "sold [his] physics-books in order to raise money to go see Prof. Karl Pearson and learn about statistical proof".

Karl Pearson FRS (1857-1936) is considered the first mathematical statistician. He contributed to meteorology, for instance laying out equations for turbulence, but is best known today as a proponent of eugenics.

Office and Library, Eskdalemuir Observatory (ca. 1910) by Albert Edgar GendleThe Royal Society

In 1913, Fry Richardson was chosen as superintendent of the Eskdalemuir Observatory in Scotland. This first official duty for the Meteorological Office allowed him to develop a passion for meteorology.

Thermograph shed, Eskdalemuir Observatory (ca. 1910) by Albert Edgar GendleThe Royal Society

In the solitude of the Scottish observatory, his responsibilities included taking daily meteorological and geomagnetic observations.

Eskdalemuir Observatory building (ca. 1910) by Albert Edgar GendleThe Royal Society

The remote location of the observatory had been chosen in 1904 to relocate the geometric instruments previously held in London which were disturbed by the passage of electric tramcars.

Eskdalemuir Observatory (ca. 1910) by Albert Edgar GendleThe Royal Society

He relinquished his position "after much difficulty" in 1916, to join an Ambulance Unit in the First World War.

C.R.W. Nevinson, A Dawn, 1914, a drypoint (1916/1916)British Museum

Fry Richardson had been raised a Quaker and thought it his duty as a conscientious objector to join the Friends' Ambulance Unit.

Title page of Mathematical Psychology of War (1919) by Lewis Fry Richardson (1881-1953)The Royal Society

Fry Richardson's experience on the French front as part of the motor ambulance convoy (SS Anglaise 13) drove him to write Mathematical Psychology of War.

The treaty, self-published in 1919 and dedicated to his unit, proposed a statistical model to predict the likeliness of an armed conflict.

Figure 1 from Weather prediction by numerical process (1922) by Lewis Fry Richardson (1881-1953)The Royal Society

At his return from the war, Fry Richardson took up various scientific posts and published Weather Prediction by Numerical Process in 1922.

In the volume, Fry Richardson proposed for the first time an algorithm to compute weather prediction based on a mathematical model of the atmospheric conditions, rather than by extrapolating based on past observations.

People of Science with Brian Cox - Joanna Haigh (2019) by The Royal SocietyThe Royal Society

Royal Society Fellowship election certificate for Lewis Fry Richardson (1926) by The Royal SocietyThe Royal Society

In 1926, he was elected Fellow of the Royal Society, "for his knowledge of physics and eminent in the application of mathematics to physical problems of the atmosphere and other structures".

The same year, he took the deliberate decision to stop his investigations of atmospheric science and dedicate his time to considering the causes of armed conflicts.

Front cover from Arms and insecurity (1960) by Lewis Fry Richardson (1881-1953)The Royal Society

Fry Richardson's pacifism, born of his Quaker faith, had previously led him to resign from the Meteorological Office in 1920 when it became amalgamated with the Air Ministry.

He later put his scientific skills to the study of international conflicts. As with meteorology, Fry Richardson used probability and differential equations to find predictive indicators of war.

Portrait of Lewis Fry Richardson (1926) by Godfrey Argent StudioThe Royal Society

Lewis Fry Richardson's contributions to science are varied and many attest of a mind ahead of his time.

He did live to see the first computerised weather forecast in 1950 but did not see scientific analysis of war coalesce into an established conflict research.

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