Brain Pickings

The Father of Modern Meteorology Pays Homage to Jonathan Swift in a Scientific Verse, 1920

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Literature and science converge in a playful riff on a riff on a riff.

Remember the first poem published in a scientific journal? The one that turned out not to be the first? Reader Marco F. Barozzi ups the dramatic ante by pointing out in an email that while J. Storey’s may have been the first scientific paper written entirely in verse, verses already appeared in a work of the English physicist and mathematician Lewis F. Richardson (1881-1953), who pioneered the application of physics and computational mathematics to weather forecasting. In 1920, he used a quatrain as an epigraph of his paper “The supply of energy from and to Atmospheric Eddies,” published in Issue 686, Volume 97 of the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society of London.

After his studies of air turbulence led him to develop the Richardson criterion, a measure of the ratio of buoyant to mechanical turbulence, he delivered his breakthrough in a clever rhyme playing on “Poetry, a Rhapsody,” a famous Jonathan Swift poem about fleas, and on the parody of Swift by Augustus De Morgan, A Budget of Paradoxes:

Big whorls have little whorls
That feed on their velocity,
And little whorls have lesser whorls
And so on to viscosity

The riff on Swift:

So, naturalists observe, a flea
Has smaller fleas that on him prey;
And these have smaller still to bite ‘em;
And so proceed ad infinitum.

And the riff on De Morgan:

Great fleas have little fleas upon their backs to bite ‘em,
And little fleas have lesser fleas, and so ad infinitum.
And the great fleas themselves, in turn, have greater fleas to go on;
While these again have greater still, and greater still, and so on.

What a beautiful testament to the notion that “those persons who have risen to eminence in arts, letters or sciences have frequently possessed considerable knowledge of subjects outside their own sphere of activity” and to history’s contention that the greatest, most original scientists are those who have cultivated wide interests and indiscriminate curiosity.

Everything is, indeed, a remix.

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