Waters of the World – Stories in the History of Climate Science

Writer and historian Sarah Dry shares some of her thinking and the process for her new book, Waters of the World, a history of climate science through the individuals who unravelled the mysteries of seas, glaciers, and atmosphere.


2,400 words: estimated reading time 9.5 minutes 


Waters of the World: the story of the scientists who unravelled the mysteries of our seas, glaciers, and atmosphere — and made the planet whole is published today in the UK by Scribe UK and by The University of Chicago Press in the USA later this month.

I often work best when I have multiple projects on-going. It sometimes happens that one of the projects ends up being finished and the other does not. That is the case with Waters of the World, which became an idea, and then a finished work thanks to a book that remains unfinished. That book is a novel about the physicist John Tyndall. Tyndall was a celebrated, controversial, and ultimately tragic figure of mid-19th century Britain with whom I have been fascinated for a long time. Like love, fascination is hard to parse, but I can try. It has something to do with the way in which Tyndall gives voice — in his copious letters, diaries and published writings — to an internal struggle between his commitment to materialism and the intense feelings that ‘mere’ molecules arouse in him. Tyndall is always living the paradox between believing that the world can be understood on purely physical terms, as the interactions of moving bits of matter, and the mysterious fact of consciousness, which he feels must arise from those molecules but which produces emotions which seem independent of and qualitatively different than them.

To put this in a more general way, what interests me about Tyndall is how clearly his experience of life is both a function of his scientific perspective and an influence on it. In classic Victorian fashion, Tyndall saw himself as an engine, overflowing with energy and subject to abrupt breakdowns caused by over-exertion. His descriptions of his daily activities, full of socializing, work and exercise and a detailed description of his intake of food and drink, are tiring just to read. As sensitive as he was to his own energetic fluxes, he was just as attuned to the flux of energy in the natural world. And the medium in which he most readily witnessed energy moving through nature was water in all its myriad forms. This insight into the transformation of water, via heat, in the atmosphere, oceans and glaciers of the planet, provides the direct inspiration for my book on the pre-history of climate science.

History of climate science - John Tyndall
John Tyndall. Photograph by Lock & Whitfield. Source: Wellcome Collection. CC BY

Tyndall’s perception of what he called the continuity of nature seems to have been automatic — he couldn’t help seeing the transformation of one form of energy into another. And he was seemingly just as reflexively driven to share that insight with others. The communicative spirit that animated him and made him such a passionate and successful speaker and popularizer of scientific concepts was, in this sense, a further manifestation of his obsession with connections and transformations.

So it is Tyndall to whom I owe the inspiration for this book. His book, The Forms of Water in Clouds & Rivers, Ice & Glaciers, is a model of the way a writer can use one topic to unite a variety of themes or subtopics, and a model of science communication. As I write in my introduction, I was not interested in reproducing Tyndall’s popular work on physics for a general audience. In Waters of the World, “water traces not the flow of energy but the flow of human activity and thought.” I’ve substituted people and their ideas for the different forms of water in which Tyndall was interested. My big story is not the story of water, per se, but of changing understandings of the dynamic aspects of the Earth’s atmosphere, ocean and ice sheets which eventually combined in the post-war period to generate a concept and a science of the global climate.

The Forms of Water... published by John Tyndall in 1872
The Forms of Water… published by John Tyndall in 1872

A multidisciplinary science

I’ve tried to avoid making this history too focused on the present and to convey instead something of the strange and alien quality of the past. At the same time, I have tried to knit these individuals together in a larger fabric of history that can illuminate our present moment. The question I’ve wanted to ask is: how have individual lives mattered in the history of our understanding of global climate? It seems to me that we expect too much (and sometimes too little) of our science and our scientists. We want them to give us certainty and accurate predictions when that may not be reasonable. We want them to be dispassionate in their findings but absolutely committed to their work. We want them to specialize in their subdisciplines, mastering a specific set of techniques, but we want them to produce knowledge (or data) which we can all use. My hope is that by better understanding the situatedness — in both time and place — of the work done by individual scientists, we can better understand the basis of our knowledge today.

This will not weaken the status of science in society but strengthen it by clarifying what kinds of knowledge it can produce and therefore what kinds of answers it can — and cannot — provide.

I began this book with the sense that we have lost an awareness of the multi-disciplinary nature of contemporary climate science. Instead, climate science is often represented as if it were a singular discipline dominated by computer modelling. I wanted to know more about what goes on and into climate science today. As an historian, my natural inclination was to go back into the past to explore ways of knowing with histories that extend before the important watershed of World War II. I wanted to better understand the relationship between observation and theorizing in the past when it came to what can loosely be called the Earth sciences. And I wanted to try to link those longer histories with more recent, post-war episodes to show the continuities as well as the changes that have occurred. Though I mention these figures, I deliberately chose not to re-tell the story of the discovery of global warming as a series of milestone discoveries (often largely unremarked upon by contemporaries) by men such as Joseph Fourier, John Tyndall, Svante Arrhenius and George Callendar, culminating in the work of men like Charles Keeling, Roger Revelle, Wallace Broecker and James Hansen.

What would another history look like, I wondered, one in which the drive for insight into the dynamics of the Earth’s atmosphere, ice and oceans came first and only later became joined with the more specific but existentially vital question of the impact on the Earth’s climate of rising CO2 emissions as a result of human activity? For that is, in fact, what happened. The history of the discovery of global warming is only a small part of a larger and longer history of our understanding of the planet using the changing tools of what can only broadly and carefully be referred to as physics.

A biographical history of climate science

As challenging as it is to write a rip-roaring read about the history of the physical sciences, writing a novel turned out to be harder still. Taking a biographical approach to the history of climate science has allowed me to practice some of the techniques of fiction within the bounds of history. I have not fabricated anything. What I have done is tried to convey something of the inner world of each of the people I have written about, and to capture what made them tick in the textured way we expect from novels.

There are plenty of pitfalls to doing history via biography. The charge of over-simplification, of hero-worship and of neglecting the role of broad social or political factors (such as the Cold War) which may limit or even dwarf the potential for individuals to be agents of their own destiny — all these can be fairly leveled at this sort of history. It is important to always remember the restrictions on individual action, and of our ability to understand history through this lens. Nevertheless, there is a very good reason to try to write history this way. It is almost always more engaging to read about individuals with whom we can identify than institutions or ideas that remain abstract. If biography would seem to reduce the scope for some kinds of historical analysis, it increases the potential for including other forms of nuance. These include a sensitivity to ambiguity or self-contradiction and to change over time — the novelist’s tools. It’s also important, I think, to find a way to understand the past in which human agency remains central. We can appreciate the changing scales of the institutions and practices of science and still seek to understand how it is that individual humans act within these scales.

My answer to how to square the circle of good history and good reading was to choose six important individuals whose lives would enable me to explore how the personal and the scientific were linked. I tried my best to find people who did work that was considered important at the time, even (and perhaps especially) if it has been neglected or forgotten since then. I also looked for people who I could bring to life — who had left rich and interesting enough traces that I could explore their private as well as their public lives. Finally, I wanted to create a coherent overall narrative arc that would make sense of more than 150 years of science and add up to more than six mini-biographies. This was the biggest challenge and the thing I worried the most about.

We often have better evidence for what scientists felt in the 19th than in the 20th centuries. Despite the large amounts of archival material that some 20th-century scientists have left, their published and even their private correspondence do not often portray or convey their emotional lives as richly as the letters and diaries and even the public writings of men like Tyndall and Piazzi Smyth. Joanne Simpson, the sole woman in my group, made a point of preserving some extremely personal journals in the archive she carefully prepared for deposit at the Schlesinger Library. These give great insight into a passionate love affair that was obviously of great personal significance to her. That it was with a colleague who shared with her the experience of flying through clouds in order to study them tells us something about the kind of life she led. This kind of documentation is, in my experience, a rarity in 20th-century physical sciences. And Simpson’s archive itself, despite the evident care with which she prepared it, is far from complete. It contains almost no correspondence, for example, and few pictures from her early married life as a result of tumultuous moves.

History of climate science - Joanne Simpson examining images of clouds
Joanne Simpson examining images of clouds that she filmed during long flights between islands in the tropical Pacific. Source: The Schlesinger Library / NASA Earth Observatory

In other cases, I had very little with which to reconstruct the inner life of an individual but did the best I could. Gilbert Walker, whose statistical researches on meteorology would seem to be as far from the physical world as possible — reducing weather and climate to a realm of pure number — had a tantalizing episode of ‘breakdown’ in his past, requiring recuperation in Switzerland. It was frustrating not to find more in the record than a few euphemistic references to this episode. But I felt that was enough to suggest the tension that accompanied this sort of work and to imply the toll it could take on a person.

The history of climate science has become very important today. If we are to make good decisions as a society about how to act on imperfect knowledge in the face of dramatic climate change, we need to have as good an understanding as possible of the nature of the knowledge we do have. The history of our understanding of the planet is important both because it shows the length of our investigations into the planet and the extent to which they are reliable or robust. Personal knowledge is, ultimately, the foundation of all the knowledge we have. The great assemblages of technology and people that generate so much climate science today can all too readily obscure the fact that individuals — and individual judgments — ultimately provide the foundation of our knowledge. History of science is important because it can reveal how we came to value the predictive power of a certain kind of physics as much as we do today. Our attraction to climate models that promise to foretell the future has a history that it is important to understand as we address the challenges of climate change. If by writing about individuals I manage to entice more readers to become familiar with the history of this knowledge and the ways in which it is both robust and limited, I think I will have done Tyndall — a man who joyfully embraced complexity even as he searched for order — proud.

Waters of the World, by Sarah Dry: a history of the scientists who unravelled the mysteries of our seas, glaciers, and atmosphere
Waters of the World, by Sarah Dry – published by Scribe UK.

Find out more 

Sarah’s book, Waters of the World: the story of the scientists who unravelled the mysteries of our seas, glaciers, and atmosphere — and made the planet whole, is published in the UK by Scribe UK and by The University of Chicago Press in the USA. It is described by science writer Philip Ball as “not only timely but also one of the most beautifully written books on science that I have seen in a long time.”

In her previous post for ClimateCultures, as part of our series on A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects, Sarah discusses Charles Piazzi Smyth — who also features in Waters of the World. Piazzi Smyth travelled the world studying the heavens and the earthly atmosphere that so often blocked his view. An obsessive who spent long hours perfecting his observing technique with the telescope, the spectroscope and the camera, he took 144 photographs of clouds from the window of his Yorkshire home and printed a handmade book, Cloud Forms that Have Been To the Glory of their creator and the wonderment of learned men

A Personal History of the Anthropocene – Three Objects #8

Science historian and writer Sarah Dry offers objects past, present and future that help us investigate clouds and the gap between seeing and feeling. ‘What is not revealed often plays more powerfully in the imagination than what is.’


2,130 words: estimated reading time 8.5 minutes 


The challenge: the Anthropocene — the suggested Age of Human that our species has initiated — has a complex past, present and future, and there are many versions. What three objects evoke the unfolding of human-caused environmental and climate change for you? View other contributions at A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects.

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Looking was its own end — ‘Cloud forms that have been’

Charles Piazzi Smyth (1819-1900) was a Scottish astronomer who travelled the world studying the heavens and the earthly atmosphere that so often blocked his view. He was an obsessive, spending long hours perfecting his observing technique with the telescope, the spectroscope and the camera.

The photograph reproduced below (left) is one of 144 photographs of clouds taken by Piazzi Smyth in his retirement, from the window of his home near Ripon, North Yorkshire, during 1892 and 1893. He printed the photographs and bound them together in a handmade book of what he called Cloud Forms that Have Been To the Glory of their creator and the wonderment of learned men. Alongside each photograph, he included a page recording the time, temperature, pressure and weather conditions when each photograph was taken. His aim was to render the ever-changing clouds into something fixed which could be compared and used to generate a fuller understanding of the atmosphere. This was a continuation of a project that had begun with Luke Howard’s innovation at the start of the century, a nomenclature that distilled the multiplicity of possible cloud forms to just three basic forms.

Clouds: Pages from Charles Piazzi Smyth's 'Cloud Forms ...'
Pages from Charles Piazzi Smyth’s ‘Cloud Forms …’ Photographs: Sarah Dry © 2018 The book is held in the archives at the Royal Society, London

Smyth agreed with the scientific aim of reducing the clouds to ‘nothing but a few mechanical processes’, and he thought that instruments like the camera, the barometer, and the thermometer might one day help to bring such an understanding about. But what Smyth believed to be the ultimate purpose of looking long and hard at the clouds was more like devotion. As he described it

“the forms of beauty exhibited so frequently and prodigally before our neglectful eyes in clouds can only be reverentially looked upon by us. For are they not in truth and fact the perfect works of an all-wise, all-powerful and all-merciful though much to be feared, God.”

For Smyth, looking was its own end, and in looking he felt a connection with the divine.

What moves me about this book is how it embodies the deep ambivalence within the culture in which Smyth lived, with which he himself struggled. On the one hand, he was driven to try to reduce the complexity of the clouds to a set of physical laws. He achieved great success in this endeavour, becoming Astronomer Royal for Scotland at the precocious age of twenty-seven and demonstrating that mountain astronomy was possible by leading a daring expedition up the volcanic mountain at Tenerife. On the other hand, he was moved to a kind of desperate faith at the thought of the endless complexity and prodigality of nature, in the face of which even the best recording devices were impotent. His late-life cloud photography was less a quest to master the skies than a form of surrender to the ultimate unknowability of divine creation.

Today, we often try to separate science from emotion (to say nothing of science and religion), suggesting that to do good science is to be dispassionate. There may be very good reasons to try to carve out spaces from which emotion is explicitly excluded, but Smyth’s poignant book is a material reminder of the potential, within one individual, to embrace two very different ways of observing, and of knowing, the clouds.

An alien vision — CloudSat in the sky

Today, we can sit at home and look through the magical window of the computer at the clouds from space. This is not, strictly speaking, a new achievement. The first Earth-observing satellite program, named Nimbus after the Latin word for rain cloud, was launched by NASA in 1964. Since then, our vision of clouds from space has continued to improve, as instruments have gotten more sensitive and new satellites with new capabilities have been launched. Today, Nimbus’ successor, the less poetically named CloudSat, is part of the so-called A-train of six such satellites devoted to watching Earth.

Clouds - Down to earth: CloudSat being prepared for launch in a clean room at Vandenberg Air Force Base, CA, 2005
Down to earth: CloudSat being prepared for launch in a clean room at Vandenberg Air Force Base, CA, 2005 Photograph (public domain): NASA Source: Wikipedia (click image to link)

The kind of vision CloudSat provides is gratifyingly intimate, but it is also alien. CloudSat uses radar to cut through the clouds, revealing their insides as a surgeon’s knife reveals the inner organs of a patient. An animation (see below) of the inside of Typhoon Dolphin on May 16, 2015, reveals the dramatic structure of the inner eye of the storm, but it remains removed from human experience. That is, in fact, precisely the point. CloudSat reveals what would otherwise be invisible, the interiors of clouds and the storms into which they sometimes assemble. For all its scientific intent, this is a voyeuristic and even transgressive kind of vision, transposing the stark lines of the penetrating radar with the soft billows of the clouds, replacing the familiar vision of the clouds from below with a God’s eye view from above.

Smyth made much of the portability and intimacy of the tools he used. He liked feeling the spectroscope in his hand and devised a special viewfinder to enable him to simultaneously look up at the skies and down through the viewfinder of the camera he used. My interface with the earth’s clouds is through my laptop, a portable but nevertheless impersonal device whose workings are opaque to me. Despite the grandeur of the vision it offers, my computer — and the vast network of technology it accesses — brings me, in fact, no closer to either the satellite which passes the earth’s equator every 99 minutes precisely, or the clouds it so relentlessly, and magically transects. I know what I am looking at but I don’t know how to feel.

MOXIE — a Martian future

There are clouds of water on Mars. This came as a surprise to me as I researched this post. Only recently, scientists have realized that some Martian clouds are probably made of ice crystals, just like high clouds on Earth. Still photographs have been taken from the Curiosity Rover of moody Martian skies, ice crystal clouds brightening the glow of the setting sun. Even more remarkably, a series of photographs show thin stratus-like clouds in motion in the skies above the Curiosity Rover. Most clouds on Mars, however, are made not of water but of carbon dioxide, which makes up more than 95 per cent of its atmosphere (on Earth, it accounts for roughly 0.04 per cent). (Oxygen, on the other hand, is present at just 0.13 per cent, compared with 21 per cent on Earth). Most Martian clouds are, in fact, made up of tiny flakes of frozen carbon dioxide (no bigger than red blood cells) and they hover like giant foggy caps over the poles during Martian winters.

These clouds, and the carbon dioxide-rich atmosphere they float in, represents both a challenge and an opportunity to those who would explore or colonize Mars. Here is where MOXIE, the Mars Oxygen In situ Experiment, comes into the story. It is a desktop-sized prototype for a tool that could put the carbon dioxide in the Martian atmosphere to human use. If all goes well, it will land on Mars sometime in February 2021 and start trying to produce oxygen at a rate of 10 grams an hour. The idea is that this oxygen could be used by human explorers both for breathing, and, critically, as a propellant for fuelling the return trip to Earth. The prospect of beginning to alter the atmospheric chemistry of Mars is with us.

MOXIE already exists in prototype form and is expected to be part of the 2020 Mars Rover launch. As such, this little instrument contributes to the ultimate in futuristic thinking, the idea that humans can colonize Mars. MOXIE is a cute name for a jaunty instrument with a seriously ambitious goal that once seemed nearly impossible and now seems, depending on how you look at it, eminently achievable or wildly misguided.

Clouds on Mars: MOXIE & other science instruments on Mars 2020 Rover
MOXIE & other science instruments on Mars 2020 Rover Image (public domain): NASA Source: NASA Mars 2020 (click image to link)

Either way, there is nothing cute about the prospect of exploring Mars, a goal for which NASA is preparing in earnest. More controversially, Elon Musk, the CEO of SpaceX, has made much public hay of his ambition to go (at least) one step further: to ‘make life interplanetary.’ Musk frames his goal of colonizing Mars as one of outrageous optimism:

“You want to wake up and think the future is going to be great—and that’s what being a spacefaring civilization is all about. It’s about believing in the future and thinking that the future will be better than the past. And I can’t think of anything more exciting than going out there and being among the stars.” – Elon Musk, CEO&Lead Designer, Spacex 

What would Piazzi Smyth say about both Musk and MOXIE, about the ambition of pushing out beyond our heavens and into the atmosphere of another planet? And what would he feel when looking at these images of Martian clouds? I am not even sure how they make me feel. Are they frightening, inspiring, or merely strange? I cannot decide and that inability to know my own feelings tells me more, perhaps, than any decipherable feeling would. The distance between me and the cloudscape of Mars is contracting at the speed by which data travels from the Mars rovers’ cameras and NASA’s Earth-bound computers. It will contract further as projects to explore and possibly colonize Mars proceed. Even as they seek, quite literally, to domesticate Mars, these technologies make me aware, as I have never been before, of all the things I cannot know about Mars. Piazzi Smyth’s cloud photographs, for all the hopes they represented of increasing our knowledge, ultimately left him feeling less enlightened and more reverent. As any good writer knows, what is not revealed often plays more powerfully in the imagination than what is. What we cannot see, in other words, we have to feel. 


Back on the home planet, there is more to explore in the clouds at the Cloud Appreciation Society and the World Meteorological Organisation’s World Cloud Atlas. 

Your personal Anthropocene? Space for creative thinking... 

"What three objects illustrate a personal timeline for the Anthropocene for you? See the original 'guidelines' at ClimateCultures' A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects, and share your objects and associations in your own post." 

At its heart, the Anthropocene idea seems simple (if staggering): that as a species (but far from equally as generations, countries or communities) humankind has become such a profligate consumer, reprocessor and trasher of planetary resources that we've now left (and will continue to leave) our mark on the ecological, hydrological and geological systems that other species and generations will have to live within. In reality though, the Anthropocene is a complex and highly contested concept. ClimateCultures will explore some of the ideas, tensions and possibilities that it involves - including the ways the idea resonates with (and maybe troubles) us, personally. 

Your objects could be anything, from the mundane to the mystical, 'manmade', 'natural', 'hybrid', physical or digital, real or imaginary. What matters are the emotional significance each object has for you - whether positive, negative or a troubling mix of colours along that spectrum - and the story it suggests or hints at, again for you. Whether your three 'past', 'present' and 'future' objects are identifiably connected in some way or float in apparent isolation from each other is another open question. 

Use the Contact Form to send your ideas, or if you're a Member contribute your objects as a post.