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Author: Wallace Akin
Publisher: Lyons Press, ISBN 1-58574-607-X, 173 pp.
This book is about the famous Tri-State tornado of 18 March 1925, obviously. The author notes that he was 2 years old and living in Murphysboro, IL when the tornado struck there. He grew up to become a geographer and says that he has written the book, in part, to keep the memory of this great event alive. Of course, from my background as a severe storms researcher for 30 years, this event's memory is alive and well, so at least within my limited circles, the stated goal for writing such a book is unnecessary. To me and my colleagues, it's as if someone wrote a book to make sure no one forgot about President Lincoln, or World War II, or the Bolshevik revolution of 1917. To say this event has been "forgotten" ignores the fact that it still is being cited in formal scientific publications.1
Of course, there are many who don't share a meteorologist's passion for severe storms, so perhaps another book about this great event is not entirely without value. I'll quit this quibbling, and turn to the the book's contents.
It's just a short book, with 173 numbered pages (fewer than that containing actual text) and a lot of the text is retelling of first-person stories of the people who lived through the event or who were involved in the aftermath. A certain amount of this is useful and interesting. Even within this short book, however, I find that the stories begin to repeat themselves. I'm reminded of a book I read recently about the great January blizzard on the Plains in 1888 (not to be confused with the other blizzard of 1888 on the East Coast in March)2 -- in that book are told the stories of numerous blizzard survivors and those who died during the event. At first, such stories are riveting, but the sameness of them eventually makes finishing the book something of a chore. Obviously, the stories of survivors mean a lot to them personally, and this is not to belittle the impact of these great events on their lives, but many facets of the survivor's tales are similar and I'm simply saying that readers may find it tiresome to read so many similar stories. At least I do. The same thing began to happen to me with this book about the Tri-State tornado.
I also found that several passages in the book were simply about the author, not the storm. It's certainly not entirely inappropriate for the author to give some background information about himself and his family in the Preface, or perhaps in the Introduction, but the book is nominally about the storm, whereas the author seems to be inserting himself into the account throughout the book rather more than I would have liked.
More disturbing to me are the numerous passages in this book where the author attempts to present scientific "facts" ... some of these are in error, a few egregiously so. Moreover, there are times when the author is perpetuating mythology about storms and tornadoes. Some of this mythology is simply the regurgitation of myths begun by those calling themselves scientists but the cited "publications" are not the refereed literature. I'll list several examples here, including the worst of them, but it will not be an exhaustive list.
Overall, this book is at its best when it sticks to the presentation of first-person accounts and in dealing with the historical aspects of this large event. It is at its worst when it lapses into self-indulgence. Although some of the scientific content is acceptable, other parts are not -- naturally, a lay reader will not be able to tell the difference, which is a shame. I think the book has value simply for its presentation of historical accounts, but given its failings, I find it hard to recommend that anyone pay the price to buy it.
Rating: 1 star (out of a possible 5)
Author: Howard B. Bluestein
Publisher: Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-510552-4, 180 pp.
This book is the first quasi-popular book by a practicing scientist. Prof. Bluestein is also an accomplished storm photographer and this book showcases his storm images collected over many years of storm chasing.
Unfortunately, the size of the photographic reproduction is often
not as large as the images deserve, a real disappointment for those
who are seeking a "coffee-table" sort of book. This seems to be the
result of the book suffering from a sort of split personality,
apparently seeking to be both popular and rather technical at the
same time. In making the worthy attempt to serve multiple audiences,
Prof. Bluestein has produced a work that's not completely suited to
either. In addition to the small size of many of the storm photos,
some were done in black and white, which is a real shame in some
instances. I understand the reality of cost issues, of course.
Nevertheless, it's the first of its type, and so is a book that many storm enthusiasts probably will want to purchase. If some of the lay readers find some of the passages concerned with meteorology pitched above their level, they will at least have the photographs to offset this. Clearly, an effort to educate his readers is a worthy goal, and it's certain that at least some readers will appreciate the text devoted to this goal.
Prof. Bluestein is among the best storm photographers in the world, so he presumably has used the best of his images for this book.
Rating: 2.5 stars (out of a possible 5)
Author: Thomas P. Grazulis
Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press, ISBN 0-8061-3258-2, 324 pp.
In this review of Tom's book, I should point out right away that Tom is a long-time friend of mine and that I was one of the formal reviewers of the book during its progression to publication. Since I was involved at that level, my review can justifiably be said to be prejudiced. Having made this "disclaimer," however, I think my opinion is still relatively unbiased, and Tom would likely agree that I would never let mere friendship stand in the way of offering an opinion.
When Tom first discussed his book project with me, he noted that he was attempting to update and build upon the classic work by Snowden D. Flora - Tornadoes of the United States - now sadly out of print, but definitely a "cult classic" that served as an inspiration for many meteorologists, including me. Therefore, I was excited and eagerly anticipated seeing the manuscript when OU Press sent it to me for formal review. Tom has done seminal work in collecting factual information about past tornadoes and has self-published some enormous works summarizing his findings5 - a labor of many years, done with painstaking attention to minute details.
Tom is a meteorologist, although he probably can't be called a research scientist. Nevertheless, he's formed some pretty strong opinions along the path of his career - [In this regard, I'm in a position of a pot calling the kettle black, of course!] - but his opinions are at least based primarily on his long labors looking at the data he's collected over a period of several decades. Hence, his opinions are worth considering, in most instances.
This book is at its best when it focuses on the data and what they have to offer. However, Tom also has done a superb job of collecting first-person accounts that manage to be diverse, interesting, and relevant to his topics, such that I never found them tedious to plow through. Quite the contrary, in fact - his accounts add considerably to the text, just as Flora's did. I believe Tom has succeeded in capturing much of flavor of the best of Flora's book
On the other hand, the book is at its worst when discussing the science. No non-researcher can possibly have a deep understanding of how science works at the level of "cutting edge" work. Scientists are usually quite opinionated [I'm certainly no exception to this rule, as I've already admitted!], and tend to favor their own ideas, naturally, in preference to those of other scientists. This apparent antagonism is at the heart of the scientific process, necessarily involving the contention of competing ideas in the "marketplace" of scientific consensus. Although ideas can be presented in terms of diametrically opposed polar opposites, the reality is that there is a large core of current scientific consensus that underlies competing ideas. Without a thorough awareness of that consensus, scientific controversy simply cannot be understood. Tom has struggled to present the latest ideas simply because he really is not a part of the process. In no way is he alone among authors of popular books in this inability to present a clear understanding of what, after all, are still ideas in a state of flux. Generally, Tom's book succeeds more than any others in conveying the ideas of cutting edge meteorology of tornadoes and severe storms, but it still suffers from an "outsider's" perspective. This can only be resolved when some of the scientific players in the controversies write their own versions of a popular book on the subject - no such book has been written, to date. Thus, while I can probably nitpick this book on a few items, I concede that Tom has done the best job so far of expressing current science issues related to tornadoes in lay terms.
A discouraging aspect of this publication is the relatively poor quality of the photographic reproduction. Unlike the original Tornadoes of the United States (also published by OU Press but in an earlier age), in which the photographs were printed on high-quality paper as special "plates" within the text, OU Press simply printed the photos on the same relatively cheap paper as the text. This choice almost certainly was not Tom's, but probably was a cost-saving decision on the part of the publisher. It's a shame, because tornado photographs especially are a major factor in the minds of tornado enthusiasts - this choice reduces somewhat the strength of my recommendation to buy the book. It would have been better had this choice been made differently for this re-visitation of the Flora book by Tom.
Flaws notwithstanding, though, I think Tom has done an excellent job of writing a follow-up book to his inspiration example (Flora's classic book). He's succeeded, in my opinion, in most regards and so I have no doubt that tornado enthusiasts will buy and enjoy this book.
Rating: 4 stars (out of a possible 5)
Author: Richard Bedard
Publisher: Gilco Publishing, ISBN 0-9649527-1-8, 164 pp.
Since I have had the pleasure (?) of dealing with a fair number of media types and writers of various sorts, I've developed a rather deep distrust of their sincerity. They all seem to have some sort of agenda that stands between them and their subject, such that when I read their completed works, I have trouble recognizing what I told them, and mostly cannot detect any semblance of a "ring of truth" in what they write.
In the case of this book, however, I'm pleased to see an accurate depiction on the material. For once, I can read the book and get something of the real story and the real people. If you want to know something about tornadoes in Oklahoma and the people associated with them, this is the place to start. I'm not quite so positive as the author in my assessment of certain media "meteorologists" in his presentation of the "Weather Wars" in Oklahoma City, but that's my opinion. The author's sympathetic treatment of the people with whom he interacted is certainly a refreshing change from the "Geraldo Rivera" school of character assassination for the sake of personal gain that seems to dominate reportage these days.
I liked Part I, the treatment of the April 1947 Woodward tornado, although I must point out that attributing the figure on p.37 to "Don Burgess" is a minor gaffe, since that figure appeared in a paper that Don and I co-authored2 - and which is not included in his "Selected Bibliography" for some reason. Don certainly is wholly responsible for the figure, but some readers might want to know more about it and its relation to the standard picture of the 1947 Woodward event.
Part 2, providing a short science summary and describing the Oklahoma City "Weather Wars," is not particularly outstanding, but certainly is an adequate treatment of the subject. As I've noted, my views of some of the combatants in the OKC "Weather Wars" are not as sympathetic as the author's. Disregarding that issue, the picture painted by the author is one that most of us living in the combat zone will at least recognize.
It is Part 3, talking about chasers, where I believe the author has done his best work. Highlights: an accurate and enlightening history of Neil Ward's research and tribulations, a discussion of how the "Wizard of Oz" tornado simulation was done, and an interesting history of Dave Hoadley's chasing. My only gripe is that the distinction between hobbyist chasing and scientific chasing is not really made clear, but that's only a minor gripe. Since I know many of the people mentioned, it's a pleasure to recognize their character emerging from the narrative.
All in all, I recommend buying this book if you're interested in storm chasing. This is not a "how-to" book, however. It's designed more to give interested readers some insight into chasing and I think it's been successful in that regard.
Rating: 3.5 stars (out of a possible 5)
Author: Keay Davidson
Publisher: Pocket Books, ISBN 0-671-00029-2, 202 pp.
This book's foreword lays out its goal: "Oddly, no major publisher has issued a popular nonfiction book devoted entirely to tornadoes in many years. This book aims to fill that void." I believe this book manages to succeed in that objective, and to do so with some skill. However, the success of the book is flawed by some almost inevitable aspects of any outsider's treatment, and some avoidable problems, as well. Since my name comes up several times in the book, I also feel obligated to respond to some annoying aspects of the author's treatment of the personalities in the book.
I have no problem with being described as "aging" (only dead folks don't age!), or "cantankerous" (I'll wear that label with some pride!). I can even accept the notion of me as an "old grouch," and I'm flattered by being called "skinny" (!) even though that is obviously incorrect. Moreover, my facial hair (this seems to be an obsession with some reporters!) can't accurately be described as a "Burl Ives goatee" unless your eyesight is going bad. Nitpicky points? Certainly, but indicative of a certain carelessness with regard to detail.
If Mr. Davidson had interviewed me personally, I'd like to think that he would still have used at least some of the same descriptive terms. However, I have three problems with his treatment of my feelings about various topics.
...ironic words coming from ... a man who, in 1995, risked his neck to record what may be history's most incredible close-up video of a tornado.
is a grotesque caricature of the actual situation. I did not risk my neck (or any other part of my anatomy) during the Pampa event - at no point were my chase partner, Al Moller, and I in any serious danger. Had we been in danger at some point, we would've gotten the hell out of there! Further, to describe my Pampa video in these superlative terms is to flatter me merely for the sake of making his journalistic point. I'm not particularly fond of flattery in any form, but insincere flattery is its most egregious manifestation. Al's description of the chase can be found here.
Overall, I think that Mr. Davidson doesn't have Richard Bedard's flair for concise, accurate character descriptions (see my review of Richard's book In the Shadow of the Tornado, above). Although he does manage to capture a lot of Erik Rasmussen in the book, I don't get the feeling when he describes people (with the possible exception of Erik), such that I recognize those people, even though I know them. It certainly requires more words for Mr. Davidson to attempt to create reality in his verbal descriptions than Richard Bedard needed.
O.K. That vents my spleen. Now I can move on to less personal aspects of the book.
Unfortunately what I consider to be an inevitable consequence of his "outsider" viewpoint is that he hasn't done anywhere near as good a job with the science as he's done with the history of the science. For example, a significant fraction of the book is devoted to various aspects of the possible role of electrical activity in tornadoes. The scientific consensus is that electrical activity is not likely ever to be an important player in tornadogenesis. Although scientific truth is not determined by consensus, there are good scientific reasons for consigning electricity to being a bit player in the drama of tornadoes. Historical considerations demand that some attention be devoted to the topic, certainly. The electrical "connection" [pun intended <):-)] has been proposed several times but, in my opinion, the bulk of the attention on this aspect of tornadic storms is misplaced. There's no scientific basis for believing that electromagnetic processes play any important role in tornado formation.6
Another example of too much attention paid to a sideshow is the chapter on tornado modification.7 This is another bit player in the drama, and it will continue to be that way for many years to come, barring some unanticipated breakthrough. This is an interesting topic only to a fringe element within the profession and to a large number of crackpots, if my e-mail is any indication. The less said about this issue, the better, in my view of things.
As an outsider, Mr. Davidson has managed to give a generally balanced view of the controversies he's written about, which is a step in the right direction at least, but the scientific content of the book is rather less than what I'd hoped to see. The author has had difficulty in sifting the bugs out of the flour simply because he's not a scientist himself.
I think the emotional treatment in this book of the impact of the 1984 Barneveld event is actually a useful contribution. It does us all some good to consider the real impact of our favorite atmospheric phenomenon on real people! In this book, as opposed to the NOVA treatment of the same event on PBS several years back, which got carried away in terms of it dominating the presentation, I think this chapter is done pretty well.
From a scientific viewpoint, the speculations about the impact of global warming are way out of place in the book. At most, this topic (in a book that is, after all, about tornadoes) deserves to be relegated to a few sentences at most, perhaps in a footnote or an afterword, or whatever. Speculations about the impact of global warming on tornadoes are not very useful in a presentation on tornadoes to lay readers.
My final remarks reflect more of a personal perspective, again. This book is at least as good as most of the flood of material on the subject, but it looks to me to be another chance to "cash in" on the wave of popular interest in tornadoes triggered by "Twister." Mr.Davidson clearly is a good writer but he's just as clearly not going to stay in the tornado game for the long haul. He came in, did his research over some fixed period, is getting his royalties, and then he'll be on his way to the next hot scientific topic (perhaps one determined by next year's summer movie releases?). For those of us in the game for life, such journalistic "carpetbaggers" are a bothersome aspect of "Twister's" popularity.
Overall, I can recommend buying this book, but not with a great deal of enthusiasm.
Rating: 2.5 stars (out of a possible 5)
Author: Warren Faidley
Publisher: The Weather Channel, ISBN 1-888763-00-0, 182 pp.
This book is unabashedly a book about Warren Faidley and his photography, not tornadoes. Nevertheless, given the growth of interest in storm chasing, it's worth offering my comments here.
I have to say that I've known Warren for a number of years. At the beginning, we had a friendly relationship, but Warren's personality was transformed by his choice to be a "full-time storm chaser," to the point where his livelihood depends on being able to market himself and his images. He's forced to engage in self-promotion, of course, and any hint at criticism is viewed as a threat to his livelihood, engendering overreactions that have occasionally been bizarre. The book itself offers a short history of the evolution of his career, from his personal perspective. Its self-serving character is obvious. There certainly is nothing inherently wrong about pursuing the challenging goals he's set for himself and I've definitely never wished him ill along this path (or envied his choice to follow it), but it's evident that Warren has become rather prickly about any criticism as a result. He's threatened lawsuits aimed at friends of mine at various times and generally become so touchy about his work that I might even be risking his ire (and a lawsuit of my very own) just by posting this review! I'm saddened to see what has happened to Warren and the extent to which his commitment to a worthy goal has alienated a lot of his former friends, including me.
There can be no doubt, and never has been, that Warren is an excellent photographer, and his lightning photography long has been among the best anywhere. Many of his images that appear in this work, which is mostly a "coffee table" book, are certainly among the best examples of storm photography. The quality of the image reproduction is, thankfully, excellent -- a wise choice was the use of high-quality, heavy paper for the pages.
If you're a Warren Faidley "fan," the book's focus on Warren as the subject is fine and this book's for you. If you're interested in learning more about tornadoes and storm chasing, however, the content of the book is pretty thin. The storm chasing Glossary is a strange one - including such terms as "Lazbuddie event" that apparently are unique to Warren and wouldn't be encountered by most readers, unless they sought out an opportunity to meet Warren personally. There's not a whole lot of substance here, beyond what appears to be melodramatic accounts of a few of Warren's storm chasing adventures. Overall, the images are probably the best part of this book and it can only be a recommended purchase if Warren has succeeded in convincing you that he's the world's greatest storm chaser, or if you just want some excellent storm images on your coffee table.
Rating: 1.5 stars (out of a possible 5)
Author: Marlene Bradford
Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press, ISBN 0-8061-3302-3, 220 pp.
This book takes on a challenging task -- to trace the history of tornado forecasting (and implicitly, tornado research, as well). The author is an admitted "tornado enthusiast" and she clearly has done a lot of research to write this extensive treatise and been assisted by some of the participants in the tornado forecasting (and research) field.
The author is, and has remained, an "outsider" with respect to the field of tornado forecasting and research, however. Therefore, she depended on her sources for her understanding of the historical development of tornado forecasting (and research) that emerged from her research. Histories are mostly written by historians, not the participants in the historical events. One obvious reason for this is that the participants are too busy making that history to document its details. There's no doubt that Ms. Bradford has done those of us in this field a major service by writing this book and assembling many factual details associated with that history.
As I see it, one major problem with this account of that history exists, however. The picture that emerges from reading this book is not consistent with my picture of that history. I've known or at least met a significant fraction of the participants in this historical adventure, and my impression of this book is that I don't recognize the real people behind the photographs and the words. In fact, the characters of the participants don't come through in this work at all. Rather, the participants are unrecognizable, flat "cardboard cut-out" representations of the real people. It can be argued that this book is supposed to be the history of tornado forecasting, not the tornado forecasters -- but I find it difficult to separate the forecasters from the forecasting. Knowing these people is an important part of understanding why this field has developed the way it has. Being a participant for 30+ years myself, I believe a history of events without a substantial effort to understand and portrary the people who created that history is ultimately unsatisfying. Moreover, although Ms. Bradford apparently did a lot of research and interviewing, her sample of the participants is terribly inadequate and so reflects the impressions of a few key contributors rather than a truly representative sample.
On the infrequent occasions that participants attempt to create a history of the events in which they contributed, those attempts are often flawed by the tendency for those accounts to be self-serving. Nevertheless, I would argue that a reasonably accurate picture of any historical event or development cannot emerge without having the benefit of a number of different perspectives. No single perspective can ever capture that history. Nor can a limited sample. The history of this field, as written by me, or Bob Miller, or Al Pearson, or Joe Galway, or Don House, or Bob Maddox, or Ed Kessler, or Joe Schaefer, or Steve Weiss, or Howie Bluestein, or Ernie Fawbush, or Clayton van Thullenar, or Chester Newton, or -- well, by any of a myriad of participants -- would always be unique. Every individual sees things differently, and perhaps if we had historical accounts from all these people, certain common threads would emerge whereas, at the same time, other aspects of the history would be contentious. Only after reading many such histories and seeking documentation of the events as described by the participants could a detailed and reasonably accurate understanding of that history emerge. And that history's perspective would be tainted by the biases that the historian brought to the process, so we would need many historians to do the research and many of the participants to record their memories.
However, most of the participants are not going to document their viewpoints of this history, and not many "outsider" historians are going to tackle this project. The history of tornado forecasting is nowhere near as interesting as, say, the Civil War, to most Americans. Whereas there is a plethora of books about the Civil War, including many memoirs written by the participants, tornado forecasting (and research) is never going to receive even one percent of the attention paid to the Civil War. Ms. Bradford's effort, whatever one might think of it, is the only book entirely devoted to this historical topic, to date, and may remain so for a long time to come. The participants will continue to die and history will never benefit from whatever impressions one might obtain from meeting them and hearing them talk about their views of that history.
This history is exciting to only a few of us, and we should be grateful that this book has been written. My only suggestion to its readers is that they should focus on Ms. Bradford's factual informaton and regard the account of that history otherwise as potentially flawed by the biases in her sample of interviewees and by her inability as an outsider to have a proper grasp of the developments in the field. Frankly, it bothers me that so few of my colleagues are uninterested in why this field has evolved the way it has. When we're ignorant of our history, we're probably condemned to making the same mistakes over and over again. This book has presented a picture of the development of tornado forecasting in a way that sheds relatively little light on the issues and blind alleys of the recent past. Its presentation of events prior to the 1960s is a bit more balanced by revealing some of the contentious topics of that age. But even so, her sources are so limited, it's clear that her understanding of historical events was dominated by single individuals -- for example, the rise and fall of the fortunes of J. P. Finley, and the choice to ban the word "tornado" by the Weather Bureau (Here, Ms. Bradford benefitted from the historical work by Joe Galway.) -- or the evolution of SELS from the publicity associated with the Air Force severe weather forecast team (Here, Ms. Bradford took her cue from Bob Miller's historical memoirs).
Finally, it's disturbing that the book's dust jacket has a fake tornado photograph on its cover! The "tornado" was added to a photograph of a supercell storm ... its appearance right at the end of the road in the foreground is just way too "artsy" to be real and I believe I've seen this very photograph of the cloud sans the tornado. This is certainly not the author's fault, but it's a flaw that adds to my reservations about the book.
Rating: 2.5 stars (out of a possible 5)
Author: Mark Svenvold
Publisher: Henry Holt, ISBN 0-8050-7646-8, 289 pp.
This book is the product of another "carpetbagger" - someone migrating temporarily into the world of storm chasing, doing his research, putting down his thoughts on what he's seen, and then packing his bags, off onto some new topic to write about and sell yet another book. Mark Svenvold is, like Keay Davidson, a professional writer and a reasonably good one, at that (albeit, with a love for the occasional word that will send some readers off to their dictionaries). He had the benefit of an extended relationship with my friend, Matt Biddle, who is the obvious "star" of this book. Many of the book's characters are friends, colleagues, or acquaintances of mine - a not unexpected result, given the nominal topic. For the most part, Mr. Svenvold has been reasonably accurate in portraying at least the superficial aspects of these characters. Unlike Matt Biddle's, however, most of his characterizations are uniformly confined to the superficial. He did seem to find certain fringe characters compelling enough to delve into some details - for example: Sean Casey of IMAX and "Bushrag" fame with his absurd "Tornado Intercept Vehicle" and Steve Green, who seems to have some vague connection with NASCAR, with his different but equally absurd "Tornado Attack" vehicle - neither of which are known to me, personally. Some others (e.g., Warren Faidley, Shane Adams, and a few others) get some extended treatment. While Mr. Svenvold seems overtly sympathetic to some of the "fringe element" chasers, I got from him an overriding feeling of his thinly-veiled contempt for most of the characters, except perhaps for Matt Biddle and a select few.
Mr. Svenvold seems to be unable to establish a real focus for this book. Nominally, he claims it was motivated by a scary storm experience while in a motel in El Reno, OK, but this doesn't seem to be much of a thread to tie together the disparate parts of the book. Like many outsiders, he seems to be driven by a need to understand storm chasers - a need that often drives the media when they interview us. Within the book, with Matt Biddle's help, Mr. Svenvold has manged to winkle out many of the strange and even contradictory aspects of storm chasers, including our penchant for what he refers to as MOPE (minimal optimism, pessimistically engaged), and the widespread "geekiness" of chasers. As an outsider, of course, he remains mystified by chaser jargon and the technical aspects of the storm chase process and seems to be expressing some frustration (and contempt) about his necessary exclusion from the technical conversations.
Where he goes seriously astray in this book, in my opinion, is his marked tendency to wander off-topic, especially into abstract and obscure philosophical musings about things that have little or nothing to do with storm chasing - to provide only a few abbreviated examples:
p.30: In fact and in myth, the weather and the universe are rooted in 'that old confusion,' as a common prayer book from the 16th century describes it with uncommon accuracy, 'wherein without order, without fashion, confusedly lay the discordant seeds of things.' Hesiod's Theogeny, which predates the book of Genesis, describes and gives a name to this first early state: Chaos ...
p.90: The disturbing tremors in Church's work made themselves most strongly felt in paintings such as Twilight in the Wilderness, a moody piece dominated by an American sky. As the United States pitched headlong toward a civil war, the painting seemed to pose, without answering, a monumental question ...
p.92: The sublime is an 'emotional response,' as the classics scholar Glenn W. Most defines it, 'combining in some way joy, terror, and exaltation, to something that seems so entirely to transcend either our own, or else all human capabilities, that it overwhelms our normal petty instincts for self-preservation and self-aggrandizement, and instead fills us with a sense of exaltation." As a category of emotional experience, the sublime was a late refinement in human history, attributed to Dyonysius Longinus, about whom nothing is known.
The book is liberally laced with such diversions (also including global climate change, religion, and various American culture topics), often going on and on for many pages, apparently advertising the author's substantial scholarly background work, but serving mostly to motivate me to skip lightly through this book. For someone interested in storm chasers, this predominantly dark vision of the philosophical issues underlying storm chasing is rather more pretentious than illuminating.
I think the book will sell and it does contain elements that offer some limited insight into storm chasing (e.g. "extreme sitting" - p. 108, or "extreme waiting" - p. 132), but it's similar to Mr. Davidson's efforts - it fails to provide much more than superficial insight into either storms or storm chasing. There seems to be a trend among writers to try to psychoanalyze chasers, and this book is no exception. This is an apparently necessary result of a book written by an outsider who views chasing as essentially crazy activity. Who knows what history will say about storm chasers? Is storm chasing simply a temporary phenomenon resulting from the concatenation of cheap gasoline (see Ch. 11) and extensive highways with a culture dominated by selfishness and "catastrophilia" (see Ch. 4 for Svenvold's explanation of this term he has coined)? Perhaps, but in my view, chasers always have been a diverse group and trying to "explain" them collectively by parading a set of individual characters in front of the reader, as Mr. Svenvold does, is not likely ever to be successful at helping non-chasers grasp what chasing is about.
Rating: 1.5 stars (out of a possible 5)
Author: Nancy Mathis
Publisher: Simon and Schuster, ISBN 978-0-7432-8053-2, 237 pp.
This is another "outsider' work, and so my expectations were relatively low. However, for the most part, the author has succeeded in getting many of the details more or less right, evidently as a result of extensive research on her part. One notably absent component in the edition that I saw was an index. By seeing an early edition, perhaps this has been (or will be) corrected in later versions.
The book alternates in a somewhat erratic fashion between anecdotes about people who have had tornado experiences and some narrative that could be seen as an attempt to tell a story about the events of 3 May 1999 and the science behind those events, as well as several other noteworthy tornado events. From a pure storytelling viewpoint, I find the erratic alternation of content somewhat distracting. I think the book would have been improved by a more organized approach, based on the major themes - as written, I'm not sure even how to describe those themes. In her Introduction, the author says
This book is the life story of one tornado on one day and its consequences - not just any tornado, but the most powerful tornado to strike a metropolitan area. It is the life story of a tornado researcher and his legacy - not just any researcher, but the most brilliant meteorological detective of the twentieth century. And it is the story of the lives touched by such a harsh hand on May 3, 1999.
The first two sentences I consider rather hyperbolic, but close enough to reality that the arguable top rankings are at least plausible. However, I find the content at times to depart significantly from this summary. The stories of several tornadoes are told. The stories of several researchers are given some attention. Hence, the content seems rather more diverse than this introduction suggests. The telling of these diverse stories, including accounts of lives touched by several other tornadoes besides that of 3 May 1999, underscores what I see as something of a lack of focus in the writing.
A meteorologist reader will find some content that is inconsistent with an accurate description of the science. For example, on p.29 is the passage:
The upper levels of the dryline act like a lid on a teakettle, topping the warm, mois air until the air mass becomes so warm and so humid that it no longer can be held back. It continually jabs until the dryline weakens.
This is a pretty poor and even misleading description of the process I believe she's trying to describe. And anyone knowing the real story of Gary England's "ambush" of Ken Crawford in Clinton, OK would find the account she gives on p.90 to be rather misleading, at best. Her account of it is in no way indicative of Gary England's venality during that sorry episode. Fortunately, she balances that with a proper tribute to Ken's contributions via the Oklahoma Mesonet. She also repeats the myth (p.43) that the synoptic patterns associated with the two separate tornadoes that hit Tinker AFB in March of 1948 were essentially identical - this myth has been dispelled by Maddox and Crisp.8 I could cite additional problematic examples, but that might leave the impression that I think the book is laced with errors.
On the contrary, for the most part, the book manages to provide a great deal of interesting information, such as details about the life of Ted Fujita. This evidently is the result of many long hours of research and interviews. If she's failed to understand much of the science sufficiently well to express it correctly in her own words, this is understandable - and forgiveable. Further, the book is far from the most egregious example of botched science writing on tornadoes I've seen. Despite its flaws, the book is engaging and informative. On the whole, I commend it to those interested in stories about tornadoes and the people associated with their forecasting and research. The author has managed to create "pen portraits" for the characters she's written about, many of whom I know (including myself) that have the ring of truth.
Rating: 3.5 stars (out of a possible 5)
Authors: Mike Hollingshead, Eric Nguyen, and (sort of) Chuck Doswell
Publisher: Thames and Hudson, ISBN 978-0-500-51404-7, 187 pp.
No doubt it's potentially a concern about my impartiality that I would review a book that I had some role in writing. However, the real authors of the book are Mike Hollingshead and the late Eric Nguyen. As indicated on my website regarding Eric, I was asked to write an introduction and to author a section about the science of the storms that Mike and Eric so beautifully documented in this book - that request came before Eric's passing. Thus, although I'm a sort of author, I'm really only a bit player. The real subject is the images from these two young storm chaser-photographers. If you like storm images, the contents of this book will definitely feed your addiction to the pageantry of the skies during severe convective storms. I fully admit to being partial to the work of these young men. Eric's recent death adds a special poignancy to the legacy of beautiful images he leaves behind. This book is something of which I'm confident he would be proud, and justifiably so. He had many gifts and his photographic talent is but one of many. His co-author, Mike Hollingshead, also has the special gift of being able to find the right place to be to capture spectacular photographs. Together, they've created a very special book.
The authors have managed to convey their excitement and the thrills of the dedicated storm chaser via their textual descriptions of the events depicted in the book. Of course, only a small fraction of the total storm chasing experience comes through - these are their highlights, after all. The more typical hours and days of frustration and failure are only touched upon lightly in their descriptions. This is at most a minor shortcoming. Since the book is about the special experiences of these young men, it's not necessary to be completely forthcoming about the realities of storm chasing.
My suspicion is that buyers of this book will be more interested in the images than they will be in the text (especially my contributed text). If so, they'll definitely get their money's worth from this book. The quality of the printed images seems quite good, indeed, although the overall size is smaller than the images deserve. Perhaps my only reservation about this book in its totality is that it's so focused on the compelling and spectacular images that the personalities and motivations of the authors are pushed into the background a bit. These are interesting people, but ... ultimately, the book is about the storms, not about them, which is the way I believe it should be. Hence, this is also only a minor shortcoming. The English spellings, as opposed to typical American spellings, are a bit of a distraction for USA readers, but this is also trivial.
As noted at the start of this review, it seems something of a conflict of interest for me to recommend this book. However, rest assured, I have no pecuniary interest in the sales of the book, so its success will have little or no impact on me personally. I do, in fact, recommend this book to storm chasers, as well as to those seeking to understand why some of us are motivated to engage in this apparently weird behavior. Seeing the images in this book will help anyone understand what the attraction is all about. If you buy it, I hope you'll enjoy it as much as I have.
Rating: 4.5 stars (out of a possible 5)
Extreme Weather (Understanding the Science of
Hurricanes, Tornadoes, Floods, Heat Waves, Snow Storms, Global Warming
and Other Atmospheric Disturbances)
Author: H. Michael Mogil
Publisher: Black Dog and Leventhal, ISBN 978-1579127435, 304 pp.
Although the title of the book suggests that the range of topics includes far more than tornadoes, the title also suggests that someone interested in the science of tornadoes might want to consider this book. Unfortunately, the book's delivery of the content promised in its title is quite limited. I've known Mike for many years, and it's true that he's entitled to claim he's a meteorologist, but I don't believe that he can claim legitimately to be a scientist on the cutting edge of any part of atmospheric science. It's not at all obvious that Mr. Mogil is a recognized authority on the science of any of the atmospheric phenomena covered in this book, so I went into this with some serious doubts about his capability to explain the science properly. My concerns, sadly, were valid.
When scientists speak and write about their science, it's a common problem that they become so intensely focused on their words and phrasing that most laypeople find their presentations boring - scientists use words with considerable caution to avoid misinterpretations, misunderstandings, and confusion over their intended meaning. Mr. Mogil's presentation might be breezy enough to be palatable to lay readers, but the reality of this book is that it contains precious little of what I consider as meaningful science. Instead, the book's content is limited mostly to a rather self-centered presentation of Mr. Mogil's opinions about atmospheric science, including his admitted skepticism regarding global warming, along with a vast collection of what amounts to weather trivia. The use of sidebars for many of these presentations is a popular thing these days, but if the goal is to present the science (as the title promises), there needs to be more in-depth science presented rather than producing a blizzard of tidbits the author considers to be interesting. Right from the start, the book is rife with bad editing, misstatements, misconceptions, outright errors in the science, as well as potentially confusing presentations. Most of these are rather minor - there's a core of at least more or less correct information herein but it's liberally sprinkled with problematic content to such an extent that a lay reader would probably come away with a lot of erroneous "understanding" from a thorough reading of the book.
Let me offer some specific examples but I can by no means even begin to mention them all. On many pages of the text, I could find two or more examples on a single page.
I could go on at great length, but I believe this suffices to validate my assertions about the content. None of these individually is particularly serious, but the accumulated effect throughout the book is devastating. As if this isn't bad enough, the book is characterized by a theme seeking to discredit the whole notion of global warming, despite Mr. Mogil's lack of qualifications as a global climate change scientist. His is not a balanced presentation at all, and actually represents a major reason not to invest in this book as a means of learning about the issues in atmospheric science. Even if all the relatively minor problems I found were to be repaired, the diatribe on global warming would remain as a major obstacle for me to see this work in a favorable light. Dr. Harold Brooks has reviewed this book for EOS (the news magazine of the American Geophysical Union) ... see EOS, volume 89, number 28 (08 July 2008) for his review, which focuses on Mr. Mogil's misrepresentations regarding gobal climate change science.
I simply can't recommend this book for any reader seriously interested in learning about extreme weather phenomena and the science that has developed about them. There are many nice photographs in the book, and that might represent the only justification I can see for buying the book.
Rating: 0.5 stars (out of a possible 5)
Author: Gary Alan Fine
Publisher: Univ. of Chicago Press, 294 pp, ISBN-13: 978-0-226-24953-7 (paper)
This is not a book about tornadoes, but tornadoes and severe weather figure prominently herein. It's yet another book written by an "outsider" to meteorology - someone who writes about a topic without ever having done it him/herself. In this case, this particular outsider brings his own brand of expertise to the topic of weather forecasting. His focus, as a sociology professor, is on the "culture" of weather forecasting. Curiously, from where I sit, he got a lot of things right about that culture, despite having spent time only at a few places in the National Weather Service (NWS). Being a professor at Northwestern University, it was probably inevitable that he would spend the most time at the Chicago office. The Chicago office is, as he divined correctly, something of an anomaly in the NWS, so his experiences there would not necessarily be very representative of the whole NWS. He also spent some time at other offices, including the Storm Prediction Center (SPC) and apparently gained insight via the process.
Thus, despite his outsider status and having experienced only a small part of the diverse cultures within the NWS, the author has grasped several important themes in forecast meteorology: the private vs. public sector controversy, the oscillation over time in the NWS bureaucratic style between centralization and dispersal of authority, the odd retention of regional offices in between the national headquarters and the field, the curious role for science in operational forecasts, the hierarchical, quasi-military character of the General Kelly era as head of the NWS, and so on. The one glaring misunderstanding I see is that he really didn’t learn much about meteorological science and how the academic/research community operates within this field. But that’s both understandable and not a particularly troublesome omission.
I also find it amusing that Dr. Friday, as head of the NWS, was characterized as a "scientist" rather than a military officer - Dr. Friday retired as a bird colonel in Air Force before he was the Associate Administrator for the NWS (i.e., the Director). The fact that Joe Friday was not the bullying, dictatorial ex-soldier wearing his rank as a badge of authority that Gen. Kelly was could be seen as him being more of a scientist than a military officer. [Joe Friday didn’t insist on his subordinates using the title “colonel”, for instance, whereas Gen. Kelly and Adm. Lautenbacher did choose to retain their military titles.]
Overall, if someone reads this with the intent of gaining insight into how the National Weather Service operates, then they will be getting what I believe to be a mostly accurate picture. As such, I can recommend this book for those wishing to learn about the "culture" of NWS weather forecasters. The book offers nothing substantive about forecasters in other organizations (public or private), however. I'm confident those other organizations have some cultural characteristics in common with the NWS, but I doubt they would mirror the NWS culture precisely.
Rating: 4.0 stars (out of a possible 5)
Author: Mike Smith
Publisher: Greenleaf Book Group Press, ISBN 978-1-60832-034-9, 286 pp.
Mike Smith is a successful private sector meteorologist and business entrepreneur, who started his own weather company, Weatherdata (recently has been bought out by Accuweather, a giant weather business that has its origins with Joel Meyers and Penn. State University). There can be no doubt of Mike’s mastery of the private sector and it shows throughout the book. This is a rare example of an "insider" writing a book in this field. All in all, it turns out there's considerable worthwhile content in the book. However, it's rather hyperbolic to subtitle it as "the true story of how science tamed the weather" - I would subtitle it as "one man’s vision of how the application of science to weather warnings has made great strides in mitigating the effects of severe weather". Not so short and catchy but closer to reality, methinks. The science of meteorology is pretty far from having "tamed" the weather! To give Mike the benefit of the doubt, perhaps this subtitle was imposed on Mike by his editor.
I was prepared to find fault with this book, and I have. But I also find that Mike has articulated one concept very well - perhaps better than anyone else: the hidden value of weather services. He makes a very good case for the effectiveness of all weather services, public and private, in terms of how they return value far in excess of whatever has been invested in them. On this score, Mike deserves considerable credit for making this point in a compelling way. He also has told his version of the story of Hurricane Katrina and the city of New Orleans in unforgiving terms - a story that needed to be told openly and honestly.
Where this book lets me down is its unrelenting focus on Mike himself, his accomplishments and his successes. Of course, being successful in the private sector requires promotion, and Mike's book is, to a considerable extent, a paean to himself and his company. I expected little else, so I admit to being surprised at the book's redeeming value beyond promoting Mike and his company.
Mike likes to consider himself a scientist, although it's pretty obvious that Mike hasn't contributed anything of substance to the science of severe storms via refereed journal publications. Because he's a meteorologist but not truly a scientist, his understanding of the history of science is not very comprehensive. He really hasn't participated directly in the growth of meteorological science, but has the ability to apply its results, no doubt. Various people beside himself come in for praise in Mike's book - in particular, some of Mike's friends: the late Ted Fujita, the late Bob Miller, and Don Burgess, to name three. Although Mike’s descriptions of them and their deeds contain no glaring errors, they strike me as rather narrow interpretations of the history in which those people have participated. Many other scientists contributed to the science attributed to these efforts and are not mentioned at all. Mike apparently was an early storm chaser but, by reading this book, it's possible to come away with the impression that he was a pioneer of major proportions in applying chasing to science, which I believe to be something of an exaggeration of his role.
One problem I found was the perpetuation of what I consider the myth of Ted Fujita's "persecution" regarding the concept of microbursts. It's my impression that Ted's feelings of persecution were largely a product of Ted's extreme sensitivity to any scientific criticism, valid or not. Ted defended his ideas as if they were his children and not just the products of a creative, innovative, but decidedly human mind, capable of error. I have nothing but the highest regard for Ted Fujita and his contributions but the man I knew was not infallible or without flaws.
That brings up another thread that permeates this book: the persistent theme of the negative impact of Federal agency bureaucracy on meteorology. I have some reasons to agree with Mike about some aspects of this (for example, the current FAA policy of not disseminating weather warnings from the NWS within the FAA), but my reaction to the tone of the book vis-à-vis this topic is (a) that it reads like a David-Goliath myth, with Mike (and his selected friends) as David and (b) the many good aspects of government involvement in meteorology are given short shrift here. In this book, Mike portrays himself as a knight in shining armor ("The Paul Revere of Grandview High"!!?) tilting against the windmills of bureaucratic stupidity - more self-promotion, as I see it. Government bureaucrats are easy targets for the private sector.
I found a few technical errors in the book [e.g., the canard that low-level convergence creates upward motion - p. 39; or continuing to perpetuate the misconception that the second Tinker Air Force Base tornado of 1948 occurred in a weather situation exhibiting "great similarity" to that of the first such tornado case - p. 57ff (see also my review of the book by Nancy Mathis, above)]. An editorial error that should have been caught is that the Union City tornado of 1973 is mentioned (p. 111) before it is described (p. 192). This work is neither a science book nor even a history book (which it claims to be). Its primary focus is selling Mike and his company. The book's value would be enhanced if it had an index and a bibliography (which I would expect, given the author's claim to be offering historical perspective). It's an easy book to read and contains useful insights and some interesting historical accounts through Mike's eyes, but I can't recommend it for those seeking scientific understanding or comprehensive historical information. The book's greatest virtue is its compelling arguments on behalf of the enormous value of weather forecasts in saving lives and even property in potentially disastrous weather situations.
Rating: 2.5 stars (out of a possible 5)
Author: Angela Mason
Publisher: Black Oak Media, ISBN-13: 978-1-61876-001-2,
I was contacted by the author shortly before she completed this
book, asking for information about the Tri-State Tornado Reanalysis
Project with which I'm associated, having recently heard about our
work. She wanted to have our latest results but I didn't want to
share very much about our findings until we have submitted them for
formal publication. What appears in her book regarding our
project is only the tip of an iceberg, but working on the project gives
me a deeper understanding of the level of effort that her research upon
which this book is based really entails. I admire very much that
she did everything described herein essentially on her own and without
any financial support. Her illness (read the Foreword) has
delayed publication by several years, unfortunately. I'm pleased
to see this book hit the streets.
1 For instance, in:
Doswell, C.A. III, A.R. Moller and H.E. Brooks (1999): Storm spotting and public awareness since the first tornado forecasts of 1948. Wea. Forecasting, 14, 544-557.
2 O'Gara, W.H., 1988: In All Its Fury: A History of the Great Blizzard of January 12, 1888. J&L Lee Books, Lincoln, NE, ISBN 0-934904-04-9, 343 pp.
Doswell, C.A. III, and and D.W. Burgess, 1988: On some issues of United States tornado climatology. Mon. Wea. Rev., 116, 495-501.
4 This idea was first presented in:
Changnon, S.A., and R.G. Semonin, 1966: A great tornado disaster. Weatherwise, 19, 56-65,
which is not a refereed journal. Later, it appeared in:
Wilson, J.W., and S. Changnon, 1971: Illinois tornadoes. Illinois State Water Survey, Circular 103, 32-41.
In neither of these "publications" would there have been any semblance of a rigorous scientific review of this speculative notion.
5 For example, the now out-of-print epic work:
Grazulis, T.P., 1993: Significant tornadoes: 1680-1991. The Tornado Project, St. Johnsbury, VT, 1340 pp.
6 See item #38 at http://www.flame.org/~cdoswell/chasesums/Chase_FAQ/ChaseFAQ.html for a brief dismissal of this issue.
7 See Section 9 at http:/ /www.flame.org/~cdoswell/wxmod/wxmod.html for a discussion of tornado modification.
Maddox, R.A., and C.A. Crisp, 1999: The Tinker AFB tornadoes of March 1948. Wea. Forecasting, 14, 492-499.