Dr. Fred Bortz

Review of Defining the Wind: The Beaufort Scale and How a 19th-Century Admiral Turned Science into Poetry

by Scott Huler

(Crown, 288 pages, $23.00, August, 2004)


Reviewed by Dr. Fred Bortz

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Other Wind- and weather-related reviews on The Science Shelf include the following:

Headline and sub-headline from the Dallas Morning News

No gust; no glory

The stanza, my friend, is blowing in the wind

The wind:
Invisible but tangible, even quantifiable;
Potent in affect, calling forth poetry from lexicographers --
And reviewers.

Defining the Wind is the story of an obsession. It begins in 1983, when Scott Huler, then a copyeditor for a small technical publisher, discovered the entry for the Beaufort Scale (by which wind intensity is measured) in the Merriam-Webster Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary.

Mr. Huler was immediately captivated. What made the 110-words of definition unforgettable was its poetry. Between Beaufort 0 (calm), "Smoke rises vertically," and Beaufort 12 (hurricane), "Devastation occurs," was a series of rhythmic descriptions such as "Small trees in leaf begin to sway; crested wavelets form on inland waters." (Beaufort 5, fresh breeze.)

As one who polished technical prose for a living, Mr. Huler appreciated the scale's concise, clear, and vivid exposition. But its poetry compelled him to learn as much as he could about the man responsible for defining the wind -- 19th-century British Admiral Sir Francis Beaufort (1774-1856) -- and to discover his other writings.

Thus began a two-decade globe-trotting quest that produced far more than historical discovery. It thoroughly transformed Mr. Huler's outlook on research and produced a trove of information that became a book unlike any he had ever expected to write.

One of his first findings was that Admiral Beaufort was not the originator of a scale by which to define the wind, nor was he the author of the definition in its dictionary form. So Mr. Huler broadened his central question. He followed three threads: the development of the famous wind scale; its changing form and definition over more than two centuries; and the life story of the man after whom it is named.

He found each of those interesting in itself, but it is their juxtaposition that makes Defining the Wind fascinating for any avid nonfiction reader. Beaufort, though not a scientist, is a central figure in the transformation of science from a field based largely on observation at the end of the 18th century to one based on accumulation, recording, and analysis of detail by the middle of the 19th. (For example, he was largely responsible for Charles Darwin's appointment as naturalist on the Beagle.) And though not an artist or a poet, Beaufort was as careful with drawings and language and as demanding of clarity as any good copyeditor.

To some people, the devil is in the details. But a true researcher will revel in the details. That's what Mr. Huler joyfully discovered in his investigations -- and it shows in every page of this unusual and delightful book.

Fred Bortz is the author of numerous children's science books, including Dr. Fred's Weather Watch.