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The Checkered past of whirling winds

  • Jul 26, 2013
Rating:
+3
Sandlin's account truly does tell an unexpected tale about the history of tornado science in America.  Starting with Ben Franklin,  the only recognizable name in the history to the casual reader and one of the few who approached the topic with both an open mind and a scientific bent, the story spins downhill through bad science, lucky guesswork, bitter personal feuds, loud public pronouncements, and even worse unlucky and unfortunate guesswork. 

After Franklin's promising start (while wrong on much of the science, he at least approached it with an empirical mindset) based on his electrical research with the fabled kite and key, work on tornadoes went dark for many years.  Amazingly, for many of those years even the existence of tornadoes was questioned; the few eyewitness accounts from the small and widely-scattered population in the most prone areas of the midwest were ignored, discounted or explained away.

Then an 1835 storm in New Jersey attracted both professional researchers and amateur onlookers to study and theorize about what had caused such damage and what had caused the "so-called tornado" itself.  Now entered the field James Espy, an amateur, Robert Hare, a professional scientist, and William Redfield, yet another amateur and businessman.  Each offered a different theory about the cause of the storm and of tornadoes in general, and in the course of time and through very public disputes became bitter enemies as each defended his view in denigration of the others.  The tragedy, writes Sandlin, was that scientists would eventually find that each had uncovered a part of the complex science of tornado formation, so that if they had overcome their personal and professional differences they might have contributed to better understanding of tornadoes and how to forecast and survive them generations earlier.

Over time in Sandlin's account, even as the science advances, we find that the field remains the province of many decidedly unique and difficult personalities, leading Sandlin to speculate whether it is the subject itself that attracts the solitary and unsociable personality.  Eventually the science began to unpeel some of (but even today not all) the mystery of the tornado.  From 1954, when the first book dedicated solely to study of tornadoes in the 20th century was published, to today, when storm chasers are reality TV stars and adventure tour guides, we have learned much about these monsters of meteorology, and have even become able to identify weather patterns well enough to provide usable forecasts to help save lives.

While the history makes for fun fast reading, it isn't much value for research.  There is no index or footnotes, just bibliographical footnotes by section.  Still, for the popular science reader it is deep enough and interesting enough to satisfy the curious mind and perhaps stir the amateur meteorologist to their own bitterly-defended theory of tornadoes.

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July 26, 2013
Good rendition on a popular topic!!
 
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More Storm Kings: The Untold Histor... reviews
review by . April 28, 2013
Tornados... powerful, fearful, unpredictable... and a source of controversy over the years as people tried to figure out what they are (or if they even existed). Lee Sandlin tells the story of those who first tried to solve the puzzle in his book Storm Kings: The Untold History of America's First Tornado Chasers. I didn't enjoy this book as much as I thought I would, but it could well be due to incorrect expectations rather than the fault of the content or quality of the writing. I'll …
About the reviewer
Todd Stockslager ()
Ranked #1
I love reading and writing about what I have read, making the connections and marking the comparisons and contrasts. God has given man the amazing power to invent language and the means to record it which … more
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“Thrilling. . . . Sandlin's triumph is turning a historical survey of generations of American tornado scholars, victims and obsessives into something that reads like a brisk novel. It offers an epic scope reminiscent of Gabriel García Márquez; vivid, eccentric characters that could inhabit a Jonathan Lethem book; rivalries as intense as anything in Dostoevsky or Archie comics; and wonders as grand as any described by L. Frank Baum (but with better tornado descriptions). . . . But Sandlin's attempt to turn history into entertainment is not alchemy: As he documents magnificently, science and showbiz were intimately intertwined in America's early years. Ben Franklin's fascination with electricity (his famed kite and key experiment unintentionally establishing him as a storm expert) came from watching "Electricians," traveling magicians who did sideshow tricks with static electricity. The lyceum circuit of the early 19th century saw semi-professional scientists give lectures and debates before an everyman audience, the validity of theories determined by audience applause. Even the scientific papers published in the 19th century, at least the ones that proved useful to Sandlin, so valued dramatic, anecdotal accounts that a seaman who witnessed a storm was as welcome as his professor to submit his paper, making academic journals as action packed as an episode of "Deadliest Catch" or "Man vs. Wild." With source material this narrative-friendly, it's no surprise ...
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