Skip to main content

Jet Stream - Tim Woolings ****

The importance of the jet stream - a high speed flow of air that usually carries the warm air that makes the UK warmer than it should be for its position on the Earth - is rarely fully appreciated. Recently, though, we have had a number of extreme weather events that were put down to shifts in the jet stream, emphasising its significant impact on everyday life.

Tim Woolings starts his approachable exploration of the jet stream on a beach in Barbados (all in the interest of science, of course) and takes the reader through a surprising amount of information in a relatively slim 200 pages plus notes. For the first few pages we're introduced to some of the basics of weather forecasting at this Barbados location, but then we segue from surf and sun to the winds, and up to around 10 kilometres, where aircraft tend to cruise: here we meet the jet stream, which is beginning its journey in this region.

The reader is rewarded with plenty of juicy little facts, such as the revelation that the Japanese sent balloon bombs into the jet stream during the Second World War in the hope that they would be carried to America. As it happens, they miscalculated the flow rate (it's particularly fast over Japan) and only 3 per cent reached the US, though one did hit a Sunday school picnic in Oregon, causing the only mainland US deaths during the war. Also Woolings gives us a thorough exploration of the technicalities of wind and specifically the jet stream, from Hadley cells to equatorial super-rotation. We even get a quick visit to the jet streams of Jupiter and a 'future' chapter than mostly considers the potential impact of climate change on the jet stream. There's a considerable amount of detail, but Woolings doesn't resort to mathematics and keeps the whole thing approachable.

The narrative flow is linked using two conceits - an imagined journey of a weather balloon named Grantley and short biographical snippets at the end of each chapter, about a mysterious Joseph - I suspect the snippets were supposed to give a degree of page-turning suspense, but I just found them irritating. The problem is, I think that Joseph isn't revealed to be Lagrange until the final chapter, and finding out little bits about an unknown individual's life isn't at all inspiring. I wasn't totally sure about the use of Mary Poppins as way of introducing the rarity of an east wind in London either - the vehicle seemed a little forced. I'm all in favour of narrative in a science book (and, if anything, there could have been more real life storytelling), but I'd rather it was limited to non-fiction characters. Although it is mentioned, I would have liked rather more about chaos and the chaotic nature of weather systems too.

All in all, though, a good and surprisingly enjoyable trip around a weather phenomenon.

Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you
Review by Brian Clegg


Popular posts from this blog

The God Game (SF) - Danny Tobey *****

Wow. I'm not sure I've ever read a book that was quite such an adrenaline rush - certainly it has been a long time since I've read a science fiction title which has kept me wanting to get back to it and read more so fiercely. 

In some ways, what we have here is a cyber-SF equivalent of Stephen King's It. A bunch of misfit American high school students face a remarkably powerful evil adversary - though in this case, at the beginning, their foe appears to be able to transform their worlds for the better.

Rather than a supernatural evil, the students take on a rogue AI computer game that thinks it is a god - and has the powers to back its belief. Playing the game is a mix of a virtual reality adventure like Pokemon Go and a real world treasure hunt. Players can get rewards for carrying out tasks - delivering a parcel, for example, which can be used to buy favours, abilities in the game and real objects. But once you are in the game, it doesn't want to let you go and is …

Uncertainty - Kostas Kampourakis and Kevin McCain ***

This is intended as a follow-on to Stuart Firestein's two books, the excellent Ignorance and its sequel, Failure, which cut through some of the myths about the nature of science and how it's not so much about facts as about what we don't know and how we search for explanations. The authors of Uncertainty do pretty much what they set out to do in explaining the significance of uncertainty and why it can make it difficult to present scientific findings to the public, who expect black-and-white facts, not grey probabilities, which can seem to some like dithering.

However, I didn't get on awfully well with the book. A minor issue was the size - it was just too physically small to hold comfortably, which was irritating. More significantly, it felt like a magazine article that was inflated to make a book. There really was only one essential point made over and over again, with a handful of repeated examples. I want something more from a book - more context and depth - that …

The Ascent of Gravity - Marcus Chown ****

Marcus Chown is one of the UK's best writers on physics and astronomy - it's excellent to see him back on what he does best. Here we discover our gradual approach to understanding the nature of gravity - the 'ascent' of the title - which, though perhaps slightly overblown in the words 'the force that explains everything' (quantum physics does quite a lot too, for example), certainly makes us aware of the importance of this weakest of fundamental forces. Chown's approach to gravity is a game of three halves, as they say, broadly covering Newton, Einstein and where we go from general relativity.
As far as the first two sections go, with the exception of the 2015 gravitational waves detection, there's not much that's actually new - if you want a popular science exploration of these aspects of the topic with more depth see this reviewer's Gravity - but no one has covered the topic with such a light touch and joie de vivre as Chown. 
Although Chown doe…