News of the World, February 7, 2014


Each week we post a round-up of some of our most exciting national and international PUP book coverage. Reviews, interviews, events, articles–this is the spot for coverage of all things “PUP books” that took place in the last week. Enjoy!

Stop what you’re doing and take a breath. No, this isn’t a stress-relief exercise. (Although if you’re looking to unwind with a great book this weekend, you’ve come to the right place!) How much do you know about the air that we breathe every day? Donald E. Canfield has your answers.

His new book, Oxygen: A Four Billion Year History, was reviewed in Nature this week. This PUP book — which gives a rundown of all things “O” — is described as “engaging and authoritative.” Donald Canfield — one of the world’s leading authorities on geochemistry, earth history, and the early oceans — covers the vast history of oxygen on Earth, emphasizing its relationship to the evolution of life and the evolving chemistry of the Earth. With an accessible and colorful first-person narrative, he draws from a variety of fields, including geology, paleontology, geochemistry, biochemistry, animal physiology, and microbiology, to explain why our oxygenated Earth became the ideal place for life. Before you take another breath, check out Chapter 1 here.

Spending too much time this afternoon scrolling through #Sochi news? To get ready for the Russian-hosted games, we turn to PUP author Angela Stent. The Times Higher Education reviewed Stent’s new book, The Limits of Partnership: U.S.-Russian Relations in the Twenty-First Century, just in time for the upcoming games. Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman of the THE writes, “Stent, a Sovietologist who served in government under presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, expertly condenses the past two decades of this tumultuous relationship with an insider’s command of detail.”

Want to learn more about the host of the games? Pick up a copy of Angela Stent’s book for a look into what political issues may be the backdrop of the competition. You can view the introduction of the book here. Also, check out this NYT video, “Think Back: Olympics Meets Politics,” which highlights the inevitable political element that accompanies the world’s biggest games.


We jet-set to another area of the world, and another time, for our next book: Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia’s Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane by S. Frederick Starr. This book received a starred review in Library Journal this week:

Starr is that rare scholar with the horsepower to write about the medieval culture of this vast region that is bounded by Persia to the west, and China to the east, and India to the southeast….An indispensable title for scholars, this lively study should prove equally compelling to serious lay readers with an interest in Arabic and medieval thought.

In this sweeping and richly illustrated history, S. Frederick Starr tells the fascinating but largely unknown story of Central Asia’s medieval enlightenment through the eventful lives and astonishing accomplishments of its greatest minds–remarkable figures who built a bridge to the modern world. PUP readers can view Chapter 1 here.

World News 2-7

What to do instead of waiting in line at Home Depot for rock salt and shovels? Pass the time with this new weather-related op-ed from PUP author Ian Roulstone. Roulstone takes on the question of how weathermen (and women) fare versus Mother Nature, writing:

We are often described as a nation preoccupied by weather, and we’ve certainly had plenty to talk about over the last few weeks. The wind and rain continue their relentless assault, and the headlines focus, quite rightly, on the plight of those worst affected – what should be done to help? Meanwhile flood waters continue to rise and this is not unexpected. The weather forecasters have done their job well: no Michael Fish moments to distract our attention from what’s important. Indeed, the last few winters have been marked by extremes – from snowbound Gatwick Airport to the St Jude Day Storm – and the weathermen have stayed ahead of the game. So is Mother Nature’s number finally up when it comes to blowing us away with a storm from out of the blue?

Can meteorologists, with the advanced technology of today, finally state that they have won the battle, out-predicting any storm that comes their way? For Roulstone’s answer, check out the full op-ed, which ran on Huff Post UK. You can also view chapter one of his and John Norbury’s book, Invisible in the Storm.


Climate Change: a Movie and the Math by Ian Roulstone and John Norbury

Climate Change: a Movie and the Math

By Ian Roulstone and John Norbury

Next week the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) will release the first of three reports that constitute their Fifth Assessment Report on climate change. This first report, The Physical Science Basis, will cover a huge range of topics from the carbon cycle to extreme weather. But climate prediction also relies heavily on mathematics, which is used to quantify uncertainties and improve the models.

The role of math is illustrated by a remarkable video of our ever-changing weather. Last month the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) decommissioned Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite 12 (GOES-12), which monitored our weather for the past 10 years from its isolated vantage point 36,000 kilometers above America and the Atlantic Ocean.

GOES-12 had seen it all – from wildfires, volcanic ash, and landscape parched by drought, to Hurricanes Ike, Katrina and Sandy, and the blizzards that gripped the central United States in the winter of 2009-10. NOAA created a video – 187 seconds and 3641 images – one snapshot from each day of its operational life, which amounts to 10 years’ weather flashing before our eyes in just over 3 minutes. It’s dramatic and amazing:

In Scientific American, Evelyn Lamb commented on how this video highlights “a tension between the unpredictability of the weather and its repetitiveness”. Even after a few seconds it becomes clear that the patterns revealed by clouds differ from one part of the globe to another. Great towering cumulonimbus bubble up and unleash thunderstorms in tropical regions every day, while in more temperate mid-latitudes, the ubiquitous low pressure systems whirl across the Atlantic carrying their warm and cold fronts to Europe. The occasional hurricane, spawned in the tropics, careers towards the United States (Hurricane Sandy can be seen at about 2’50’’). But the mayhem is orchestrated: the cyclones almost seem like a train of ripples or waves, following preferred tracks, and the towering storms are confined largely to the tropics.

CaptureThis image of water vapour in the atmosphere (taken by GOES-13) reveals the swirling cyclones and the tropical storms. While the detail varies from hour to hour and from day to day, there are recurring patterns. Image courtesy of NEODAAS/University of Dundee.

In fact, this movie is affording us a glimpse of a remarkable world – it is a roller-coaster ride on the ‘weather attractor’.

An ‘attractor’ is a mathematician’s way of representing recurring behavior in complex systems, such as our atmosphere. A familiar illustration of an attractor can be seen in the figure below, and it is named after one of the fathers of chaos, Edward Lorenz.

The Lorenz attractor: every point within the space delineated by the coordinate axes represents a possible state of a circulating fluid, such as the ascent of warm air and the temperature difference of the warmer rising air to the cooler descending air. The points on the ‘butterfly wings’ are the attractor: they represent the set of states through (or around) which such a system will evolve. Even if the system begins from a state that does not lie on the attractor, it tends towards the states that do. The transition from one wing of the attractor to the other (which might represent a change in the ‘weather’) can be difficult to predict, due to inherent chaos in the system. But the overall pattern captures the repetitiveness.

It is impossible to illustrate the weather attractor for the atmosphere in terms of a simple three-dimensional image: Lorenz’s very simple model of a circulating cell had only three variables. Our modern computer models used in climate prediction have around 100 million variables, so the attractor resides in a space we cannot even begin to visualise. And this is why the movie created by NOAA is so valuable: it gives us a vivid impression of the repetitiveness emerging from otherwise complex, chaotic behaviour.

Weather forecasters try to predict how our atmosphere evolves and how it moves around the attractor – a hugely difficult task that requires us to explore many possible outcomes (called an ensemble of forecasts) when trying to estimate the weather several days ahead. But climate scientists are faced with a very different problem: instead of trying to figure out which point on the 100 million-dimensional attractor represents the weather 100 years from now, they are trying to figure out whether the shape of the attractor is changing. In other words, are the butterfly wings ‘folding’ as the average weather changes? This is a mathematician’s way of quantifying climate change.

If 100 years from now, when a distant successor of GOES-12 is retired, our descendants create a movie of this future weather, will they see the same patterns of recurring behaviour, or will there be more hurricanes? Will the waves of cyclones follow different tracks? And will tropical storms be more intense? Math enables us to “capture the pattern” even though chaos stops us from saying exactly what will happen, and to calculate answers to these questions we have to calculate how the weather attractor is changing.


This article is cross-posted with the Huffington Post:

For further insights into the math behind weather and climate prediction, see Roulstone and Norbury’s new book Invisible in the Storm: The Role of Mathematics in Understanding Weather.