Giles Foden Turbulence

ISBN 13 : 9780571248087

Turbulence

 
9780571248087: Turbulence

Giles Foden, the prizewinning author of The Last King of Scotland, delivers a mesmerizing blend of fact and fiction in this novel about how human beings deal with uncertainty.
 
Five days before D-day, a team of Allied scientists is charged with making an accurate weather forecast for the landings. Henry Meadows—a young math prodigy from the Met Office—is sent to Scotland to uncover Wallace Ryman’s revolutionary system for understanding turbulence, one of the last great mysteries of modern physics. But Ryman is a reclusive pacifist who stubbornly refuses to divulge his secrets, and when Henry meets Gill—Ryman’s beautiful wife—events, like the weather, begin to spiral out of control.

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About the Author :

Giles Foden was born in 1967 in England and spent his youth in Africa. Between 1990 and 2006 he worked as an editor at The Times Literary Supplement and The Guardian. In 1998 he published The Last King of Scotland, which won the Whitbread First Novel Award and was later made into a feature film. The author of two other novels and also a work of narrative nonfiction, in 2007 he was appointed professor of creative writing at the University of East Anglia, in Norwich. He lives in Norfolk, England.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved. :

2

By the time we reached glasgow it was obvious that there was no chance of travelling any further that day. We sat down to spuds with mince and onions, followed by whisky and a game of poker in front of a coal fire. If I’m not careful, I thought, as the cards slapped onto the table, I could lose the whole afternoon. I resolved not to—but within minutes the whisky and the warmth had drained all the willpower out of me.

Over the card play, as coals glowed in the hearth and a waitress in an apron and bonnet supplied us with ice for the Scotch, I listened as Krick told me his remarkable life story. I had taken an unlikely route into meteorology, but his was far stranger. After taking a physics degree at the University of California he worked as a disc jockey, then as a runner for a company of stockbrokers.

“Chapman de Wolfe and Company,”he said,pronouncing it “Volf ” in the German way. “As you can imagine, my services were dispensed with pretty rapidly after the Crash in ’twenty-nine. Though I missed the worst of it on my own account.”
“How?” I asked, leaning forward.

He grinned, slicking his hair back. “I devised a system calibrating financial fluctuations against background randomness, according to certain physical principles. Things have changed a bit since then, but I still use the same basic idea.”

Krick’s theory of stock-market cycles had begun as an innocent intellectual recreation, or so he said, but in years to come he successfully played the markets using his system. The Wall Street Crash was no acci­dent, he maintained. It was a necessary piece of information within a larger story. Ryman, who had none of Krick’s hucksterism, would have agreed. There are no accidents. Every so-called “accident,” every piece of turbulence, is part of a sequence, bigger or smaller, whose scale you can­not see. At least, you don’t see it until it’s too late, and then you start to panic, because you realise how foolish was your original fantasy of understanding.

During the Depression Krick sold pianos and worked as a jobbing concert pianist for the NBC Orchestra. He was also a radio disc jockey for a while. Eventually he found his way back to university, studying meteorology under Theodore von Kármán and Robert Millikan at Cal­tech in Los Angeles. It was uncanny to hear about these giants of mete­orology in a Glasgow hotel—stranger still to do so with a glass of whisky in one hand and a busted flush in the other.

As the talk flowed, I drank more and more. I won a couple of pots. So did Krick, leaning his big face forward as he collected. The other Americans won one apiece. As the cards were dealt and shuffled and stacked, the smoke from our cigarettes and cigars swirled up the oak panelling, with its pictures of sporting scenes and moody Highland cat­tle. How well I would come to know their glowering stares.

Krick told more anecdotes as we played. “Goering tried to lure back von Kármán to Europe to head up the Luftwaffe’s weather forecasting,” he said. “Von Kármán refused, simply sending Goering a drawing of his Jewish profile.” We all laughed. It was a meteorologists’ joke, a “profile” being a technical term in weather forecasting.

As Krick talked I slowly began to realise the anecdotes were diver­sion tactics. The tales were intended to distract his opponents from their game—and it was working. All the time he was recounting his experiences, or expounding pet theories, he was taking money off us.

The diverting stories continued. The duo had met at Caltech. Then Krick had joined an airline, as had Holzman, who became chief meteo­rologist for American Airlines. They began swapping tales about the aviation industry.

“I used to get in trouble in that first job,” Krick drawled, showing another hand. A pair of deuces—plus another pair of deuces. Four of a kind against my full house, and there he was scooping up our money again.“They hadn’t heard of weather fronts then,and hated me drawing them on the charts. But obviously it was more useful for the pilots. Then they could see where the action was coming from. Predictable as a corny movie.”

“Irv worked in Hollywood,” chipped in Holzman. “He was weather prophet for Gone with the Wind.”

Krick grinned as he added our money to his stack. “I picked the night they burnt Atlanta. It had to be a clear one.”

“Another time, he advised Bogart on the weather for the Ensenada yacht race,” said Holzman.

“I flubbed that. Bogie never got to Mexico. He stayed in U.S. waters. A dead calm.”

Holzman laughed. “Will you go back to it, Irv, when the war’s over?”

“I doubt it. I was forecasting for the citrus industry before I got called up. Reckon I’ll get back into it. That’s where the money is.”

“Commercial forecasting,” nodded Holzman.

“Transporting airplanes is another good one,” added Krick. “Forty planes going from A to B, you don’t wanna get that wrong. One of my first duties in the air force in this war was to pick the days when our guys could fly safely across the Atlantic.”

“Days with minimum turbulence?” I asked.

“Oh no,” said Krick. “Pick those days and our friends in the Luft­waffe would be waiting. It was more a case of just enough turbulence.” He produced a cigar from under the table and, as prelude to another tale, blew a near-perfect smoke ring over my head . . .

It has always struck me as fate that I met those two at the beginning of my working life. From my Cambridge ivory tower I have followed their careers with interest since the war, now and then bumping into one or the other of them on trips to America. They became sort of alter egos for me, standing for all the possibilities I shut off when I chose withdrawal into academic life.

Later in the war Holzman would work on the weather forecast for the atom bomb at Los Alamos. He stayed in the U.S. Air Force for his entire career, becoming a general and commander of the USAAF Research Laboratory. He was involved in virtually every major phase of research into missile and space systems, all through the Cold War. His security clearance was cosmic, so I didn’t get to see him much.

Krick, as he indicated during that poker session, would pretty much found the new industry of selling the weather. Cotton growers wanting to know what the harvest will be like. The Edison Company having dif­ficulties with storms knocking out power lines. The California Division of Highways worrying about snow in the mountains. The Brooklyn Dodgers wanting advice on whether they should buy rain insurance for an important game. Loggers, fruit growers, the managers of hydroelec­tric schemes...

Krick pursued all this and more. He was weather forecaster for the 1960 Winter Olympics and, the following year, for the inauguration of President Kennedy. But his biggest thing was cloud-seeding, which involved modifying weather by dispersing chemicals, usually silver iodide, or dry ice, into clouds to induce precipitation.

Krick got into this still-controversial practice in a major way, selling thousands of ground-based generators to farmers all over the U.S. These machines, rocketing crystals into the reluctant sky, were all con­trolled by radio from a complex in Palm Springs, California, where Krick himself still lives in a Moorish-style mansion in the shadow of Mount San Jacinto.

I went to visit him there once—the place had marble floors—and he was extremely hospitable, serving up frozen margaritas. But to the U.S. Weather Bureau he became a kind of bête noire. There were accusations of quackery and exploitation. He was always very charming to me, and I never brought up something which troubled my colleagues: that he may have been the source of the rumours, still current to this day in the U.S., that the British teams “failed” in their predictions for Overlord— and that D-Day was saved by Krick himself. He even maintained, some­what astonishingly, that it would have been better to have gone a day earlier after all. I let it pass.

This was the extravagant future which lay ahead of my poker oppo­nents. I drank far more than I should have done and lost more money than I could afford. Some time in the early hours I staggered up to bed, wallet half emptied, shoelaces trailing, mounting unsteadily a staircase, the steps of which seemed to have been frustratingly rearranged, before losing myself in a warren of interconnecting, treacherously carpeted corridors and the hiding-places of mops and buckets and boiler-room pipes. I suppose I must have booked a room in the course of that long afternoon which had stretched into evening, and eventually found my way to it, but I can’t remember either.
8

EARLY ON THE THIRD DAY I SET OFF set off on the motorcycle to Dunoon, in order to report to Whybrow. I had left it rather late, telling myself the important thing was to ready myself for the encounter with Ryman. Presumably Sir Peter had given Whybrow some indication that I was also doing work other than local observations.

Feeling the wind-chill on my face and hands, I rode alongside the water, past the row of large loch-front houses which constituted Kilmun itself, passing an old church with a tower in its graveyard. I then turned left under bumpy green hills, travelling for several miles (and at one point falling off) until I reached Dunoon.

It was a busy place. As well as local residents there were an awful lot of people in one sort of uniform or another. Colonial troops and Amer­icans as well as British servicemen. On asking where I might find HMS Osprey, where Sir Peter had said Whybrow was based, I found it to be one of the shore-based establishments—in this case a former convales­cent home—which the navy insists on calling a ship. The floor is referred to as the deck, right starboard and left port. Even to leave by the front door is to take a liberty boat.

As I arrived, a flag-raising ceremony was taking place outside the building, complete with buglers and ratings in blue and white uniforms. The event was unpopular with the townsfolk as it brought the main road to a standstill.

We stood waiting and watching, our way barred by sentries with rifles. At the crucial moment, much to the amusement of civilian onlookers, an old fellow in a blue jersey, who was selling fish and oysters from a wheelbarrow, shouted out, “Loch Eck herrings, fresh Loch Eck herrings!”

Once the performance was over, it turned out my wait had been for nothing, as on gaining entrance I learned that the Met station at Dunoon was actually inland rather than on Osprey itself. Yet even this second site was still conceived as part of the “ship.”
I remounted my motorbike and eventually found, on the outskirts of the town, a group of Nissen huts dotted around an old white-painted farmhouse. There was a cookhouse and a washhouse and a hydrogen shed (formerly a grain barn), some dormitories and not much else. The condi­tions were quite primitive. There was mud everywhere. The sight of it made me shudder.

Gordon Whybrow was bald and short-sighted, with a pair of thick-lensed spectacles balanced on the end of his long, thin nose. I first found him in the Ops Room, as the farmhouse drawing room had been rechristened. He was wearing RAF uniform, like all Met staff who have been conscripted, even if they’re actually working in another branch of the services, as he was on Osprey. I was still a civilian employee at this stage.

Bent over a desk bearing the large typewriter on which, I presumed, his letter to me had been written, he was studying another machine, or part of it. I recognised it as the switching mechanism on a new type of radiosonde.

Three inflated red balloons bumped on the ceiling of the room, their strings draping over Whybrow as he peered at the device. Behind him, on a large board on the wall, a Waaf was plotting combined read­ings. A slight brunette, she was reaching up for strings—held in place by brass “mice”—which showed the directional lines of balloons released from different stations.
Little red flags marked the positions of weather ships in the Atlantic, the Channel and the North Sea, while lines of green flags marked the tracks of the met recs, the meteorological reconnaissance flights which took off from airfields all over Britain each morning.

Another Waaf, plumpish with short fair hair, was kneeling on the floor, reading data to her colleague as the teleprinter roll spilled down. Her chubby face was dotted with freckles. She was the only person in the room to notice my entrance, smiling pleasantly and brushing a hand against her skirt as if doing so would compensate for the awkwardness of kneeling.

“You have to set the switch sequence before you put on the wind­mill,” I said to Whybrow’s bald head. He looked up with a face full of surprise, swiftly followed by irritation, whether at my remark, which I suppose was a bit know-it-all, or simply my arrival I could not tell.

“Henry Meadows. The director probably mentioned . . .”

“Ah,” said Whybrow, straightening. “There you are at last. Our man of mystery. I noticed you had hooked up the teleprinter yesterday. Why has it taken you so long to report in?” He seemed to speak through his long nose.

“I wanted to get myself established first,” I replied. “Seeing as the equipment was all there ...And as I’m sure you know, Sir Peter has given me some other duties, too.”

He blinked through the spectacles. “Other duties, eh? How about that? Yes, the director did say you had a special project you were work­ing on for him.” He turned to the two Waafs. “A special project. How about that, girls?”

“Allow me to introduce Gwen Liss and Joan Lamb,” said Whybrow, pointing at each in turn. “I say, he should have come here first of all, shouldn’t he, girls?”

I ignored him. One of the women giggled. It was Gwen, the thin brown-haired one, whose cheeks were rather drawn in. This gave her a look of passionate austerity. Joan, meanwhile, was fair and broad, Ger­manic or Scandinavian in appearance if one had to put a label on it, but with dark eyes. With her blonde hair and freckles, the combination was also rather striking.

Whybrow waved a dismissive hand at the Waafs. “Give us a minute, will you.” He gestured peremptorily at the red balloons on the ceiling. “Send up one of those and get me a cloud height estimation.”

Without saying a word, Joan tugged on one of the strings, Gwen seizing the balloon as it came down. It more or less filled the doorway as she took it out, holding it before her as if she were a waitress with a tray. Joan followed.

Once they had left, Whybrow turned to me, folding his hands on his RAF tunic with the air of someone about to make a speech. “I don’t quite understand why a Type 3 outstation need be set up in Wallace Ryman’s garden, but who am I to reason why? Apparently you are a ‘bright young thing’ who needs careful handling. A real scientist, Sir Peter said, as if the rest of us aren’t. Well, young man, I’ll be expecting the very best from you, as from any other observer.”

“Of course, sir,” I said, putting a deliberate meekness into my voice. Whybrow was more or less irrelevant so far as m...

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Giles Foden
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ISBN 10 : 057124808X ISBN 13 : 9780571248087
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