Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Science in Action: A Review of The Discovery of Global Warming by Spencer R. Weart

Title: The Discovery of Global Warming
Author: Spencer R. Weart
Edition: Hardcover
Publisher: Harvard University Press (2003)
Pages: 221
Challenges: 2011 GoodReads Reading Challenge
How I Came by This Book: I'm currently researching a book that requires I read a crap-ton of books on the various arguments for or against global warming (among myriad other topics). This is just one of many that I've picked up from my library.

About the Author: Spencer R. Weart, born in 1942, received a B.A. in Physics at Cornell University in 1963 and a Ph.D. in Physics and Astrophysics at the University of Colorado, Boulder, in 1968. He then worked for three years at CalTech as a Fellow of the Mt. Wilson and Palomar Observatories, publishing papers in leading scientific journals. In 1971 Dr. Weart changed his field, enrolling as a graduate student in the History Department of the University of California, Berkeley. From 1974 to early 2009 he served as Director of the Center for History of Physics, American Institute of Physics, the oldest institution dedicated to preserving and making known the history of a scientific discipline. 

Dr. Weart has written two children’s science books and wrote or co-edited seven other books, including Scientists in Power (a history of the rise of nuclear science, weapons, and reactors in France); Leo Szilard: His Version of the Facts (edited correspondence); a collection of essays on the history of solid-state physics; Nuclear Fear: A History of Images; and Never at War: Why Democracies Will Not Fight One Another. He also produces and edits an award-winning Website with historical exhibits. His most recent book is The Discovery of Global Warming (Harvard University Press, 2003).

Dr. Weart has taught history of science courses at the Johns Hopkins University, the New School-Lang College, and Princeton University. He has served as Treasurer and Council member of the History of Science Society.

In 1971 he married Carole Ege; they have two grown children. His avocations include reading, backpacking and skiing. (taken from AIP.org)

Synopsis: In 2001 a panel representing virtually all the world’s governments and climate scientists announced that they had reached a consensus: the world was warming at a rate without precedent during at least the last ten millennia, and that warming was caused by the buildup of greenhouse gases from human activity. The consensus itself was at least a century in the making. The story of how scientists reached their conclusion—by way of unexpected twists and turns and in the face of formidable intellectual, financial, and political obstacles—is told for the first time in The Discovery of Global Warming. Spencer R. Weart lucidly explains the emerging science, introduces us to the major players, and shows us how the Earth’s irreducibly complicated climate system was mirrored by the global scientific community that studied it.

Unlike familiar tales of Science Triumphant, this book portrays scientists working on bits and pieces of a topic so complex that they could never achieve full certainty—yet so important to human survival that provisional answers were essential. Weart unsparingly depicts the conflicts and mistakes, and how they sometimes led to fruitful results. His book reminds us that scientists do not work in isolation, but interact in crucial ways with the political system and with the general public. The book not only reveals the history of global warming, but also analyzes the nature of modern scientific work as it confronts the most difficult questions about the Earth’s future.

Review:  Some scientific discoveries are accidental. For example, most of us have probably heard about penicillin’s lowly beginnings as little more than mold in a Petri dish. Others are deliberate, springing forth from a careful application of the scientific method by a determined scientist. Still others are a mixture of both. The discovery of global warming is an example of this mélange of “wait, where did that come from?” and “I know there’s an answer here and I’m going to find it.” What makes Spencer R. Weart’s The Discovery of Global Warming such a great read is his ability to create a cohesive narrative from myriad scientific investigations and accidental discoveries.

This is not a book about global warming, per se. While the effects of climate change are touched upon, the story focuses instead on the countless men and women who have struggled for over a century to interpret complex data sets, invent new ways of forecasting weather patterns, and use innovative techniques to draw conclusions from hundreds of thousands of years of information. As someone who is a vehement believer in climate change, this book brought me a greater understanding of how the scientific community formulated its ultimate pronouncements about the clear evidence of human degradation of the environment. Still, it’s an important book even for those who don’t believe in global warming because it shows the nature of scientific research and the almost gargantuan obstacles that scientists face when attempting to explain various phenomena.

The cover of the book is simple: a single melting icicle. This cover speaks volumes, however, about Weart’s approach to the subject at hand. Anyone who has ever watched an icicle melt will know that, over time, even the largest ones become nothing more than a puddle on the sidewalk and that it is through a slow but steady process that this occurs. Weart constructs the chronological story of the discovery of global warming by showing the slow, steady process by which scientists from all disciplines and walks of life contributed to the effort of producing viable evidence for climate change. Beginning in the mid-1800s with John Tyndall’s work with CO2 and moving forward through time to the present day, Weart’s book becomes a puddle of evidence that cannot be ignored.

The Discovery of Global Warming is easily-readable and isn’t bogged down by scientific jargon. Weart’s book is more history than science, really, and at fewer than 230 pages, it doesn’t take long to read. Rather than write a thousand-page book with every single scientific discovery ever made packed into it, Weart chooses the major (and sometimes the important minor) developments to give a concise overview. For anyone looking to read further, he provides a list of reading materials as well as a link to a website where he has compiled even more information. This book, then, is only the tip of the (melting) iceberg, but it provides a solid background.

Weart’s writing is clear and, unlike Ward’s Under a Green Sky, isn’t given to romanticism or unnecessary frills. He delivers his message without ceremony, presenting it simply as fact. This is because there’s no disputing what these scientists did. You can quibble about climate change and about the part mankind has played in its existence (or nonexistence), but what you can’t quibble about is how hard these men and women worked. Weart explores the David-and-Goliath-esque battles that they had to fight against the elements, lack of funding, skeptics, and other scientists in order to come to their own separate conclusions and then moves into the process of bringing all of these studies and projects together to form the 2001 consensus discussed in the above synopsis. It’s a story of men and women who live, breathe, and die for their profession and for the work that they have done in the name of furthering scientific knowledge and of improving life on Earth.

I’m giving The Discovery of Global Warming 5 out of 5 Gabriels. I really have no complaints about this book. It was well-written, fascinating, and compelling. I would recommend it to those interested in learning more about global warming, scientific processes, the tenuous relationship between government and science, or scientists of the 20th century. 



  1. Oh. I don't know if I'm more excited about reading this book or reading your reviews of the other books you will be reading. Either way, you know I'll be paying close attention to future blog posts. Oh boy!

  2. Satia: I still have a ridiculous number of reviews waiting to be written. In a way it's good (no shortage of blog material), but I miss reviewing books right after I finish them. I've got a lot of great (and some not-so-great) books left to review this month.