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Scientists of Wales: David Brunt, F.R.S.

(December 01, 2013)

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Scientists of Wales: David Brunt, F.R.S. (1886-1965)

David Brunt MA ScD FRS, © Royal Meteorological SocietyDavid Brunt MA ScD FRS c. 1942
image © Royal Meteorological Society, reproduced with their kind permission

I once heard someone say, "Without the weather we would all be speechless". This, of course, is not literally true, but it conveys effectively the dominant influence of the weather on our daily lives; it may well be accurate with respect to small-talk or to typical greetings on meeting people on the street.

Since we are 'surrounded' by weather, it is not surprising that references to its different forms at different times of the year have become part of our folklore, mostly arising from common observations. Here are a few examples:

     The moon and the weather may change together,
     But a change of the moon will not change the weather.

     The higher the clouds the better the weather.

     Chimney smoke descends, our nice weather ends.

     The farther the sight the nearer the rain.

     Red sky in the night is the shepherd's delight.
     Red sky in the morning is the shepherd’s warning.
    (Another version replaces 'shepherd' with 'sailor')

These, and a myriad of others from centuries ago, link to experiences of people with a specific interest in the vagaries of weather, notably workers on land and sea, because of the impact on livelihoods.

The folklore was broadly valid, but its inadequacies became clear when the needs of a developing society demanded more specific, localised knowledge and especially accuracy of forecasting. This latter feature is now part of our lives in this country but, even with the advantages of modern computer technology for data collection and analysis, we still realise that weather changes can be totally unexpected and in defiance of forecasting. One has to be sympathetic to the fate, often recalled on film, of Michael Fish, one of the BBC forecasters, who confidently forecast calm weather for a few days but, like us all, was shocked by the ferocity of storms that actually occurred.

The essential characteristic of folklore forecasting was that it was based on undisciplined, terrestrial observation, land and sea. It was not possible to observe weather from vantage points high in the atmosphere. This was to come in the early decades of the twentieth century, spurred on by the development of aircraft, mostly of frail construction and therefore highly vulnerable to wind movements, rain surges and erratic cloud behaviour. It was in this context that a very notable part was played by David Brunt in pioneering the new science of meteorology.

He was born on 17 June 1886 in the village of Penffordd-las (Staylittle), a few miles from Llanidloes in the heart of the Welsh countryside. He was the youngest of the five sons and four daughters of John, a farmworker, and his wife, Mary. For the first ten years of his life David spoke only Welsh, which was the medium of his primary school education. In pursuit of more secure employment in coalmining, his father took the family to live in LLanhilleth, Monmouthsire. This was a severe cultural shock to the family because Llanhilleth, like much of Monmouthshire, had very little Welsh in its education or general community activities.

After completing his primary education in Llanhilleth he started on his secondary education in 1899 in Abertillery. There, his mathematical and scientific abilities soon became evident; he was very successful at all levels and won monetary scholarships to the university at Aberystwyth. There, too, he excelled, emerging in 1907 with a First Class Honours degree in mathematics. This enabled him to proceed in 1909 to Cambridge University, where again he gained qualifications with distinctions. However, in those days, high academic distinction did not guarantee employment, with the result that between 1913 and 1916, Brunt spent a year on the staff at Birmingham University and two years at Caerleon Training College for teachers.

Royal Aircraft Factory BE12 1 1916A Royal Aircraft Factory B.E.12
Flown by the Royal Flying Corps in France from August 1916

The turning point in his career came in 1916 when he enlisted in the Royal Engineers (Meteorological Section) for service in France. There, for the first time, he encountered professional weather forecasting and learned about the application of meteorology to gunnery. In 1921 he joined the Air Ministry, after a period at the Meteorological Office. There he applied his mathematics, especially statistics, to bring order to studies of weather patterns and thus refine weather forecasting.

He pioneered micrometeorology (the study of short-lived atmospheric phenomena smaller than about 1 km or less) in the lowest layers of the atmosphere. From 1921 to 1939 he was Chairman of the Meteorological sub-committee of the Chemical Warfare (later Defence) Committee. In 1934 Brunt became the first full-time Professor of Meteorology in Britain, when he was appointed at Imperial College, London, where he had been a visiting lecturer for several years. He held the chair until 1952. It was in this period that he published his book, Physical and Dynamical Meteorology, which quickly became established as the foundation volume for all researchers and practitioners in the field. It reflected his view that statistics alone would not suffice; there had to be attention also to the dynamics of weather patterns, such as turbulence and heat transfer. He independently co-discovered the Brunt–Väisälä frequency, which relates to internal gravity waves and provides a useful description of atmospheric and oceanic stability.

Panorama - during a lightning storm over Bucharest, RomaniaPanorama - during a lightning storm over Bucharest, Romania Image: Catalin Fatu

Many honours came his way; Fellow of the Royal Society (F.R.S.) in 1939, President of the Royal Meteorological Society from 1942 to 1944, Secretary of the RS from 1948 to 1957, knighted in 1949, many honorary university doctoral degrees.

Outside his work he was a man of quiet but undemonstrative opinions, with not much interest in literature, art and music, but keen on history and politics. He was fascinated by motorless flight and gave a decade of service as Chairman of the British Gliding Association.

The last years of his life were clouded by the long illness of his wife and sudden death of their only child, an unmarried son. David died in a nursing home.

By today, 'weather' has become 'climate' and global rather than local. Whatever the description, David Brunt is acknowledged as one of the founders of the modern science of the atmosphere. 

Neville Evans, December 2013

If you enjoyed this, you'll also enjoy these by Dr Neville Evans, in his series Scientists of Wales:

     ERH Jones; December 2016
Elwyn Hughes
; September 2016
Gareth Roberts
; June 2016
Ezer Griffiths; March 2016

Handel Davies; December 2015
Mathematicians of Wales; September 2015

Professor Eleri Pryce; June 2015

William Robert Grove; March 2015

Frank Llewellyn-Jones; December 2014

Professor Julie Williams; September 2014

Ieuan Maddock, F.R.S.; June 2014

John Houghton, F.R.S.; March 2014

David Brunt, F.R.S.; December 2013

Professor John Beynon; September 2013

John Meurig Thomas; June 2013
Robert Recorde and William Jones; March 2013
Richard Tecwyn Williams, F.R.S; December 2012

Lyn Evans; September 2012
E G Bowen; June 2012

© 2013 Caregos Cyf. Hawlfraint - All rights reserved

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