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A Vast Machine: Computer Models, Climate Data, and the Politics of Global Warming (Infrastructures) [Hardcover]

by Paul N. Edwards
4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (17 customer reviews)

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Book Description

March 12, 2010 0262013924 978-0262013925

Global warming skeptics often fall back on the argument that the scientific case for global warming is all model predictions, nothing but simulation; they warn us that we need to wait for real data, "sound science." In A Vast Machine Paul Edwards has news for these skeptics: without models, there are no data. Today, no collection of signals or observations -- even from satellites, which can "see" the whole planet with a single instrument -- becomes global in time and space without passing through a series of data models. Everything we know about the world's climate we know through models. Edwards offers an engaging and innovative history of how scientists learned to understand the atmosphere -- to measure it, trace its past, and model its future.

Editorial Reviews


"A Vast Machine is a beautifully written, analytically insightful, and hugely well-informed account of the development and influence of the models and data that are the foundation of our knowledge that the climate is changing and that human beings are making it change." -- Donald MacKenzie, Professor of Sociology, University of Edinburgh, author of An Engine, Not a Camera

"[A] stimulating, well-written analysis... a visual feast." -- Ronald E. Doel, American Historical Review

"This is an excellent book and a valuable resource for all sides in the debatesover global warming." -- Steven Goldman, Environmental History

"[A] a compelling account of how political and scientific institutions, observation networks, and scientific practice evolved together over several centuries to culminate in the global knowledge infrastructure we have today." -- Chad Monfreda, Review of Policy Research

" A Vast Machine: Computer Models, Climate Data, and the Politics of Global Warming by Paul Edwards is an outstanding example of the potential for historians to contribute to broader public debates and give non-specialists insight into the work done by scientists and the process by which computer simulation has transformed scientific practice." -- Thomas Haigh, Communications of the ACM

"A 2010 Book of the Year" -- The Economist

"A thorough and dispassionate analysis by a historian of science and technology, Paul Edwards' book is well timed. Although written before the University of East Anglia e-mail leak, it anticipates many of the issues raised by the 'climategate' affair. [...] A Vast Machine puts the whole affair into historical context and should be compulsory reading for anyone who now feels empowered to pontificate on how climate science should be done." -- Myles Allen, Nature

"A Vast Machine...will be readily accessible to that legendary target, the general reader... The author's impressive scholarship and command of his material have produced a truly magisterial account." -- Richard J. Somerville, Science Magazine

"I recommend this book with considerable enthusiasm. Although it's a term reviewers have made into a cliché, I think A Vast Machine is nothing less than a tour de force. It is the most complete and balanced description we have of two sciences whose results and recommendations will, in the years ahead, be ever more intertwined with the decisions of political leaders and the fate of the human species." -- Noel Castree, American Scientist

"On the whole, this is a very good and informative read on the problems in atmospheric modeling and the way computers are--and have been--used in the process." -- Jeffrey Putnam, Computing Reviews

"This important and articulate book explains how scientists learned to understand the atmosphere, measure it, trace its past, and model its future. Edwards counters skepticism and doom with compelling reasons for hope and a call to action." -- James Rodger Fleming, Professor of Science, Technology and Society, Colby College

"With this new book, Paul Edwards once again writes the history of technology on a grand scale. Through his investigation of computational science, international governance, and scientific knowledge production, he shows that the very ability to conceptualize a global climate as such is wrapped up in the history of these institutions and their technological infrastructure. In telling this story, Edwards again makes an original contribution to a crowded field." -- Greg Downey, University of Wisconsin-Madison

About the Author

Paul N. Edwards is Professor of Information and History at the University of Michigan. He is the author of The Closed World: Computers and the Politics of Discourse in Cold War America (1996) and a coeditor (with Clark Miller) of Changing the Atmosphere: Expert Knowledge and Environmental Governance (2001), both published by the MIT Press.

Product Details

  • Series: Infrastructures
  • Hardcover: 552 pages
  • Publisher: The MIT Press (March 12, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0262013924
  • ISBN-13: 978-0262013925
  • Product Dimensions: 9.5 x 6.1 x 1.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.8 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (17 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #821,183 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

I'm a Professor in the School of Information and the Dept. of History at the University of Michigan. My research explores the history, politics, and cultural aspects of computers, information infrastructures, and global climate science. I also direct (sometimes) the University of Michigan Science, Technology & Society Program. You can find out more about me, my background, and my current research at my personal website, pne.people.si.umich.edu.

A little personal history: I went to graduate school in the 1980s, at the height of the Carter-Reagan Cold War. That was a very scary time, and not only because the risk of nuclear war reached heights unseen since the Cuban missile crisis. First acid rain, then the ozone hole, then the issue of "nuclear winter" -- a global climate catastrophe caused by the smoke and dust from a superpower nuclear war -- made it clear that human activity could seriously affect the global atmosphere.

I wrote my dissertation about computers' central role in the American side of the Cold War. In the 1950s, military projects from hydrogen bomb design to continental air defense to nuclear strategy all spurred computer development, with massive government support. Computers became icons for that era's widespread technological hubris: the idea that technology could deliver panoptic surveillance, global control, and ultimate power. That story was the subject of my first book, The Closed World: Computers and the Politics of Discourse in Cold War America (MIT Press, 1996). It's also what led me to co-edit, with Peter Taylor and Saul Halfon, the cultural studies collection Changing Life: Geneomes, Ecologies, Bodies, Commodities (U. of Minnesota Press, 1997).

The nuclear winter controversy arose from applying climate models to the effects of nuclear war. So it wasn't really a long step for me to begin studying how computer models interacted with the politics of climate change.

Even before I finished The Closed World, I was deeply engaged in that research. For years I worked intensively with famed climate scientist Stephen Schneider, who died in 2010. I interviewed dozens of climatologists and computer modelers. I spent countless days at scientific meetings and visited climate labs around the world. Along the way I co-edited, with Clark Miller, a collection of Science & Technology Studies perspectives on climate science and politics: Changing the Atmosphere: Expert Knowledge and Environmental Governance (MIT Press, 2001).

While I was researching climate science during the 1990s, climate politics exploded. But by around 2000, the main scientific controversies had settled out, and the concerted campaign to cast doubt on climate science--heavily funded by the coal and oil industries--seemed to be losing steam. Then George W. Bush's administration revived the false controversies. Political appointees doctored scientific reports and attempted to muzzle government scientists such as James Hansen.

By the time I was finally wrapping up the manuscript of A Vast Machine in the summer of 2009, Barack Obama was president and carbon-pricing bills seemed likely to move swiftly through Congress. Once more, I thought the controversies had finally ended and that A Vast Machine would fizzle into obscurity.

Instead, in November 2009 -- less than a month after I submitted the final page proofs -- "Climategate" made headlines and helped derail the Copenhagen climate talks. Someone -- probably a disaffected insider -- released climate data and thousands of private emails among scientists from the Climatic Research Unit in the United Kingdom. Climate change skeptics (or denialists, as most of them should really be called) made a lot of noise about what they call "manipulation" of climate data.

Their allegations illustrated exactly the conundrum A Vast Machine reveals: as a historical science, the study of climate change will always involve revisiting old data, correcting, modeling, and revising our picture of the climatic past.

This does not mean we don't know anything. (We do.) And it also does not mean that climate data or climate models might turn out to be wildly wrong. (They won't.) To find out why, well... you might want to read A Vast Machine.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
37 of 40 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Understand the Roots of Our Understanding June 10, 2010
Understanding how we know about climate, and even what it means to know about climate and climate change, is essential if we are to have an informed debate. This is far and away the best book I have read on the infrastructure behind our knowledge of climate change, how that infrastructure developed, and how the infrastructure shapes our understanding.

The story begins in the 1600s as systematic collection of weather data began (at least in the modern period, other cultures such as the Chinese have older records and it would be interesting to unearth these, although the data normalization issues would be extreme). It picks up speed in the 19th C with global trade and then the telegraph. The more data collected, and the more data is exchanged, the more important it becomes to normalize data for comparison. Normalization requires some form of data model, a theory that makes the data meaningful. Indeed, this is Edwards point, all data about weather and climate only becomes meaningful in the context of a model (this is of course generally true).

Work accelerated during WW2 and then exploded in the 50s and 60s as computers became more available. The role played by John Von Neumann in this is fascinating, as is the nugget that his second wife Klara Von Neumann taught early weather scientists how to program (there is a whole hidden history of the role of woman in developing computer programming that needs to be written - or if you know of one please add it to the comments of this review or tweet it to me @StevenForth).

Edwards also introduces some useful concepts such as Data Friction and Computational Friction. I think my company can apply these in its own work, so for me this has been a very practical text.
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8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars top 10 decade December 12, 2010
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Do you or anyone you know want to understand the current "debate" over climate change and our contribution to it? And to comprehend the evolution of climate science, data collection, and computer modeling that underlies this, and indeed must underly any sensible discussion of a "global economy" and other "global" developments. This book is a lucid, intellectually thrilling and magisterial account of how climate science has evolved over the past 150 years, showing how early visionaries and decades of dedicated work on collecting information on the "vast machine" of weather and climate resulted in a "vast machine" of computer-based understanding was created, has transformed the answers to fundamental questions of "what we mean" and "how do we know." No one should graduate from college without reading this book, and no one should consider him/herself conversant with the current terms of political debate without reading this book. The Economist listed this among its best books of 2010. It should be on a list of best of the past decade--and most important!
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7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Global Warming "Smarts". December 31, 2010
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Finally, a book about our weather problems that is unbiased and rational. Paul Edwards examines the issue of Global Warming in a way that sets aside the hype and explains how we come by the facts that provide answers we can trust. A Vast Machine is a well written and easily understood piece of writing and I highly recommend it.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Bible of modern climate science September 16, 2013
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
Prof. Edwards not only manages to compress a graduate-level course into a book that you can actually pick up, he does it with such clarity and style that you can't put it down. If the amateurs who claim to "audit" climatological data and models would only spend a couple of days reading key chapters in AVM, thousands of hours of ignorant carping that have cluttered the Web for years could have been avoided.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
"For every complex problem, there is an answer that is clear, simple--and wrong." Edwards explains complexity well.

A couple of wonderful coinages characterize this book. The "Apocalypse Gap" is the void which must be filled by somebody scaring us to death. An "issue entrepreneur" is somebody who successfully exploits that gap and sells newspapers by scaring us. Global warming as a concept has to fight against our inherent skepticism. We have been smacked with the population bomb, numbed by global winter, piqued by peak oil, and generally jerked around by every manner of scaremonger with a book to sell. Edwards convinces me it's real this time.

Edwards' field, he tells us in his final chapter, is "science and technology studies." The sociology of science and scientists. It is a good background, because in the field as complex as climate studies, before you can even decide what you know, you have to decide how you know what you know. Gone are the days when a single scientist in the lab could have a "Eureka" moment and prove something profoundly new about the climate. No, everything we know about weather and climate is the result of an immense and collaborative effort.

Because we can never make a meaningful number of observations on our own, the question of how we know things is of paramount importance. Individually, we can anecdotally note that it was a hot summer in Russia and that there were an exceptional number of forest fires perhaps in Wyoming. We might guess that the world is getting warmer. But no individual would ever have the resources to monitor thermometers in 1000 stations throughout the world, much less do so over any meaningful period of time, such as daily for forty or fifty years.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars Good history of models and politics of climate change.
Author gives an excellent account of the history of weather and climate modeling and the general circulation models. There is very little technical content of any detail. Read more
Published 12 days ago by E. G. Bradford
5.0 out of 5 stars Essential
An excellent and clear explanation of the history of weather data collection and its interpretation and use in climate modelling, including much of relevance for anyone considering... Read more
Published 5 months ago by Donald Hobern
The Author revisits the definitions of infrastructure and data at depths that I personally have not encountered before and his articulations have considerably enriched my... Read more
Published 10 months ago by Nirmalan Dhas
1.0 out of 5 stars lies, damned lies and climate models
I hoped when reading this book that the author would enlighten my lack of knowledge of climate models, but was deeply disappointed. Read more
Published 23 months ago by Dr. P. R. Lewis
5.0 out of 5 stars "Virtually everything we know about anything complex depends on...
This book is on the Rorotoko list. Professor Edwards's interview on "A Vast Machine" ran as the Rorotoko Cover Feature on March 7, 2011 (and can be read in the Rorotoko archive).
Published on October 7, 2011 by ROROTOKO
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent
Disclosure: Prof. Edwards and I are both faculty at the University of Michigan. He is not in my unit and I do not know him socially. Read more
Published on June 1, 2011 by R. Albin
5.0 out of 5 stars ...like visiting an old friend, and meeting all the children and...
"Probably the best overview book about the workings of meteorology and climatology, this book also serves as a refresher course for people in the business. Read more
Published on March 19, 2011 by Marjorie McGuirk
4.0 out of 5 stars Very insightful, but likely too cumbersome for the general reader
_A Vast Machine_ talks in great depth about how the models currently used to understand global climate arose, how they have matured, and how they are constantly refined. Read more
Published on February 3, 2011 by dtrutk
5.0 out of 5 stars Climate Modeling: the best introduction
Paul Edwards has done a great public service by writing A Vast Machine. By reading this book you will come to understand and appreciate the enormous effort that has been put into... Read more
Published on January 20, 2011 by Elliot J. Zais
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