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A Vast Machine: Computer Models, Climate Data, and the Politics of Global Warming (Infrastructures) First Edition (US) First Printing Edition

4.1 out of 5 stars 17 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0262013925
ISBN-10: 0262013924
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Editorial Reviews

Review

"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.
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Product Details

  • Series: Infrastructures
  • Hardcover: 552 pages
  • Publisher: The MIT Press; First Edition (US) First Printing edition (March 12, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0262013924
  • ISBN-13: 978-0262013925
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.1 x 9 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: #1,625,341 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Steven Forth on June 10, 2010
Format: Hardcover
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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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
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 understanding of both these concepts and helped me better perceive their roles in several fields: infrastructure in the area of networking and data in the field of climate science. Having read this book I now perceive infrastructure as including perceptual structures that influence and constrain our perceptions and I understand data as being generated through perceptual processes.

The authors portrayal of the meteorological weather forecasting networks enables the perception of their growing across the face of earth and linking up to form a global network that generated the World Meteorological Organization in 1950 and the Inter governmental Panel on Climate Change in 1988 gives a clear portrayal of the rising of a Global Network of scientists capable of perceiving planetary processes and providing the human species with strategic guidance.

These perceptions and their articulation are nested in a bed of very deep and detailed information regarding data, data generating methodologies and processes as well as significant events that every serious student of climate sciences will benefit from familiarizing themselves with.
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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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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. I bought Kindle version and do not recommend it. In the Kindle version, the footnotes are not linked and the index is unreadable and also not linked
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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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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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