Defining the Wind: The Beaufort Scale, and How a 19th-Century Admiral Turned Science Into Poetry By Scott Huler
Crown, 290 pp., $23
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Poet Paul Violi, dissatisfied with his attempt to lyricize the Beaufort Scale, said that it "seemed to be a poem already, almost a ready-made." This same beauty and "verbal economy" struck Scott Huler when, as a copy editor in the early '80s, he happened upon it in his Merriam-Webster Collegiate. The scale categorizes 13 wind types (from calm to hurricane) with eloquent descriptions of the physical world: a No. 6, or "strong breeze," means "large branches in motion; telegraph wires whistle; umbrellas used with difficulty." Sir Francis Beaufort, a 19th-century hydrographer to the British Admiralty, authored the chart so sailors like himself could measure wind force and, ultimately, navigate the seasbefore many waters were charted, before the Weather Channel forecast storms a week in advance, and before ships came with built-in meteorological instruments and GPS. Now an NPR regular, Huler embarks on a nonlinear journey of his own, to find the scale's origin. Along the way, he encounters boatswains, pirates, scientists, poets, and composers. He comes off as a likable captain, delivering punchy, humorous prose strewn with self-deprecating jabs, while heeding his own wordsthat the human body is the "greatest perceptive instrument ever designed"by adding his fresh perspective to both history and lore. Calling the scale "a philosophy of attentiveness, a religion based on observation: an entire ethos in 110 words," Huler promotes putting down your GPS-enabled cell phone and paying attention to the world anew.