My interest in El Niño arose about the time the first studies hit the scientific literature, in part due to my studies in both meteorology and oceanography. (The 1997 El Niņo also gave rise to my website: The Weather Doctor.) The first technical book summarizing the El Niño phenomena I read was S. George Philander's El Niño, La Niña and the Southern Oscillation published in 1990. Now over a decade later, his latest work Our Affair with El Niņo: How We Transformed an Enchanting Peruvian Current into a Global Climate Hazard takes a look at the El Niño phenomenon (I use the term El Niño here to include La Niña aspects as well) and how our thinking and perception of it has changed.
In my opinion, Our Affair with El Niño should be required reading for anyone who has concerns or interest in the El Niño phenomenon, climate change and social responses to such events. It is also an important look at the role of science and science research in today's world as Philander uses El Niño to present his larger concept of links between global changes and social response. To that end, the book is not an update on his 1990 book nor a lay version of it. Nor is it a strictly state-of-the art discussion of the phenomenon spiced with accounts of El Niño disasters. (One reading the book for such content may be disappointed and would be better satisfied to read J. Madeleine Nash's El Niño: Unlocking the Secrets of the Master Weather-Maker.)
Philander undertook this project as his response to the media queries of him during the 1997 El Niño event that he found "both frustrating and rewarding." As a result, he wrote this book "to help improve communication between scientists and nonscientists by taking advantage of the interest everyone takes in El Niño. The book is a collection of essays that amount to nineteen ways of looking at this multifaceted phenomenon....The main message of this book is that the solutions to serious environmental problems will elude us unless we are all aware of, and respect, the profound differences between the worlds of science and human affairs." In undertaking this purpose, I feel Philander has succeeded in writing a book that joins those of authors such as Lewis Thomas and Stephen Jay Gould who have combined science with the way we perceive our world from alternate viewpoints.
The book first presents the history of El Niño, from an innocuous current off the coast of Peru that brought blessed rains to the arid Peruvian coast around Christmas time to a globally-feared agent of damage and disruption. It then explores "how our perceptions of El Niņo were transformed, not because the phenomenon changed, but because we did." The middle of the book explores the different approaches by which societal and scientific problems are tackled and why the radical differences between the two viewpoints often lead to uneasy dilemmas. Philander looks at how the activities and viewpoints of scientists, artists, poets and musicians exhibit both distinctly different and surprisingly similar avenues of perception.
The fourth section of the book looks at the transformation of pure science to applied science through "weather" forecasting and how this has led to computer forecast models. In the discussion, the author compares forecasts of El Niño and future climates to weather forecasts of years past, showing encouraging results but not yet highly accurate on details. Philander ends the book with brief looks at some environmental problems related to weather conditions and how our total knowledge has affected our abilities to cope with such problems.
Philander's writing style and use of examples make this book a very understandable book to anyone with a basic grasp of science (though at times he tosses in such specific jargon as stochastic and canonical without definition). I heartily recommend Our Affair with El Niño by S. George Philander as a must read for a wide audience, including media, legislators, planners and policy developers. Not all will agree with its message, but all should benefit from having considered its avenues of thought.
Weather Doctor's Book Review: Our Affair with El Niño ©2004, Keith C. Heidorn, PhD. All Rights Reserved.
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