A Vast Machine: Computer Models, Climate Data, and the Politics of Global Warming

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Overview

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.

Edwards argues that all our knowledge about climate change comes from three kinds of computer models: simulation models of weather and climate; reanalysis models, which recreate climate history from historical weather data; and data models, used to combine and adjust measurements from many different sources. Meteorology creates knowledge through an infrastructure (weather stations and other data platforms) that covers the whole world, making global data. This infrastructure generates information so vast in quantity and so diverse in quality and form that it can be understood only by computer analysis—making data global. Edwards describes the science behind the scientific consensus on climate change, arguing that over the years data and models have converged to create a stable, reliable, and trustworthy basis for establishing the reality of global warming.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"[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, EnvironmentalHistory

"[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 ofPolicy Research

" A Vast Machine: Computer Models, Climate Data, and the Politics of GlobalWarming 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, PaulEdwards' 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, ScienceMagazine

"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, AmericanScientist

"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." — JamesRodger 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

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780262013925
  • Publisher: MIT Press
  • Publication date: 3/14/2008
  • Series: Infrastructures
  • Pages: 552
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Paul N. Edwards is Associate Professor in the School of Information 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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