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May-June 2009

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A Tribute in the Clouds: A Father's Legacy

Einstein bounced me on his knee when I was a small child. I don’t have a memory of it, but I am told he was a very nice man,” said Nora Charney Rosenbaum. Nora’s family had come to Princeton University in the summer of 1948 so that her father, Jule Charney, could join some of the greatest thinkers of the day at the Institute for Advanced Study.

“Those were very exciting times. It was a heady mix of people and ideas, not just in science, but in different disciplines,” remarked Nora. But in the late 1940s, much of that brainpower was focused on a problem many considered to be the most highly non-linear, interactive, and complex ever thought of—weather forecasting. By then, Charney had already developed equations of atmospheric motion that were to be the basis for numerical weather prediction, but the computing power was just coming of age.

“Next to the Institute was an unremarkable small brick building we called ‘the computer’ because that is all the building housed,” recalled Nora. “This is where my father was working on using computer models to forecast the weather.” Inside was the ENIAC—Electronic Numerical Integrator and Calculator—a “modern-day” computer. The team at the Institute was called the “Meteorology Project” and they designed a program, developed in part by Charney, to generate a forecast.

“I am convinced that weather forecasting is a computing problem and that its solution requires one highly intelligent machine and a few mathematic-meteorological oilers,” stated Charney. The team pulled off the first successful prediction in April of 1950.

Atmospheric scientists immediately recognized the success of these first computer-generated forecasts. Confidence in this process grew as the Princeton team was able to simulate simple aspects of general circulation and to predict cyclogenesis.

“We spent many summers on Cape Cod,” said Nora. “I recall in 1954, Hurricane Carol came through and [caused] a lot of destruction. My father and his colleagues were really quite pleased, because their model had captured the hurricane’s acceleration. It was a great triumph for them. I just remember the house where we were staying did not have any water or electricity after the storm. I thought that was great fun,” said Nora. On May 15, 1955, routine numerical weather prediction began. To many, the impossible problem had been solved.

Although Charney is considered by many to be the “father” of numerical weather prediction, he went on to make significant scientific contributions throughout his life that continue to inform our understanding of the atmosphere and oceans.

“My work was definitely inspired by didn’t arise in abstraction,” Charney was quoted as saying.

It was this power of observation that his daughter recalls so fondly.

“He loved nature not because he saw equations in it, but because it made him sincerely happy. I believe his interest in science was spawned by his love of nature. That is what he passed on to his children.”

I had met Nora at a cloud art show near Boston in 2008. I was there doing a story on atmospheric artwork for WBZ, a local CBS affiliate.

A woman approached me and said, “Hello, I am one of your interview subjects. You might know my father? My last name is Charney.” My jaw dropped—of course! And immediately the connection between Nora’s art and her personal life became clear to me. The legacy of a brilliant man was woven into a field of altocumulus, skillfully painted by his daughter onto a copper square. I was in love with the painting and moved by the realization that I was looking at a father’s gift—his love of weather—living on to inform another generation. I offered this insight to Nora, who looked at me with a puzzled expression.

“Oh, this cloud painting? I have never really thought about it that way,” she said. But in that moment, her heart opened to the possibility and her world shifted.

“Meeting you has been a pivotal point in my life,” Nora said to me a few months later, when we sat down in her studio to do the interview for this article. It had been just a seed of an idea that was soon swept up in a whirlwind of rediscovery. After we met at the cloud art show, Nora summoned up the courage to look through thousands of slides taken by her father.

“He was the photographer of the family. Everywhere he went, he took pictures of clouds. I had not looked at the slides since his death because it would have been too painful. But it turned out to be very therapeutic for me, and now I understand things differently,” said Nora. “In fact, I got this really odd sensation of looking at my life through his eyes. It was really an amazing experience to see for the first time what an enormous influence he has had on my art. To see this connection, it was an awakening.”

In 1956, the Charney family moved to Newton, Massachusetts, so that Nora’s father could join the faculty at MIT.

“I remember climbing up Mount Washington with my father and younger brother. We often went to the White Mountains, since they were so close to Boston. My father was in his element outdoors. He really loved it. He would point out eddies in a stream and lie with us in a meadow taking in the sky,” recalled Nora. “He would talk about the clouds. I learned cirrus and cumulus and basic things, but it was not hard science; it was more just an appreciation for it. My father had these two sides. One was very scientific and the other was immersed in natural beauty. Nature was his religion.”

During his years at MIT, Charney was the principle planner and architect for GARP—the Global Atmospheric Research Program. Officially launched in 1968 and completed in the early 1980s, the program conducted international field experiments from the tropics to the poles to better understand atmospheric circulation on a global scale. The goal was to extend forecasts beyond a few days out to a few weeks. The research data would also lay the foundation for the study of climate dynamics.

Charney was particularly interested in understanding the atmospheric energy supplied by the tropics. In 1969, he worked on the Barbados Oceanographic and Meteorological Experiment (BOMEX), which used aircraft, satellites, and ships to explore the transfer of energy between the tropical atmosphere east of Barbados and the warm Atlantic waters.

“During these experiments, my father took many photos of the ocean, especially ones adorned with clouds,” said Nora.

She noted, “I like to paint nature, especially the sky and water. Both have a depth and motion and a sense of transparency. It is a challenge to capture the ephemeral nature. I used to think it would get easier—you do get better at it, but it is still hard. Each time I start a painting I think, I don’t know what I am doing here. How do you achieve this sense of buoyancy and weightlessness in the clouds? It is always a struggle. My father would have loved the struggle. He loved artists for that reason. He had a notion of artists and musicians that was highly romanticized. He believed that their talents were of a higher order, unlike his pedestrian mathematical skills. Because that ability came so easily to my father, he never felt that he deserved the accolades. He had this idea that you had to struggle very hard to reach a goal and only then were you deserving of praise. He was tormented by that. Perhaps if he had lived longer, he would have overcome this frustration,” said Nora.

After our chance meeting, Nora decided to work with some of her father’s images taken during BOMEX. The three resulting works she calls Bi-Polarity, Ocean Shower, and Rain Cloud.

“In general, my paintings start from an emotional reaction to what is beautiful in the natural world. Sometimes it’s chance fragments—a view of trees, a slice of sky, or reflections in the water. Sometimes it’s the stillness or energy, the light, the color. I usually use photographs that I take as stimuli for my work. I view painting as solving problems of color, form, and texture that lead to something that was unknown at the start,” explained Nora. “Working with my father’s photos added another layer of intent and meaning.”

“In Bi-Polarity, I wanted to augment the tension I felt between the 2 large clouds so I elongated the composition and intensified the colors. As I was working on it,” she added, “I started seeing the cloud masses as representing my parents—2 people with large egos who had an impassioned and tumultuous marriage. The thunderous push and pull between them seemed mirrored in the clouds.”

Ocean Shower emphasizes what Nora considered the most interesting part of the slide. “I like to use a square panel because it encloses the subject and all sides are equally active. As I worked on the painting, I began to see how the light from the upper left corner was suffusing the clouds and sea with a kind of metaphysical spirituality,” Nora explained. “Neither my father nor I held any religious beliefs, yet we both found a kind of transcendental awe in nature. I believe this painting captures some of that feeling.”

When Nora first saw her father’s slide of what was to become the painting Rain Cloud, she was struck by the image’s beauty and majesty. She tried to impart these 2 qualities into the painting through a heightened use of color.

“I couldn’t improve much on the composition except to make the clouds more towering,” said Nora. “All of my work is painted on copper, and sometimes the way the surface interacts with the subject matter is both apt and surprising. In these works inspired through my father’s lens, I tried to use these reflective qualities inherent in the metal to give a sense of luminescence and depth to the water beneath the clouds, imparting an idea of energy transfer between the ocean and atmosphere,” she explained.
“My father never knew my art work. When I was little, I painted and sculpted. He thought that was wonderful, but I feared that I could not be the best at it. That was the expectation in my family,” Nora recalled. “Whatever it is you were going to do, you had to be the best. But when I lost my father, it made me realize that I am not going to grow up and be somebody else. I gained an understanding that who I am and the talents that I have are what I am able to work with. I believe my father would have been very happy to see me as an artist,” she concluded.

The ashes of Jule Charney are buried in Woods Hole at a cemetery that overlooks Vineyard Sound and the Atlantic Ocean. Nora is now working on painting 3 additional slides taken from her father’s collection.                                                       

MISH MICHAELS is a staff meteorologist and station scientist for WBZ, the CBS affiliate in Boston. She has worked as a forecaster in New England since 1990 and hosted a show on The Weather Channel with Jim Cantore called Atmospheres. Mish would like to thank her father for always helping with her homework during grade school, especially math, and for accepting her choice to study atmospheric science. Mish would also like to thank her mentor, WCVB Chief Meteorologist Harvey Leonard, for teaching her how to forecast New England weather and for supporting her many endeavors in the sciences. All images courtesy of Nora Charney Rosenbaum.   

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