Photo: Franckreporter
Show Hide image

Atmospheric carnage: why I love the thrill of summer storms

Their destructive power forces you to recall the vulnerabilities of your human frame.

Driving on the M25 one summer evening many years ago, I found myself headed straight for a wide column of storm-lit rainbow above Heathrow. The sky was congested and bruised, and even though I was travelling at 70 miles an hour, the pull of wind towards the storm tugged at the car, rushing across the elevated motorway section to fill the vacancy left by air pulled up thousands of feet to the cloud’s blossoming apex.

I couldn’t see its white top being stroked windward, but I could see the small crosses that were transatlantic jets steering their courses around the storm’s perimeter. Half-feared for them. There were clips of lightning through this atmospheric carnage, and small turquoise pools of clear sky. And across one of these I saw a flock of parakeets flying straight and fast, with clipped wingbeats and streaming tails straight out behind them. It was a moment cut from a few seconds of moving history that will hang bright in my mind forever.

Most summer weather seems to me simply a backdrop to half-remembered scenes: a sun-baked lawn, misty mornings by the sea, city streets in the rain. All my clearest summer memories are of storms.

That afternoon in the early 1980s when I heard my first nightingale singing into charged grey air, accompanied by distant thunder that swung closer and seemed a voice answering the bird. Or that hot week in Gloucestershire in the 1990s when thunderstorms came every evening so the air turned sepia at six; and before the first drops of storm rain sent pollen dust up in puffs from the skylight I’d open the windows and wait for thunder while little owls called through the thick air, and in the morning tiny white dots of storm-blown blossom covered the house with wet French lace.

It’s taken me years to realise that I’ve measured all my summers by their storms.

There are people in America who climb into cars to chase thunderclouds across the Great Plains. But part of the thrill of British summer storms is not that one seeks them out, but that when the conditions are right, they come to you. For all the anxiety that spreads within you as you hear the crackling static of lightning breaking through voices on the radio, or smell the petrichor of newly soaked ground borne in on a rising wind, the predictability of the life cycle of a thunderstorm is strangely reassuring.

Stand far enough away and you can watch a summer cumulus, a thing of sun-warmed air and water, grow into an entity the size of a mountain, unleash hail and brilliant hell, then disappear. A thundercloud takes perhaps an hour or so to cycle through its life, first stretching and pushing upwards until its top hits the troposphere and is pushed sideways and brushed into ice.

As water droplets are pulled up into the cloud they freeze, eventually growing too heavy to ascend further, and so they fall, bumping into smaller fragments on their way up. Each collision transfers electrons so that the lower parts of the cloud collect a negative charge while the upper parts collect a positive charge. Eventually lightning leaps across these differentials between the cloud’s top, its base, and the ground, casting out shock waves of superheated air that make the sound of thunder.

The destructive power of storms forces you to recall the vulnerabilities of your human frame, and all the limits, safeties and certainties of your everyday world. Unplug your television. Get out of the bath. Do not shower. Stand away from windows.

But storms are made of more than stuff. They’re also things of metaphors and memory. Storms distressed my grandmother; to her, thunder recalled the terror of the Blitz. But to me thunder still carries the charge of that glowing moment as my father explained to small me how storms are born from sunlight and hot earth, moving air and water, and how you can count the seconds it takes between lightning and thunder – one Mississippi, two Mississippi – to work out how far away the storm is.

Five seconds is a mile. You can calculate its progress towards you. And even now when I count those seconds, I feel a slow wonder that is as much connected to the passage of years as it is to that of a cloud over rain-soaked ground.

Summer storms conjure distance and time but conjure, too, all the things that come towards us over which we have no control. Such storms have their place in literature; the heavy air and mood of suppressed emotion as the storm brews so often stand for an inevitable catastrophe. A murder, in Agatha Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles, or Leo’s revelation in L P Hartley’s The Go-Between.

No weather so perfectly conjures a sense of foreboding, of anticipation and waiting, as the eerie stillness that often occurs before the first fat drops of rain, when storm-light makes luminous all roofs and fields and strands black silhouettes of trees on the horizon. This is the storm as expectation. As solution about to be offered. Or all hell about to break loose.

And as the weeks of this summer draw on, I can’t help but think that this is the weather we are all now made of. All of us waiting. Waiting for news. Waiting for Brexit to hit us. Waiting for the next revelation about the Trump administration. Waiting for hope, stranded in that strange light that stills our hearts. 

Helen Macdonald is the author of “H is for Hawk” (Vintage)

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue

SCIENCE AND SOCIETY PICTURE LIBRARY
Show Hide image

A Lab of One’s Own: the forgotten female scientists who shed stereotypes about women’s abilities

Every woman in this book deserves a biography of her own.

You might assume that there’s not much left to be written about the suffragette movement. But what has been ignored is that in the quiet corridors of university science departments, important battles were fought by women whose names were quickly forgotten. They weren’t always high-profile campaigners, but by forcing open the gates to the male-dominated worlds of science and engineering they helped shed stereotypes about women’s abilities.

In A Lab of One’s Own, the Cambridge historian Patricia Fara documents these scientists’ stories, painting a picture of a world that clearly wanted to remain male. It was the First World War that gave women unprecedented access to careers for which they had until then been deemed unsuitable. From all walks of life, they began working in munitions factories, developing chemical weapons (at one point, 90 per cent of industrial chemists were women) and building war machinery, while male scientists were on the battlefield.

These weren’t safe jobs; 200 women producing TNT died from poisoning or accidental explosions. Their achievements were so immense that even the prime minister Herbert Asquith, who opposed female suffrage, was forced to admit that there was hardly a service “in which women have not been at least as active and efficient as men”.

There is understandable anger in Fara’s voice. Despite their skill and dedicated service – often working for less pay than their male counterparts, or none at all – female scientists faced appalling resistance. Women were shunted into the worst roles, mocked for what they wore (trousers or skirts, they could never seem to get it right), and their ideas were ignored. Trade unions fought to protect men, meaning most women went unrepresented, promptly losing their jobs once the war was over.

Again and again, they had to carve out spaces for themselves then battle for the right to keep them. Britain’s scientific societies pulled elaborate tricks to block female members in the first half of the 20th century. One graduate, Emily Lloyd, managed to gain admission to the Royal Institute of Chemistry only by cleverly using the gender-neutral “E Lloyd” to sit the qualifying exam.

But getting through the door was only half the challenge. At Cambridge, men stamped their feet while women walked to their reserved seats at the front of the lecture theatres (imagine how they must have felt when Philippa Fawcett, daughter of the suffragette Millicent Fawcett, beat them all to come top in the Cambridge Mathematical Tripos exams in 1890). Women-only labs were given inferior facilities. Even scientists who worked alongside their husbands sometimes weren’t given credit when their joint work was published.

Every woman in this book deserves a biography of her own. Martha Whiteley, for example, who did pioneering work on mustard gas and wounded her arm when she tested it on herself. And the chemist Dorothea Hoffert, who researched varnish and food before having to give up work when she got married. The personal tales of these remarkable figures could benefit from more spacious storytelling, but as a scholarly account, Fara’s book offers a window into this fascinating chapter of history.

What’s also intriguing is the unease that men felt on seeing women doing “their” jobs. Soldiers worried about “the masculinisation of women” back home. There were fears that uniforms and protective overalls would drain femininity, and that by choosing to study and work rather than reproduce, clever women were depriving the nation of clever babies.

Unsurprisingly then, after the war, things went back swiftly to how they were before. Even in medical schools, where women had made huge strides, “the traditional masculine culture reasserted itself”. Women did win the battle in the end, although the war continues. As Fara makes clear, this was not only through the force of their intellects but also by taking the example of male clubs and forming their own networks. Women’s colleges became hotbeds for campaigning, particularly Newnham in Cambridge. The Women’s Engineering Society, the British Federation of University Women, and others were set up partly to help women fight entrenched efforts to hold them back.

“It is with much interest that we learned a few weeks ago that women chemists in London had formed a Club,” a snobbish editorial in the journal Chemistry and Industry began in 1952. “Most men are clubbable one way or another, but we did not know this was true of women. We wonder if this formation of a Club for women chemists is another sign of female emancipation.”

It was. By banding together and defending their rights, women found a strength that many before the war assumed they would never have. These pioneers not only helped win women the vote, they changed what it meant to be a woman. l

Angela Saini is the author of “Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong – and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story” (4th Estate). Patricia Fara will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on Friday 12 April.​

A Lab of One’s Own: Science and Suffrage in the First World War
Patricia Fara
Oxford University Press, 352pp, £18.99

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist