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Hardcover | Out of Print | 552 pp. | 6 x 9 in | 74 b&w illus. | March 2010 | ISBN: 9780262013925
Paperback | $30.95 Trade | £25.95 | 552 pp. | 6 x 9 in | 74 b&w illus. | February 2013 | ISBN: 9780262518635
eBook | $21.95 Trade | March 2010 | ISBN: 9780262294096
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A Vast Machine

Computer Models, Climate Data, and the Politics of Global Warming


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.

About the Author

Paul N. Edwards is Professor in the School of Information and the Department of History 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.

Table of Contents

  • A Vast Machine
  • A Vast Machine
  • Computer Models, Climate Data, and the Politics of Global Warming
  • Paul N. Edwards
  • The MIT Press
  • Cambridge, Massachusetts
  • London, England
  • ©
  • 2010
  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  • All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form by any electronic or mechanical means (including photocopying, recording, or information storage and retrieval) without permission in writing from the publisher.
  • For information on special quantity discounts, email .edu.
  • Set in Stone by Toppan Best-set Premedia Limited. Printed and bound in the United States of America.
  • Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
  • Edwards, Paul N.
  • A vast machine : computer models, climate data, and the politics of global warming / Paul N. Edwards.
  •    p. cm.
  • Includes bibliographical references and index.
  • ISBN 978-0-262-01392-5 (hardcover : alk. paper)
  • 1. Weather forecasting. 2. Climatology—History. 3. Meteorology—History.  4. Climatology—Technological innovation. 5. Global temperature changes.  I. Title.
  • QC995.E296 2010
  • 551.63—dc22
  • 2009030678
  • 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2
  • in memory of Stephen H. Schneider (1945–2010)
  • The meteorologist is impotent if alone; his observations are useless; for they are made upon a point, while the speculations to be derived from them must be on space. . . . The Meteorological Society, therefore, has been formed not for a city, nor for a kingdom, but for the world. It wishes to be the central point, the moving power, of a vast machine, and it feels that unless it can be this, it must be powerless; if it cannot do all it can do nothing. It desires to have at its command, at stated periods, perfect systems of methodical and simultaneous observations; it wishes its influence and its power to be omnipresent over the globe so that it may be able to know, at any given instant, the state of the atmosphere on every point on its surface.
  • — John Ruskin (1839)
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgments ix
  • Introduction xiii
  • 1 Thinking Globally 1
  • 2 Global Space, Universal Time: Seeing the Planetary Atmosphere 27
  • 3 Standards and Networks: International Meteorology and the Réseau Mondial 49
  • 4 Climatology and Climate Change before World War II 61
  • 5 Friction 83
  • 6 Numerical Weather Prediction 111
  • 7 The Infinite Forecast 139
  • 8 Making Global Data 187
  • 9 The First WWW 229
  • 10 Making Data Global 251
  • 11 Data Wars 287
  • 12 Reanalysis: The Do-Over 323
  • 13 Parametrics and the Limits of Knowledge 337
  • 14 Simulation Models and Atmospheric Politics, 1960–1992 357
  • 15 Signal and Noise: Consensus, Controversy, and Climate Change 397
  • Conclusion 431
  • Notes 441
  • Index 509


“[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 debates over global warming.”—Steven Goldman, Environmental History
“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 of Policy Research
A Vast Machine: Computer Models, Climate Data, and the Politics of Global Warming 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, Paul Edwards' 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, Science Magazine
“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, American Scientist
“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


A Vast Machine is a beautifully written, analytically insightful, and hugely well-informed account of the development and influence of the models and data that are the foundation of our knowledge that the climate is changing and that human beings are making it change.”
Donald MacKenzie, Professor of Sociology, University of Edinburgh, author of An Engine, Not a Camera
“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.”
James Rodger 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


Winner, 2011 Computer History Museum Prize, awarded by the Society for the History of Technology

Winner, 2012 Louis J. Battan Author’s Award, awarded by the American Meteorological Society

Winner, 2010 ASLI Choice Award in the History category, awarded by Atmospheric Science Librarians International.