Percy Saltzman Essay: Weather and Superstitions

November 18, 1951

(CBC Trans-Canada Network)
by P. P. Saltzman, Meteorological Division, Toronto

Man is a deep-sea fish. During the million years or so that he was been on earth, he has simply crawled about on the ground at the bottom of a sea of air. If the air were coloured red it would be seen so plainly that even our early ancestors would have been convinced that air existed. It might have saved them a good deal of heartache and fancy invention. But air of course is colorless and we cannot see it. And that's a good thing too, for if we could, we'd have a hard time seeing anything else. For the same reason, a goldfish cannot see the water in his bowl.

And yet in a way it's a pity we can't see the air around us. For it we could, we might have paid as much attention to the science of the atmosphere as we now do to the science of things we can see -- like machines and chemicals and metals.

The weather which makes our climate has a bearing on all we do -- our agriculture, our commerce, our transportation, of very health and energy. If we Canadians are going to excel in travelling, farming, hauling freight and flying the airlines, we will have to pay a great deal more attention that we now do to the teaching of meteorology to our citizens, both junior and senior.

Unfortunately for the science of weather, it still has to clear away a good many superstitious beliefs before it can make real headway. As we know, man has been handicapped by his own superstitions during most of his history. He had gradually case off these bonds, but most people still carry many chains of superstition regarding the weather. The weather is probably the second oldest top of social small-talk, but today the average man still knows little about it. We can truly say that, although meteorology is our oldest science, it is still our most neglected subject.

Looking back over the story of our growing knowledge of the atmosphere, we can note the pre-scientific or mythical era of meteorology.

During this mythical period, which stretches from the dawn of history right up to about 200 years ago, Nature's ways were noted and explained mystically, that is, on a superstitious or magical basis. If our forefathers could not explain things by the laws of science, they invested god adn devils to explain it for them. Thus Jupiter Pluvius caused it to rain, and Saturn was the god of weather for planting. All the people of ancient times -- the Norsemen, Greeks, Chinese, Romans, Hindus, Phoenicians, to name only a few -- invented their own meteorological gods. The Hebrew writings, as in the Old Testament, have a good deal to say on the weather. So, too, the New Testament shows that the early Christians were much concerned with this topic.

Even today in Canada we have not entirely rid our minds of the ancient superstitious attitudes. Many people still swear by the moon for planning and harvesting their crops. Others plan their lives by the planets and the stars. Still others pay out thousands of good dollars each and every year to weather makers, overlooking the plain fact that weather is caused by the logical working out of natural laws. Again, many other put their faith in queer signs and gadgets to help them peer into the future, into tomorrow's weather and the day after that and the day after that. Almanacs profess to tell us what next August tenth will be like, forgetting that the very factors that will make the weather next August tenth are not yet born. And some -- a very few -- even believe that the official weatherman actually makes the weather. I don't think we even wish we could.

But about 300 years ago, with the invention of the thermometer and the barometer, the scientific age of meteorology made its entrance on the stage of history. These instruments made it possible for man to measure natural happenings and to see their causes. About 200 years ago, Benjamin Franklin gave us a big boost by discovering two things: the nature of lightning; and the fact that storms were not mere local events but large-scale phenomena, encompassing vast areas and moving from west to east. Still later, the general circulation of the atmosphere over the whole planet was explained. And then the coming of the telegraph ushered in the modern meteorological era. So it was that about a hundred years ago, national weather services were set up in every country and regular public forecasts began to be put out. Our own weather service dates from 1839, 112 years ago.

Out of these national weather offices grew the international body now called the "World Meteorological Organization", which is part of the United Nations. Today, Canada's weather service saves many lives and millions of dollars annually.

The age of superstitious beliefs in the weather is on its way out, but its habits still linger on. But it good to know that, as the modern era of aviation soars aloft on ever higher and ever faster wings, its handmaiden, the science of meteorology, is growing too, becoming of greater and greater practical importance to mankind.