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Vast Machine (Infrastructures) [Hardcover]

Paul N. Edwards
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Book Description

8 April 2010 Infrastructures
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 doubters: 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 the reality of global warming.

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 528 pages
  • Publisher: MIT Press (8 April 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0262013924
  • ISBN-13: 978-0262013925
  • Product Dimensions: 3.6 x 15.3 x 23.7 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 1.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 823,586 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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"[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, Environmental History "[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 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 cliche, 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

About 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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1 of 14 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Flawed logic and ignorance 19 May 2012
I hoped when reading this book that the author would enlighten my lack of knowledge of climate models, but was deeply disappointed. He starts by asserting that all we know about the climate of the earth, now and in the past, is based on mathematical models. This is demonstrably untrue, because we have vast archives of information produced before any computer models were available or used. Although accurate instrumental records are sparse before the late Victorian period, there is much comment in historic works of which this author is either blissfully ignorant, or deliberately deceitful. We also have extensive archaeological knowledge of past civilizations, much of it of recent origin. And that data is important because it has exposed the sham of computer models used to generate false predictions of the future climate and even the past climate. The best example is the attempt by Mann and Jones to re-invent history by airbrushing the Medieval Warm Period and the Little Ice Age from the historic record. That these periods were real is proved, for example, by the extant remains of the Viking discovery of North America such as the Lanse-aux-Meadows settlement dated to about 1000 AD on Newfoundland by Helge Ingstad. Indeed, the climate then was warm enough to allow crops on Greenland and the waters around were ice-free, allowing the Vikings freedom of passage. This was of course when CO2 levels in the air were low, and well before the Industrial Revolution. The glib assertion that heightened CO2 from coal-burning power stations (for example) levels have caused global warming and threaten the planet is as bogus as the computer models used to justify the hypothesis.

It is mis-applied computer models we now know we have to blame for many other world problems.
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Amazon.com: 4.1 out of 5 stars  17 reviews
37 of 40 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Understand the Roots of Our Understanding 10 Jun 2010
By Steven Forth - Published on Amazon.com
Understanding how we know about climate, and even what it means to know about climate and climate change, is essential if we are to have an informed debate. This is far and away the best book I have read on the infrastructure behind our knowledge of climate change, how that infrastructure developed, and how the infrastructure shapes our understanding.

The story begins in the 1600s as systematic collection of weather data began (at least in the modern period, other cultures such as the Chinese have older records and it would be interesting to unearth these, although the data normalization issues would be extreme). It picks up speed in the 19th C with global trade and then the telegraph. The more data collected, and the more data is exchanged, the more important it becomes to normalize data for comparison. Normalization requires some form of data model, a theory that makes the data meaningful. Indeed, this is Edwards point, all data about weather and climate only becomes meaningful in the context of a model (this is of course generally true).

Work accelerated during WW2 and then exploded in the 50s and 60s as computers became more available. The role played by John Von Neumann in this is fascinating, as is the nugget that his second wife Klara Von Neumann taught early weather scientists how to program (there is a whole hidden history of the role of woman in developing computer programming that needs to be written - or if you know of one please add it to the comments of this review or tweet it to me @StevenForth).

Edwards also introduces some useful concepts such as Data Friction and Computational Friction. I think my company can apply these in its own work, so for me this has been a very practical text.

Modern models of climate are complex and are growing more so. They have to be to integrate data from multiple sources. One of the main lines of evidence for climate change is that data from many different sources are converging to suggest that climate change is a real and accelerating phenomena. One can meaningfully ask if this convergence is an artifact of the models, although this appears unlikely given the diversity of the data and models. But Edwards shows that it is idiotic to claim that the data and the models can be meaningfully separated. This is true in all science and not just climate science. A theory is a model to normalize and integrate data and to uncover and make meaningful relations between disparate data. That these models are now expressed numerically in computations, rather than as differential equations or sentences in a human language or drawings is one of the major shifts of the information age. It will be interesting to dig deeper into the formal relations between these diffferent modeling languages.
8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars top 10 decade 13 Dec 2010
By avidreaders - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Do you or anyone you know want to understand the current "debate" over climate change and our contribution to it? And to comprehend the evolution of climate science, data collection, and computer modeling that underlies this, and indeed must underly any sensible discussion of a "global economy" and other "global" developments. This book is a lucid, intellectually thrilling and magisterial account of how climate science has evolved over the past 150 years, showing how early visionaries and decades of dedicated work on collecting information on the "vast machine" of weather and climate resulted in a "vast machine" of computer-based understanding was created, has transformed the answers to fundamental questions of "what we mean" and "how do we know." No one should graduate from college without reading this book, and no one should consider him/herself conversant with the current terms of political debate without reading this book. The Economist listed this among its best books of 2010. It should be on a list of best of the past decade--and most important!
7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Global Warming "Smarts". 31 Dec 2010
By Donald Singer - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Finally, a book about our weather problems that is unbiased and rational. Paul Edwards examines the issue of Global Warming in a way that sets aside the hype and explains how we come by the facts that provide answers we can trust. A Vast Machine is a well written and easily understood piece of writing and I highly recommend it.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Bible of modern climate science 16 Sep 2013
By Daniel Lufkin - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
Prof. Edwards not only manages to compress a graduate-level course into a book that you can actually pick up, he does it with such clarity and style that you can't put it down. If the amateurs who claim to "audit" climatological data and models would only spend a couple of days reading key chapters in AVM, thousands of hours of ignorant carping that have cluttered the Web for years could have been avoided.
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "For every complex problem, there is an answer that is clear, simple--and wrong." Edwards explains complexity well. 30 Jan 2011
By Graham H. Seibert - Published on Amazon.com
"For every complex problem, there is an answer that is clear, simple--and wrong." Edwards explains complexity well.

A couple of wonderful coinages characterize this book. The "Apocalypse Gap" is the void which must be filled by somebody scaring us to death. An "issue entrepreneur" is somebody who successfully exploits that gap and sells newspapers by scaring us. Global warming as a concept has to fight against our inherent skepticism. We have been smacked with the population bomb, numbed by global winter, piqued by peak oil, and generally jerked around by every manner of scaremonger with a book to sell. Edwards convinces me it's real this time.

Edwards' field, he tells us in his final chapter, is "science and technology studies." The sociology of science and scientists. It is a good background, because in the field as complex as climate studies, before you can even decide what you know, you have to decide how you know what you know. Gone are the days when a single scientist in the lab could have a "Eureka" moment and prove something profoundly new about the climate. No, everything we know about weather and climate is the result of an immense and collaborative effort.

Because we can never make a meaningful number of observations on our own, the question of how we know things is of paramount importance. Individually, we can anecdotally note that it was a hot summer in Russia and that there were an exceptional number of forest fires perhaps in Wyoming. We might guess that the world is getting warmer. But no individual would ever have the resources to monitor thermometers in 1000 stations throughout the world, much less do so over any meaningful period of time, such as daily for forty or fifty years. Even making the impossibly simple assumption that you measure global warming by thermometers alone, one can immediately see that whatever you know depends on other people.

Depending on other people, it depends on systems and standards on which all those people agree. Where to put thermometers; how to shield them from the wind; what time of day to read them; what manufacturers to use... And 1000 other questions. Then: how to send the thermometer readings to some central site, correct errors, and translate into universally agreed geographic coordinates and times.

This is my poor introduction to a vastly more complex problem. The things that are measured, the devices that measure them, and the data translations are vastly more complex. A key observation that Edwards makes early on is that "it is models all the way down." For data to be useful, they have applied to standardized three-dimensional grid points. Of course weather stations are not conveniently placed at the intersections of longitude and latitude lines, and they certainly cannot be stacked twenty kilometers up in space. Useful readings have to be interpolated from actual readings into estimated readings for the points in a regular grid. They have to be corrected for any systematic errors known to be associated with the instruments, and interpolated for time. It is all modeling.

A key distinction is that weather forecasting and climate measurement are different enterprises. The first must be done on very short process cycles, is eminently pragmatic in its orientation, and is uninterested in data after the forecast is done. Climatologists have all the time in the world, love nothing more than long sequences of commensurable data, and are interested in many more types of data than weather forecasters. What they have in common is that they both depend on models.

Computer models are based on physical principles from a large number of disciplines: fluid dynamics for wind and ocean movements; thermodynamics for the exchange of radiant energy among all components of the atmosphere, ocean and earth; biology, for the physiology of living things; chemistry, for the interaction of chemicals in the atmosphere. Add to these physical principles a number of given parameters, such digitized topographic maps of the Earth, observed ice and snow cover, locations of rivers, and so forth.

Some physical interactions are well understood and can be quite accurately modeled, such as the absorption of sunlight by carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Some are vastly more difficult and problematic, such as the way in which soot in the air precipitates the formation of clouds, or clouds reflect sunlight back out into space.

No model can possibly describe every characteristic of the earth; fine details have to be rolled into gross parameters. Edwards' example is rain; you cannot model individual raindrops, you have to talk about average precipitation over one of your grid squares, typically several hundred kilometers on a side. In the end, you are left with the following realizations: it is impossible to model everything - whatever model you make will be shot through with simplifying assumptions. However, a model is absolutely the only way to visualize either weather or climate on a global scale. Any claim that we don't understand global warming because it is "just a model" misses the point. A model is absolutely the only way we can understand global climate or global weather. Edwards does a great job of leading us through the history of both data collection and modeling. His argument is that today's models are fairly good because (1) they do a pretty good job of explaining past climate and (2) a vast number of models, more or less independent of one another, converge on more or less the same predictions. His word, a nice usage, is shimmering models. The images of the past and the future that they create are not fixed - each one is slightly different from the others, which you can visualize as shimmering - but they converge fairly well.

He introduces the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Control late in the book, and he published before last year's major controversies over the Himalayan glaciers and the East Anglia e-mails which tarnished the IPCC. Nevertheless, he does an exceptionally good job of describing the political environment in which the IPCC operates.

He might have mentioned, but does not, that the IPCC has three working groups: the science of global warming, the projected effects of global warming, and proposed policy to combat global warming. This book addresses the work of only the first of them, perhaps the least controversial. While there is a consensus that the world will warm by perhaps three degrees Celsius when carbon dioxide doubles to 560ppm, it is much harder to project, or get a consensus, on whether that will be harmful or beneficial to any given country, and harder yet to conclude, as the Kyoto protocol attempted, that the world must bite the bullet to the tune of 100 trillion dollars to combat CO2 immediately. In summary, Edwards' sticks with the science, and does an extremely good job of presenting the case for believing the model, and also that there nothing else in which one could believe but the model. Having established that global warming is almost certainly real, he leaves what to do about it to the politicians. But he dedicates the book to his children and the world they will inherit.

I add that Edwards has an excellent web site, [...] in support of the book.

FOOTNOTE: The integrity of the models has been called into serious question by several scandals involving the IPCC. Read my review of "Die Kalte Sonne" for an insight into the abuses of models. I agree with Edwards that models are essential, and the only available tool. However, they have to be used with integrity.
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