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This is the Allusionist, in which I, Helen Zaltzman, am Tippi Hedren in The Birds, and language is the birds in The Birds. Ow ow ow get off me ow ow.
Coming up in today’s show:
NATE BYRNE: We're all experts and all idiots at the same time.
But first: the Red Cross has asked us at Radiotopia to talk to you about blood. The etymology of ‘blood’ is from ‘bloom’. That’s not why the Red Cross wanted me to talk about blood, though; the number of blood donors in the USA has been declining year on year. But someone needs a blood transfusion in the US every two seconds, so they need regular donors and lots of them.
Now, I love going to donate blood. My blood group: B positive. Like my outlook on life! I only started donating blood aged 31, and I really wish I had gone sooner, because - not wishing to sound like a weirdo - I LOVE donating blood.
Whenever I say I’m going to give blood, everyone - EVERYONE! - just says, “Free biscuits!” Not to brag, but I can afford to buy biscuits, if I want biscuits. I’m going for the free feeling of being a not entirely useless human being: one pint useful every four months.
I know a lot of you can’t donate blood for numerous reasons, so for all of you who are able to do it, you know that when you go to donate blood, you’re doing it on behalf of all those pals who can’t. So, double the altruism points.
Americans: go to schedule your blood donation appointment at redcrossblood.org/MissingTypes. Brits: find your nearest blood-letting opportunity at blood.co.uk. And yes, biscuits; at my last donation in London, they had Club biscuits. Hadn’t had one of those since the early 90s, still good. But that’s NOT THE POINT. The point is the giving of the blood.
On with the show.
NATE BYRNE: So the forecasters' secret - here you go, I'm telling you, don't tell anyone: “partly cloudy, chance of a shower” gets you out of a world of hurt. Shh! Don't tell anyone.
HZ: Unless you're forecasting for a desert area, in which case chance of a shower would be like a news story.
NATE BYRNE: True, true, but if you say “a chance” you're not promising too much, are you? But the thing is, a chance of a shower actually has meaning for a meteorologist: 30 percent, 40 percent, 50 percent chance of showers, that is a meaningful thing. Here, we’re predicting the future. And also you’re forecasting for a given area over a given time period. I don't know where you're about to be in 20 minutes time. I don't know if it is going to rain where you are, where you're going to be; but I know the area that you might be in if you're hanging out in Melbourne for the day, and I can tell you that about half of Melbourne is going to experience a shower at some point during the day today. So if I say a 50 percent chance of a shower, that means there's a good chance that 50 percent of this area that I'm forecasting for will see some wet weather.
HZ: Nate Byrne is a science communicator and meteorologist, and we’re talking in the foyer of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation just after he came off air from presenting the national weather on ABC News Breakfast.
[CLIP: Nate Byrne doing the weather forecast on ABC News Breakfast]
HZ: Nate has to convert the science of weather into words that people who have just woken up can understand and translate into their everyday experience. Oh, and he has to cover the whole of Australia, a country that is also a continent with climates ranging from tropical to desert to temperate. I’m currently in Tasmania. It snowed yesterday morning. But that is not representative of the whole nation.
NATE BYRNE: Today, for example, I've got maximum temperatures down at 12 degrees for one end of the country, where it's raining and miserable and the wind is blowing a gale - literally blowing a gale, that has meaning that word, 'gale' actually means something -
HZ: Gale, noun: strong sustained winds with a speed of 32-63 miles per hour
NATE BYRNE: - whereas on the other side of the country it's bright blue sunshine, 31 degrees and it's not going to rain for the next six months. And we know that; in fact the weather's going to be sunny and 31 for at least the next five months. So it makes it very very difficult when you're trying to figure out what's going on for such a huge chunk of the world and only have 90 seconds to talk about it. That's the bigger problem really.
HZ: It’s also highly subjective. One person’s light shower could be another person’s deluge.
NATE BYRNE: Yeah, actually one of the worst ones for that: when the forecast says ‘fine'. That has a real meaning.
HZ: That has two real meanings.
NATE BYRNE: Yeah! In terms of the weather it means there is no rainfall; but it doesn't actually have any emotion attached to it from a forecast point of view. But for people, a fine day really really does have a lot of meaning. I always find that one trips people up, because I say “It'll be fine in Melbourne and then somebody sends me a photo of some clouds and goes, “It's a horrible gloomy day. What are you talking about, fine?”
HZ: Could you say, “I meant fine, it’ll be OK.”
NATE BYRNE: It'll just be fine.
HZ: B minus.
NATE BYRNE: At best.
HZ: It’s a gripe of mine, actually: weather forecasters applying emotion to weather. In Britain, weather forecasters are always saying things like, “It’ll be a good day tomorrow, hot and sunny.” Now, that’s not good as far as I’m concerned. I love glowering skies, a sharp edge to the air, the sound of rain on the roof. I do not love sunburn or the sweaty smells on the crowded trains. And I appreciate it’s nuanced, what weather is good and why and for whom, which is why I just want the weather forecasters to warn me that it’s going to be hot and sunny, and not to tell me how I feel about it!
NATE BYRNE: One of the things I find really strange when it comes to the weather is that we're all experts and all idiots at the same time.
HZ: You’re supposed to be the expert though.
NATE BYRNE: Right. Yeah! But I mean, we all live in it every day and we all feel like we understand the weather really well and we hear weather reports every single day. Now, if you are practicing a skill every day, on average you're generally excellent at it; that’s a real strength of yours. But it turns out that meteorologists typically haven't been very good at telling people what it is they're trying to tell them. So showers, just for example, means the rain's going to start and stop and start and stop; it doesn't tell you anything about the volume. Rain means it's just going to be continuous, and again doesn't tell you anything about the volume; but we have built, somehow, cultural expectations and understandings that go with those words that the scientists don't actually mean when they're using those words and it makes a really tricky job.
HZ: So that's an interesting disconnect that you have to deal with; how do you even start to deal with that?
NATE BYRNE: I add extra words, like light and heavy; I often try to to add to the forecast rather than just say “wet weather for you,” “It's umbrella weather” or “don't worry about it; just a sprinkle” - the stuff that the meteorologist would cringe at because that's not correct terminology.
HZ: It’s not scientific.
NATE BYRNE: Exactly; but you have to walk away from that when you when you're trying to communicate something with real meaning to people who don't have that training.
HZ: You are scientist, but you're in an entertainment format.
NATE BYRNE: Yeah, it took me a while to learn how to walk away from the science terminology, because we are so heavily trained, and even as much as a trained science communicator, where you know you're told very clearly no jargon - and especially when it comes to the weather, it doesn't sound like jargon, showers and rain, because we hear those words every day, it doesn't sound like jargon. But in fact they are absolutely meaning-laden terms when it comes to the science side of things. It took me quite a while to step back from being a meteorological purist, when it comes to the science side of things, just to try to get across the meaning rather than being super-precise. And trying to have an understanding of where people are and what their lives might look like. Like for example, if I say, “Oh, good thing the rain's going to stop,” in a city like Melbourne that's fine, wonderful. If I say “Good thing the rain is going to stop” in the middle of New South Wales where we've got a drought at the moment and it's been two years since they've had any decent rain, that has very different meaning for those people.
HZ: When seeking terms that are quantifiable and expressive, Nate loves the words to describe wind.
NATE BYRNE: Because that comes from a naval or a seafaring background. We still use all of all of those terms. The wind is fresh or strong or gale force. I like that, because because those words do have meaning, much more than category 1, 2, 3 or 4.
HZ: We can interpret ‘fresh' or ‘strong’ fairly proficiently. Fresh: we’ll feel it. Strong: certainly not weak. Gale force: covered that earlier - but to recap: 34-47 knots, 8 to 9 on the Beaufort scale. But: we meteorological laypeople don’t necessarily know how fast a knot is, or whether a number on a scale means a lot or a little of that kind of weather - is the weather counting down the top 10 to number 1, or turning it up to 11? And how do we relate these numbers to our prior wind experience? Because when it matters, it really matters.
NATE BYRNE: One thing we always have a problem with in Australia is cyclone season. A large part of our country is put under very very real danger every year when cyclones approach. And the categorisation system we use for tropical cyclones puts a number next to them, and people that have lived through the cyclone making landfall near them often rate their experience very closely with the number of the category of the cyclone. And so a category 1 cyclone: for some people it's nothing to worry about. Category 2: oh, just a bit blowy. The thing is, as somebody who is trying to communicate to people the real danger, you need to be very objective and be able to say to them, “This is exactly what's going to happen.” But then in order to sometimes make people actually do something, you have to also balance that with a little bit of emotional talk and impress on them how dangerous this actually could be, potentially; because otherwise, big tough Aussies... They have cyclone parties. They have friends round and have beers for the eye wall coming through.
HZ: What a way to die.
NATE BYRNE: Yeah, yeah. Luckily we tend to warn early and well and and for the most part we manage to get away with it when it comes to cyclones, because large parts of our country don't have very many people in them, for one. And also we tend to be really well prepared and get people there as quickly as possible. Plus, if you're having a cyclone party, you've got friends around to help.
HZ: I guess? To dig you out of rubble and stuff. Do you have to work it very tactfully to make people apprehensive of danger but not add to panic?
NATE BYRNE: Yeah, absolutely. And that's the other thing you really want to avoid doing is overstating what's going to happen: because if you say something big is going to happen and people prepare for it and then nothing does happen, then you've done a world of damage, because they won't necessarily listen next time. But then equally, one of things that I find most challenging is when we say, “Hey, there's going to be some really big flood waters” - for example - “make sure you prepare yourself.” And the town sandbags and makes all the preparations; the system comes through; the flood happens; but because they prepared so well they're unaffected - which is exactly what you want. And then afterwards you see a lot of commentary of, “Oh well it wasn't even anything; why did we bother?” Well, no - you bothered, which meant it wasn't anything - that was a good thing.
HZ: Everything worked.
NATE BYRNE: Yeah: that's how it should be. If you prepare properly chances are you can get away with your life if you hadn't prepared then things could be very very different. But that can lead to its own level of complacency because people haven't firsthand experienced the danger, because they've been so well prepared. It’s a very funny thing.
HZ: So this is a reason that instead of numbers, weather forecasters opt for vocabulary that prods us in the emotions, tweaks our memories, provokes our senses. Not just in emergencies - Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology, which guides the weather forecasting in that country, has approved a term that Nate particularly enjoys.
NATE BYRNE: I found it so evocative; I loved it: sultry.
HZ: For when the weather's like a bit close and sticky?
NATE BYRNE: You know exactly what it is. It means so much, doesn't it, automatically. You’re a little bit bothered.
HZ: You can't quite get your layering right.
NATE BYRNE: Perfect. It’s a legitimate forecast term; it's just not one that's used very often, because these days we tend to say ‘humid’ or something similar. There are other ways of doing it. But that word to describe the weather - and strictly also a human emotion - perfect.
HZ: Quite a sexy weather term compared to ‘humidity’, which is not.
NATE BYRNE: And you wouldn't want to say “It's a bit moist.”
HZ: Everyone hates the word ‘moist’.
NATE BYRNE: I know! What’s wrong with it? I don't understand.
HZ: But then you've got a weather perspective on it. So you managed to contain it.
HZ: What are your favourite weathery words, Nate?
NATE BYRNE: I like the names of clouds. I don't use them as much as I would like to. I shouldn't use the names of clouds at all, because they're not really that useful to most people; but everybody loves a good cumulonimbus but, mammatus - which is actually one of my favourite types of cloud.
HZ: What does it do?
NATE BYRNE: Well, I think you can probably sense the root of the word there, mammatus...
HZ: Mammaries - did you all get that? It’s mammaries.
NATE BYRNE: It has long pendulous lobes that hang from under the cloud. Affectionately known, in some circles, as the boob cloud. It’s like a cow’s udder. Very very spectacular. You'll know it if you see it for sure. But it's the use of Latin in the naming of the clouds is just - I love it I love it, and there isn't much of an alternative -
HZ: Well, 'boob cloud'.
NATE BYRNE: Which is why we go mammatus. That's exactly why that word is said.
HZ: We’re familiar with this old tactic: to make something sound classy and official, say it in Latin. But don’t pretend that you didn’t just say ‘boobs’ in Latin.
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I’ll just preemptively answer your intelligent ponderings about whether ‘meteorology’ is related to the word ‘meteor’: the answer is yes! Well done. ‘Meteor’ has been used since at least the 1590s to mean something streaking through the Earth’s atmosphere; before that, it was more general, a thing up in the air. So meteorology is the study of things high up. The Christmas decorations in the attic; the ice cream maker on top of the fridge; the magazines on the top shelf - no. Celestial conditions. Cheeky. Get your head out of the boob clouds.
There are three Allusionist live shows still to go in Australia and New Zealand in June and July 2018: Perth! Wellington! And Auckland! Dates and tickets are listed at theallusionist.org/events - and the tour is headed to the northern hemisphere later this year, more about that next time.
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Your randomly selected word from the dictionary today is…
nyctophobia, noun: extreme or irrational fear of the night or of darkness.
Try using it in an email today.
This episode was produced by me, Helen Zaltzman, and Martin Austwick, who makes all the music you hear in the show. Big thanks to Nate Byrne, who is the weather presenter on ABC News Breakfast in Australia - so if you see him on your TV warning you of a possible cyclone in your neighbourhood, take appropriate precautions; don’t just think, “Oh, he’s got such a cheerful face, it’ll probably be fine.” Fine as in alright, or as in untumultuous weather. At least put away the patio umbrella in the shed.
You can find me on Facebook and Twitter - allusionistshow is the handle. You can see the dictionary entries for the words of the day, find out more about every topic, read episode transcripts and more at the show’s home, theallusionist.org.