Meteorology is the study of weather and all the physical processes that combine to make weather. It is the science that investigates atmosphere.
Florence van Straten, who developed this science to serve the American Navy, was born in 1913 in New York as the daughter of parents who had come from Holland. Her mother spoke six languages and was the highestpaid officer in Holland before she came over to the United States. Jacques van Straten, her father, worked for the worldfamous movie company, Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer, with its main offices located in New York City.
His work for MGM often took him to foreign countries. This gave young Florence the opportunity to see many lands. She could spend one year of her school life in Nice, France, where she improved her French. She was already as proficient in
Dutch as in English. German, Italian and Spanish, she learned
from her parents.
With this background, it was natural that Florence wanted to be a writer. But a writer is not
something you decide to become, a vocation you plan for. It’s rather what happens to you. She also knew that most writers do not earn enough until they are quite old.
Do You Know?
Six-year-old Thomas Carlyle was alone at home one day when an old beggar knocked at his door. Little Thomas was so touched by the old man’s plight that he hurried to his room, brought out his piggy bank, called a penny bank in those days, and emptied its contents into the shaking but grateful hands of the old fellow. After he had become famous for his writings, Carlyle said, “I never knew anything that gave me so much pleasure.”
There was the experience of her father before her. He told her that life does not always turn out as a person desires and plans for. He had wanted to be a doctor. But his wealthy family suddenly lost all its money and Jacques, a lad just beginning college, had to work. There fore he advised his daughter, a dreamy girl of only thirteen and just out of high school, to choose another career for making a living.
She still had six months before college opened and she decided to utilize this time studying
chemistry. When the college started in autumn, she joined New York University with English and Chemistry as her main subjects. She had the choice to take her degree either in English or in Chemistry and of course it was in English that she wanted her degree. She could little imagine that fate had decided otherwise.
A teacher fell sick and Florence had to take one of his laboratory classes in chemistry. She taught for the whole year. Spring came and with it the offer of a job teaching chemistry for the following year as well. But she would have to take her degree in chemistry, and fur ther she would have to study for a PhD in chemistry.
She pondered over the choice. She was only nineteen. A writer can use all experience as material for his craft. Why not a PhD in chemistry then? She accepted the offer and went
on with her chemistry study and took the PhD in 1933.
Now Florence van Straten, who had been writing stories all through high school and college, found she could write no longer. It was disconcerting. Science had influenced her thinking so
deeply that she could write only what is factual and not fictional.
It was a time of inner search and meditation, at the end of which she realized that the serious writer and scientist seeks truth in his or her own way and art is only another way of searching for the truth. Truth must be one whole, not little sections marked ‘truth of science’,‘truth of art’ or ‘truth of religion’.
She began to write again.She had the example of many great scientists cultivating an active interest in some form of art.
Florence remained at New York University for nine more years till she took her PhD in physical chemistry in 1942. Now she turned to the new science of meteorology as it offered interesting opportunities.
The US Navy was pressed into service in the Second World War and it had to fight on both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. It is essential to have knowledge of weather for waging naval battles. It was especially so at the Pacific front, where the US faced the Japanese who knew more about the weather and its changing moods than the Americans did.
Dr.van Straten was assigned a challenging job there. It was to develop new methods to enable weather officers on ships to tell commanding officers every day, every hour, what the
weather condition would be, as far in advance as possible.
In modern wars planes are used. When planes are sent from the deck of a ship, the ship must move into the wind, and the combined speed of ship and wind must be above a certain figure. So it is essential to find the right winds, to keep the plane-carrying ship at a safe distance from the battle and have ships and returning planes meet again in favorable wind conditions.
Florence van Straten had joined the Navy’s weather service mainly as she was in need of a job. Now she became genuinely interested in the study of weather. The Naval Weather Service needed her too, for there were few scientists as able as she was for the job. They
were for retaining her as she helped them solve many of their problems.
Dr.van Straten’s contribution wasn’t confined to Weather Service. She gave invaluable guidance in designing long range missiles. Facts from different locations, from Greenland to
Japan, came to her desk. The results of her studies were presented over a period of two years for immediate use by scientists. These studies made the scientists aware of their need for help from meteorologists.
PreparationA nineteenth century writer once wrote: “Unless a man has trained himself for his chance, the chance will only make him look ridiculous. A great occasion is
worth to a man exactly what his preparation enables
him to make of it.”
Dr. van Straten’s studies also helped the US Navy improve its methods of using balloons for gathering data about wind and weather. She was now given complete freedom to work on any problem she thought important. She began to study the problem of radioactive fall out. She knew the fall-out is influenced by atmospheric conditions and it is heavy in some areas and light in others. She developed scientific methods to determine the fall-out patterns in all weather conditions.
Dr van Straten was needed a year later when some Japanese fishermen suffered serious harm from radioactive fall-out following an atom bomb test in the Pacific and people all over
the world were alarmed. She presented her methods of determining the fall-out pattern.
As time went by her interest and work transcended the limits of meteorology. Her contributions in various fields were recognized, especially her work in atmospheric physics,
when in 1958 she was named the ‘Woman of the Year’ by the women’s wing of the Aero Medical Society of America.
Dr van Straten retired in 1962 after 16 years as the head of the technical branch of the Weather Service. She continued as consultant to the Navy on atmospheric physics. Her work also included the development of a technique to modify clouds and produce rain by injecting
carbon black in the atmosphere.
She died of cancer on March 25, 1992, at her home in Bathesda.
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