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Whatever The Weather, 'Turbulence' Shines

The words you find yourself reaching for upon finishing Giles Foden's new novel of manners and meteorology -- words like measured, mutable and closely observed -- seem awfully meta given the book's subject. Turbulence is about weather, specifically the Allied effort to forecast atmospheric conditions along the Normandy coast and choose the day when conditions would be most favorable to sending two-and-a-half million soldiers into German-occupied France.

As an officious supervisor explains to our protagonist, the young meteorological prodigy Henry Meadows, mobilizing such a massive military effort requires a daunting set of conditions to first be met: "(A) D-Day should be within one day before to four days after a full moon. (B) There must be quiet weather on the day and for three days afterward. ... (C) Cloud to be less than three-tenths cover below 8,000 feet; visibility 3-plus miles. Or as an alternative to (C): (D) in which case the cloud base itself has got to be above 3,000 feet generally, morning mist not excluded."

What's more, the Allied generals need to know what conditions will be like over not just Omaha Beach, but along the entire English Channel, and they need to know it five days in advance. This prospect would faze even today's most advanced satellite systems -- Meadows and his colleagues must attempt this impossible forecast using only barometers and balloons.

Enter Wallace Ryman, the brilliant, reclusive scientist rumored to have developed a mathematical method to calculate atmospheric turbulence itself -- which, if true, would afford the Allies a means of predicting the nominally unpredictable. But Ryman is a pacifist who refuses to help his government make war, so Meadows is sent undercover to the remote Scottish farm Ryman shares with his beautiful wife in an attempt to prize from the mysterious man the secret that could save millions of lives -- the so-called Ryman number.

It's a rich, juicy premise, and if Turbulence takes its own sweet time setting up its stakes, you'll likely forgive it: Foden builds the world around the hapless Meadows with meticulous detail, and the measured pace of the book's opening chapters helps ensure that when events do take a sudden, violent and unpredictable turn, we feel the terrible weight of their repercussions along with him.

Foden -- whose quirky, accomplished debut novel The Last King of Scotland became a quirky, accomplished film -- writes with quiet conviction, content to linger over moments other writers might speed past, as when Meadows, preoccupied with his mission, shares a smoke with a villager.

Even as this passage characterizes Meadows, with his obsessive fondness for scientific precision and the arcane language of meteorological observation, it also points up Turbulence's single failing -- namely, its main character's inability to allow any thematic affinities and subtextual resonances to pass without commenting on them. Over the course of the novel, Foden equates many things -- love, faith, the scientific process -- to turbulence, and has Meadows explain to us, in great detail, their respective similarities and differences. You'll likely wish that these elements were woven more thoroughly into the book -- and that its author trusted you to find them for yourself.

Despite this, Turbulence is an absorbing, elegant and thoughtful read. Foden argues, compellingly, that science isn't about assigning numbers to the universe, reducing the mysteries around us to dry, implacable formulae. Rather, it embraces those mysteries, revels in them:

"Great scientists use their imagination," Meadows tell us. "They feel their way toward a theory, then seek to prove it. ... Because the whole cannot be reached, we can grasp it only by intuition -- by chasing not the specifics but the beautiful ghost of an idea."

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Glen Weldon is a host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. He reviews books, movies, comics and more for the NPR Arts Desk.