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E18. A Letter from Lou Reed’s Nephew
"If I were there, we would talk about this.”
Lou Reed’s Nephew’s letter caused confusion. Mail service was offered but never needed. The South African, who had recently broken his ankle in a kite boarding accident, wandered the aisles on crutches, angrily calling my name.
The envelope was stamped Mexico City. Lou Reed’s Nephew’s absence had been conspicuous during a late spring heat wave, and I was surprised to learn that he had migrated south. Counter-intuitive as always. I missed our conversations. I was glad to hear from him, in whatever form.
He was on assignment, his letter explained, at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. He was investigating some rare journals left by de Soto. His editor insisted on him documenting his theory of the origins of Indian Poker, much to his annoyance. (Whatever Hackett predicted, there remained a barrier to truth that Lou Reed’s Nephew would have to scramble over somehow.)
“But I found this by mistake,” he wrote. “While I was looking for the other Pizarro. In a book about the weather. If I were there, we would talk about this.”
It seems appropriate, in this record of my year with Lou Reed’s Nephew, to reproduce the enclosed document in its entirety:
GUILLERMO PIZARRO (1885-1951). Few figures in the history of modern meteorology have been as influential as Guillermo Pizarro. Informed by a keen analytical wit, Pizarro’s rejection of Enlightenment notions of temperature in favor of subjectivizing measures—summarized in his concept of tempidité, a precursor of today’s “heat index”—represents the cornerstone upon which meteorology still rests.
Born in Barcelona to Cuban parents, Pizarro attended the National Meteorological Academy in Madrid, where he studied briefly with Pablo de Nuñez, an academic forecaster of the 19th century realist tradition, who came to represent everything he rejected about climatology. Later, at the Institut Météorologique in Paris, Pizarro was exposed to the work of Teurais and Frambeau of the Kinesthetic school, a group of avant-garde weathermen then experimenting with the effects of relative humidity on perspiration and bodily perception. In 1910, he also took part in the demonstrations of the August Secession, a group led by Teurais that aimed to reproduce the physical sensations of a Parisian summer by immersing themselves in fluids of various consistencies.
Pizarro quickly rejected such exercises in verisimilitude, however, and began working toward representing these sensations mathematically. He was no doubt influenced in this endeavor, despite his objections, by the work of Jan Ensor, the Dutch inventor of the wind-chill factor, who lectured at the Institut in the fall of 1911.
The following year, Pizarro’s bold calculations of tempidité or “tempidity,” became the succès de scandale of the 1912 Exposition Internationale de Sciences Météorlogique in Paris, where his impressionistic combination of temperature and humidity into a single measure was both lauded as revolutionary and condemned as anti-scientific. “Tempidity is a wholly imaginary number that exists one knows not where,” shirked one hostile critic, while others, such as the prominent Kinesthetic meteorologist Robert Derain, applauded Pizarro’s success at “taking God out of the weather and putting the body back in.”
The onset of World War I had a chilling effect on meteorological experimentation in the French capital, but Pizarro continued to hone his technique, which would eventually have a profound influence on the “heat index” calculations of television weathermen later in the century.
After the war, Pizarro found himself estranged from the meteorological avant-garde. Now centered in Zurich and the raucous atmosphere of the Cabaret Barometrique, radical young experimentalists, led by the charismatic Heinrich Bölz, had taken to determining the temperature randomly—via lottery or the casting of lots, techniques Pizarro condemned as reactionary.
Late in life, Pizarro returned to his native Spain and began experimenting with various forms of meteorological minimalism, culminating in “The Weather Rock”—an installation consisting of a piece of granite hanging from a length of rope—which was completed just months before his death. Its accompanying inscription well captures the Spaniard’s keen sense of the absurd:
If the rock is wet, it’s raining.
If the rock is moving, it’s windy.
If the rock is white, it’s snowing.
If the rock is hot and dry, it’s sunny.
If you can’t see the rock, it’s foggy.
With minor variations, editions of Pizarro’s Rock are still popular with collectors, particularly in parts of the American South.