Jule Gregory Charney (1917–1981)


Jule Gregory Charney was born in San Francisco, California, on January 1, 1917, the son of Ely Charney and Stella Littman. Both parents were Yiddish-speaking Russian Jews, and both worked in the garment industry. The family moved to the Los Angeles area in 1922. All of Charney’s earned degrees were from the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA): an A.B. in mathematics in 1938, an M.A. in mathematics in 1940, and a Ph.D. in meteorology in 1946. From 1942 to 1946, Charney was an instructor in physics and meteorology at UCLA. His dissertation, titled “Dynamics of long waves in a baroclinic westerly current,” comprised the entire October 1947 issue of the Journal of Meteorology. This paper was influential in two important ways: (1) it emphasized the influence of “long waves” in the upper atmosphere on the behavior of the entire atmosphere rather than the more traditional emphasis on the polar front and (2) it provided a simplified way of analyzing perturbations along these waves that proved both physically insightful and mathematically rigorous.

After graduation, Charney served for a year as a research associate at the University of Chicago. During the academic year 1947–1948 he held a National Research Council postgraduate fellowship at the University of Oslo, Norway. During this year he developed a set of equations for calculating the large-scale motions of planetary-scale waves known as the “quasi-geostrophic approximation.” Charney’s technique consisted of replacing the horizontal wind by the geostrophic wind in the term representing the vorticity but not in the term representing the divergence. The result was a manageable set of filtered equations governing large-scale atmospheric and oceanic flows.

From 1948 to 1956, Charney was a member of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. His supervisor, the noted mathematician John von Neumann, was in charge of a project to develop an electronic computer. Charney served as director of the theoretical meteorology. His group constructed a successful mathematical model of the atmosphere and demonstrated that numerical weather prediction was both feasible (using the ENIAC computer, which took 24 hours to generate a forecast) and practicable (using von Neumann’s stored-program computer to generate a forecast in 5 minutes). In 1954, Charney helped establish a numerical weather prediction unit within the U.S. Weather Bureau.

Charney was professor of meteorology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) from 1956 to 1981 and was Alfred P. Sloan Professor there from 1966. His research focused on the dynamics of atmospheres and oceans. From 1963 to 1966 he was chair of the National Research Council’s Panel on International Meteorological Cooperation and from 1968 to 1971 he was chair of the U.S. Committee for the Global Atmospheric Research Program (GARP), a decade-long international experiment to measure the global circulation of the atmosphere, to model its behavior, and to improve predictions of its future state. Charney was instrumental in articulating the global goals and vision of GARP and consistently argued that scientists needed to view the atmosphere as a single, global system.

Charney was elected to Phi Beta Kappa in 1937. He was a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Geophysical Union, and the American Meteorological Society. He was a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and a foreign member of the Norwegian and Royal Swedish Academies of Science. Among his many awards were the Meisinger Award (1949) and the Rossby Medal (1964) of the American Meteorological Society, the Losey Award of the Institute of Aeronautical Sciences (1957), the Symons Medal of the Royal Meteorological Society (1961), the Hodgkins Medal of the Smithsonian Institution (1968), and the International Meteorological Organization prize (1971). He was much in demand as a visiting professor and guest lecturer. The University of Chicago awarded him an honorary D.Sc. in 1970.

Charney was married to Elinor Kesting Frye in 1946. Elinor had a son who took the Charney name; the couple had two other children. Following a battle with cancer, Charney died in Boston on June 16, 1981.

In 1990, the American Meteorological Society published a memorial volume containing reprints of Charney’s most important papers and articles by scientists who knew him. Jule Charney’s personal papers are located in the MIT archives.


—James Rodger Fleming

Colby College
Waterville, Maine