Northwestern Events Calendar


"Negotiating Tropical Difference: The Domestication of Meteorology in India, 1880-1960"

When: Monday, January 13, 2020
4:30 PM - 6:00 PM  

Where: University Hall, Hagstrum - 201, 1897 Sheridan Road, Evanston, IL 60208 map it

Audience: Faculty/Staff - Public - Post Docs/Docs - Graduate Students

Cost: FREE

Contact: Janet Hundrieser   847.491.3525

Group: Science in Human Culture Program - Klopsteg Lecture Series

Category: Lectures & Meetings


Speaker - Sarah Carson, Northwestern University, History,

Abstract - What exactly is “tropical” about tropical meteorology? Until recently, accounts of atmospheric science have taken Euro-American temperate weather as the universal field for the history of rapid conceptual and scientific developments after 1850, leading to, among other achievements, tolerably-accurate short- and medium-range forecasting. But weather in the equatorial and sub-tropical regions is distinctive, involving powerful hurricanes, pronounced intra-annual oscillations, and seasonal monsoons. With reference to the particular case of South Asia, I argue that the wide semantic field between the literary and the geophysical “tropical” opened up space for creative reinvention and redefinition of atmospheric science in the lower latitudes, lending support to an emerging consensus that meteorology is best understood as a poly-centric science.

Through the production of standardized data, leaders of the India Meteorological Department (IMD, f. 1875) sought to render the atmosphere above South Asia not only bureaucratically manageable, but also comparable across the globe, a project entailing the extension of communication and mapping technologies and the recruitment of Indians as—often reluctant—human instruments. However, architects of this data-generating apparatus repeatedly expressed concern that the tropical environment and its inhabitants made faithful transplantation of European systems impractical, even if the imperial exchequer agreed to devote adequate resources (it didn't). The first part of the talk considers instructional observer handbooks alongside the coercive figure of the traveling “inspector,” whose peculiar responsibility it was to discipline troublesome observers and calibrate their finicky, fragile instruments. Next, I discuss the gradual replacement of expensive, often climatically-unsuitable European instruments with domestic alternatives or new inventions altogether, revealing that the trend toward substitution accelerated because of the requirements of upper-air balloon researchers and the promotion of highly-trained Indian scientists. Finally, I will investigate a short-lived IMD project to gather and statistically assess vernacular weather proverbs, an enterprise grounded in a 1950s nationalist critique of “foreign” methods for studying India’s tropical weather. These cases help us to understand how these figures’ experimentations with local materials and methods over several decades reciprocally influenced evolving theories of tropical “difference” advanced by imperialists and nationalists alike, if for quite different reasons.

Biography - Sarah Carson completed her Ph.D. in History this summer at Princeton University, where she studied the history of predicting the future, with a focus on the efforts to chart the weather in South Asia during the Raj and national periods. She will be teaching two courses in the History Department this year: "History 392 - The History of the Future" in the Winter and "History 275-2 - History of Modern Science" in the Spring.

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