Final Public Oral Exam: Sarah Carson

Final Public Oral Examination
Event date: 
September 17, 2019 - 10:00am
Seminar Series: 
Final Public Oral Exam

Ungovernable Winds: The Weather Sciences in South Asia, 1864-1945


Gyan Prakash, adviser
Jeremy Adelman
Erika Milam
Projit Bihari Mukharji, University of Pennsylvania


In 1875, the Government of India established the India Meteorological Department (IMD) in a defensive response to a succession of horrifying cyclones and famines. Its observational network quickly became the most extensive and important in the tropical latitudes, generating data on the Indian Ocean region’s distinctive weather phenomena: most famously, its seasonal monsoons and hurricanes. “Ungovernable Winds” reads state and scientific records alongside newspaper criticism and competing lay publications to highlight the importance of weather in debates over good governance, the modernization of prediction, and theories of Indian nature’s essential “difference” from Europe. It argues that India’s meteorologists played a definitive if reluctant role in promoting the “scientific forecast” as a necessary technology of the modern bureaucratic state, foundational for its military and budgetary practices and later economic planning. The dissertation also foregrounds diverse strains of public commentary on IMD services, emphasizing the gulf between scientific governance in theory and in practice. Failures of official prediction left open spaces for pluralistic weather reasonings, advanced by poets, learned pandits, local astrologers, sailors, and increasingly after 1900, Indian employees of the IMD. The example of meteorology illustrates that Britain’s “modern” science was not always an effective tool of domination, or persuasion; in this case, it frequently proved a source of illegitimacy.

Chapter One explores the disjuncture between nineteenth-century meteorologists’ anxieties about weather- related disasters and their reassurances about the imminent promises of rationalization. Chapter Two shifts from discourse to material analysis. It presents the IMD as both a fragile, contingent infrastructure and a workplace, revealing how the everyday activities, resistances, and initiatives of Indian technicians and scientists shaped the direction of tropical meteorological science. Chapters Three and Four examine the intellectual and cultural histories of the IMD’s most well-known public services—coastal storm-warning and seasonal monsoon forecasting, respectively—paying particular attention to episodes of widespread controversy. Situated at the intersection of environmental history, the social history of knowledge, and the histories of state-making and political economy, the dissertation examines the negotiations between different forms of expertise in the scientific construction of South Asian, tropical nature.

A copy of the dissertation will be available for review two weeks before the exam in the History Graduate Student Lounge: 105 Dickinson Hall.

All are welcome and encouraged to attend.