Anna Mani: Why do you need to know this Indian weather scientist?

Anna Mani: Why do you need to know this Indian weather scientist?

  • Written by Sherrilan Mullan
  • BBC News, Mumbai

Image source, Raman Research Institute

Comment on the photo, Anna Model Mani is one of India's first weather scientists

Long before climate change became a buzzword, an Indian woman was fighting the odds to create devices that would help people better understand the environment. But Anna Mani – one of the world's leading weather scientists – remains an unfamiliar figure to many in her home country.

Born in 1918 in Travancore, a former princely state now part of the southern state of Kerala, Mani became famous for helping India make its own instruments for measuring the weather, thus reducing the newly independent nation's dependence on other nations.

But it also played an important role in making it easier for scientists to monitor the ozone layer. In 1964, it built India's first ozone probe, an instrument sent into the air in a balloon to measure the presence of ozone up to 35 kilometers (22 miles) above the Earth's surface.

By the 1980s, Mani's ozone probe was routinely used in Indian expeditions to Antarctica. So, when physicist Joseph Farman alerted the world in 1985 to the existence of a large “hole” in the ozone layer above Antarctica (and received a Nobel Prize for it 10 years later), Indian scientists were immediately able to confirm Farman’s discovery with data. They were collected using Manny's invention.

Mani also created a solid foundation for India to use green technologies long before it was necessary to do so. In the 1980s and 1990s, it established about 150 wind energy survey sites. Some of them were located in remote areas, but the intrepid scientist traveled there with her small team to install wind measuring stations.

The scientists' findings have helped set up several wind farms across the country, meteorologist CR Sreedharan wrote in his article on Mani.

Mani courageously pursued her passion for studying weather at a time when it was not common for women to pursue higher education, let alone become scientists. She has shown a thirst for knowledge and a desire to walk the unbeaten path since she was young.

Image source, World Meteorological Organization

Comment on the photo, Mani helped India make its own meteorological instruments

Mani was born into a wealthy family, the seventh of eight siblings – five boys and three girls. On her eighth birthday, Mani rejected a pair of diamond earrings – a usual gift from her parents to their daughters – and asked for a set of encyclopedias instead.

As a teenager, Mani chose to study rather than marry like her sisters. Scholar Abha Sur noted in her article, “Appreciating Anna Mani,” that her decision “did not receive active opposition or encouragement from her family.”

But Manny's journey to becoming a leading meteorologist was not a straight one. In her family, it was men who were encouraged to pursue high-level professional careers, not women. Her dream was to study medicine, but she was unable to do so, so she decided to study physics because she was good at it.

She earned her degree from Presidency College in Madras (now Chennai), and spent the next five years studying the properties of diamonds in the laboratory of Nobel laureate C.V. Raman at the Indian Institute of Science, before receiving a government scholarship to study abroad.

Only, the scholarship was not to study physics but meteorological instruments as India needed expertise in this field at that time. Mani seized the opportunity and traveled to the UK on a military ship, Sreedharan wrote.

She spent the next three years studying all aspects of weather instruments, including how they were manufactured, tested, calibrated, and standardized. After returning to India in 1948 – a year after the country gained independence from British colonial rule – she joined the meteorological department.

There, she used the knowledge she had acquired abroad to help India manufacture its own equipment that it had, until then, imported from Britain and other parts of Europe.

She set up a workshop to manufacture more than 100 different types of instruments from scratch, including instruments for measuring rainfall, temperature and atmospheric pressure. She even prepared detailed engineering specifications, drawings and manuals for them.

Being a stickler for accuracy and accuracy, Mani has gone to great lengths to ensure that the instruments are of the highest quality and reliability. “I think wrong measurements are worse than no measurements at all,” she told the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) in a 1991 interview.

Mani also played a pioneering role in developing instruments to measure solar radiation and setting up a network of radiation stations across the country – another step towards her pet project of exploring renewable energy sources in India.

“These high-precision instruments had until then been the preserve of Western countries, and most of the design parameters were secret. So one had to start from the basics and develop the entire technology oneself,” Sreedharan writes.

Image source, Raman Research Institute

Comment on the photo, Mani at her farewell party in 1980 at the Raman Research Institute, where she was a visiting professor for three years.

Although Mani achieved great heights in her career, she witnessed many instances of discrimination.

Her famous mentor, C.V. Raman, was known to accept only a few women in his laboratory, and he placed several restrictions on them. “Raman maintained strict gender segregation in his laboratory,” Sur wrote in an essay in her book, Dispersed Radiation: Class, Gender, and Modern Science in India.

Thus, more often than not, Mani and another student worked alone, isolated from their peers, and unable to engage in healthy discussion and debate about scientific ideas.

Mani also suffered discrimination from some of her male peers. In her book, Sore talks about her colleagues who would immediately view any simple mistake a woman made in handling tools or conducting an experiment as a sign of “female incompetence.”

Sohr notes that when Mani audited a course in theoretical physics, it was generally assumed that the material would be “beyond her control.”

In the early 1960s, when Mani had the opportunity to be part of the International Indian Ocean Expedition—which included outfitting two ships with instruments to study the seasons—she was unable to board the ships to collect data.

“I wish I had gone, but in those days women were not allowed to board Indian Navy ships,” Mani told the World Meteorological Organization in her 1991 interview.

But, like many women of her generation, Mani refused to see herself as a victim of patriarchal attitudes.

She emphasized that her gender has never stood in the way of her career aspirations. “I didn’t feel like I was being punished or privileged because I was female,” she told Sour.

Mani died in 2001 in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala. She never married, and according to available information, she has never regretted this decision. Her work and life continue to inform and inspire generations of people, in India and abroad.

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