Long before climate change became a buzzword, an Indian woman was fighting the odds to make devices that would help people understand the environment better. But Anna Mani – one of the world’s most prominent weather scientists – remains an unfamiliar figure to many in her home country.
Born in 1918 in Travancore, a former princely state that’s now part of the southern state of Kerala, Mani is best known for helping India make its own instruments to measure the weather, thereby reducing the newly independent country’s reliance on other nations.
But she also played an important role in making it easier for scientists to monitor the ozone layer. In 1964, she created the first Indian-made ozonesonde – an instrument that’s sent up in the air in a balloon to measure the presence of ozone up to 35km (22 miles) above the ground.
By the 1980s, Mani’s ozonesonde was routinely used on Indian expeditions to Antarctica. So, when physicist Joseph Farman in 1985 alerted the world to the presence of a large ‘hole’ in the ozone layer over the South Pole (he won a Nobel Prize for that 10 years later), Indian scientists could immediately corroborate Farman’s discovery through data they had collected using Mani’s invention.
Mani also created a solid foundation for India to use green technologies long before it became necessary to do so. In the 1980s and 90s, she set up about 150 sites to survey wind energy. Some of them were located in remote areas but the intrepid scientist travelled there with her small team to install stations to measure the wind.
Her findings have helped scientists set up numerous wind farms across the country, meteorologist CR Sreedharan writes in his essay on Mani.
Mani bravely followed her passion to study the weather at a time when it was uncommon for women to pursue higher education, let alone become a scientist. She displayed a hunger for knowledge and an urge to trod the unbeaten path from a young age.
Born into a rich family, Mani was the seventh of eight siblings – five boys and three girls. On her eighth birthday, Mani famously rejected a pair of diamond earrings – a customary gift from her parents to their daughters – and asked for a set of encyclopaedias instead.
In her teens, Mani chose to study instead of getting married like her sisters. Her decision received “neither active opposition nor encouragement from her family”, scientist Abha Sur notes in her essay, An Appreciation of Anna Mani.
But Mani’s journey to becoming a pioneering meteorologist was not a straight one. In her family, it was the men who were encouraged to pursue high-level professional careers, not the women. Her dream was to study medicine, but since she was unable to do so, she decided to pursue physics as she was good at it.
She got her degree from Presidency College in Madras (now Chennai), and spent the next five years studying the properties of diamonds at Nobel Prize laureate CV Raman’s laboratory at the Indian Institute of Science, before getting a government scholarship to study abroad.
Only, the scholarship wasn’t to study physics but meteorological instruments as India needed expertise in this area at the time. Mani embraced the opportunity and travelled to the UK on a troopship, Sreedharan writes.
She spent the next three years studying all aspects of weather instruments, including how they were made, tested, calibrated and standardised. After returning to India in 1948 – a year after the country won independence from British colonial rule – she joined the weather department.
There, she used the knowledge she gained abroad to help India manufacture its own equipment which, until then, was being imported from Britain and other parts of Europe.
She set up a workshop to make more than 100 different kinds of instruments from scratch, including ones to measure rainfall, temperature and atmospheric pressure. She even prepared detailed engineering specifications, drawings and manuals for them.
A stickler for precision and accuracy, Mani did her best to ensure that the instruments were of the highest quality and reliability. “I believe that wrong measurements are worse than no measurements at all,” she told the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) in an interview in 1991.
Mani also played a pioneering role in developing instruments to measure solar radiation and set up a network of radiation stations around the country – another step towards her pet project of exploring renewable energy sources in India.
“These high-precision instruments, were till then, the monopoly of the western countries and most of the design parameters were kept secret. So one had to start from fundamentals and develop the entire technology oneself,” Sreedharan writes.
Although Mani achieved great heights in her career, she experienced numerous instances of discrimination.
Her famous mentor, CV Raman, was known to admit only a few women to his lab and he placed several restrictions on them. “Raman maintained a strict separation of sexes in his laboratory,” Sur writes in an essay in her book, Dispersed Radiance: Caste, Gender, and Modern Science in India.
And so for the most part, Mani and another female student worked alone, isolated from their peers, unable to engage in healthy discussion and debate on scientific ideas.
Mani also experienced discrimination from some of her male peers. In Sur’s book, she talks about colleagues who would immediately perceive even a tiny error a woman made in handling instruments or setting up an experiment as a sign of “female incompetence”.
When Mani audited a course on theoretical physics, it was generally assumed that the material would be “beyond her ken”, Sur observes.
In the early 1960s, when Mani got a chance to be part of the International Indian Ocean Expedition – it involved equipping two ships with instruments to study the seasons – she couldn’t go on the ships to collect data.
“I would have loved to have gone, but in those days women were not allowed on ships of the Indian navy,” Mani told the WMO in her 1991 interview.
But, like many women of her generation, Mani refused to see herself as a victim of patriarchal attitudes.
She maintained that her gender never came in the way of her professional aspirations. “I did not feel I was either penalised or privileged because of being female,” she told Sur.
Mani died in 2001 in Thiruvananthapuram city in Kerala. She never married, and according to available information, never regretted that decision. Her work and life continue to inform and inspire generations of people, in India and abroad.