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A historian shares stories of six scientists who laid foundations for modern climate science

Waters of the World

Sarah Dry
University of Chicago Press
338 pp.
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How did climatology become climate science? More fundamentally, how did the idea of Earth as an interconnected natural system—one of the conceptual foundations of climate science—emerge from a welter of different disciplines? In clear and engaging prose, historian Sarah Dry narrates the life stories of six individuals—from the Victorian British scientist John Tyndall to the late-20th-century Danish glaciologist Willi Dansgaard—whose scientific careers helped lay the foundations for the modern science of climate.

Waters of the World takes readers from the lab to the study to the field and back again. In addition to Tyndall and Dansgaard, we meet Charles Piazzi Smyth, a Scottish astronomer who traveled to the Canary Islands in search of the stars and ended up studying the clouds that obscured his view; Gilbert Walker, a meteorologist and mathematician who analyzed weather data for the British Raj; the American meteorologist Joanne Simpson, who developed experimental aircraft to gather data about clouds by flying straight into them; and the American oceanographer Henry Stommel, who once threw a sack of parsnips off the dock of an English lake to puzzle out the fluid dynamics of the world’s major ocean currents.

The main thread linking these biographies is, as the book’s title suggests, water. Tyndall’s studies of glaciers and experiments with water vapor led him to develop the theory of greenhouse gases. Walker’s failed attempts to develop a science of monsoon prediction fostered instead a dawning realization that interlocking systems of high and low pressure conspired to produce what he called “world weather.” Simpson’s lifelong pursuit of tropical clouds and storms generated novel understandings of atmospheric circulation on a global scale, just as her contemporary Stommel’s work on the Gulf Stream revealed the interconnectedness of the world’s oceans. Dansgaard’s fascination with snow and rainwater led him to engineer the method of ice core sampling that proved foundational to the birth of paleoclimatology.

Dry shows how disappointments and dead ends, creative workarounds, and the contingencies of funding, training, family relationships, scholarly networks, health and mental illness, and access to instruments, institutions, and other people’s labor all shaped scientific inquiry into the planet’s oceans, atmosphere, and ice sheets. As she writes in the book’s conclusion, “Global visions are necessarily made up of unglobal things—individuals, places, moments in time.”

Although her approach is primarily biographical—each main chapter features one of the six aforementioned scientists—Dry insists that the work of individual scientists cannot be separated from the social and institutional context in which they worked. Waters of the World is at its strongest when it situates its protagonists not only in their scientific milieu but also in networks of imperial, military, and technocratic power. The book’s middle chapters on Walker and Simpson are especially good in this respect.

Gilbert Walker’s ability to collect data for his project on world weather, we learn, depended on the same infrastructure that enabled the British Empire to lay claim to India: telegraphs, railways, the British navy, and imperial networks of correspondence. His orders to find a way to predict monsoons were, above all, a task of imperial governance in the face of repeated, large-scale famines in British India. (It later turned out that the famines were more the product of imperial mismanagement than of natural variability in the monsoon season.)

State interests in predicting and controlling the weather shaped Joanne Simpson’s career as well, which unfolded against the backdrop of the Cold War. Dry taps into the rich archive of Simpson’s personal papers to reveal her ambivalence about her involvement in Project Stormfury, a weather-
modification project sponsored by the U.S. Navy and Department of Commerce. Simpson viewed weather control as a means to fund her real research interests (tropical clouds), although she later expressed regret about her 2-year directorship of the program.

Waters of the World is an accessible work of science history that draws on some of the best recent scholarship in the field. As Dry explains in the introduction, she was motivated to write it, in part, to challenge what she sees as “a larger attempt by climate scientists to tell a singular history of a heterogeneous science.”

As such, Waters of the World is a history that functions as a plea for interdisciplinary work on the problem of climate. The book ends with a call to climate scientists to embrace their interdisciplinary roots and to recognize and celebrate that there are “multiple ways of knowing the planet.”

About the author

The reviewer is at the Department of History, Northwestern University, Evanston, IL 60208, USA.