Weather Woman Anna Mani

When she turned eight, Anna Modayil Mani was to be gifted a pair of diamond earrings, as per her family tradition. Young Anna requested instead a gift of Encyclopaedia Britannica! This was a bit of a shock for the Mani family in Travancore in Kerala. Anna, the seventh of eight siblings, grew up in a well-to-do but traditional family where sons were groomed for high level careers and daughters were trained to be mothers and housemakers in preparation for an early marriage. Anna however showed signs of breaking the mould from an early age when she spent her time devouring all the books in the house. Her lifelong love for nature was planted and nurtured by long walks in the forests around her father’s cardamom estates, and swimming in the backwaters and rivers. And her scientific mind was imprinted with her father’s teaching not to accept any statement unless it could be tested and verified.

Born in 1918, Anna was only seven years old when Mahatma Gandhi visited Travancore which was the epicentre of the Vaikom Satyagraha. Gandhi’s visit made such a deep impression on the young girl that she decided to wear only khadi. The spirit of nationalism that pervaded the period also instilled in young Anna the fierce spirit of freedom, including the freedom to make her own decisions. Thus, she chose to pursue higher education rather than marriage which her sisters had easily opted for.

Anna joined Presidency College in Madras from where she graduated with an honours degree in Physics in 1939. A year later she got a scholarship to undertake research at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore where she was accepted as a research scholar in CV Raman’s laboratory to work on the spectroscopy of diamonds and rubies. Thus Anna began to research the very stone that she had turned down in her childhood.

The experiments were challenging and laborious; Anna worked for long hours, often through the night. Between 1942 and 1945, she published five single-authored papers on luminescence of diamonds and ruby. In August 1945 she submitted her PhD dissertation to Madras University. The University, with a blend of bureaucracy and gender bias, denied granting her the degree on the basis that she did not have an MSc degree. This, despite the fact that she had won a scholarship for research at the Indian Institute of Science, and had worked with CV Raman.

Anna was not daunted by this. Around the same time, the Indian government had announced scholarships for internships abroad in various fields, and Anna applied. In 1945, just as WWII was ending, she boarded a troopship to England with the government scholarship to take up an internship in in meteorological instrumentation at the Imperial College in London. Although she had wanted to pursue further research in physics, this was the only internship available. And it is meteorology that was to become her life’s metier.

Anna Mani returned to an independent India in 1948, and joined the Indian Meteorological Department at Pune where a programme to design weather instruments was taking shape. Anna was put in charge of construction of radiation instrumentation. Despite a paucity of resources, she would not compromise on research or quality; she inspired the scientists under her to “Find a better way to do it!”

Anna Mani standardised the drawings for nearly 100 different weather instruments and started their production. She worked with members of the World Meteorological Organisation to rigorously compare measurements to verify the accuracy of Indian instruments, as she fiercely believed that “Wrong measurements are worse than no measurements at all.” She continued her link with academic research and published a number of papers on subjects ranging from atmospheric ozone, to the need for international instrument comparisons and national standardisation

During the International Geophysical Year (1957-58), she set up a network of stations in India to measure solar radiation. Her focus was on the instrumentation meant to measure solar radiation, taking into account its seasonal and regional variation across India.

By 1964, Anna Mani became involved in the ozone-monitoring efforts in India; this was well before the Ozone Hole became an international issue. India had stations to measure ozone since the 1940s, but it was Mani’s team that in 1967, developed the Indian ozonesonde, a balloon-borne instrument to measure ozone levels. They also updated ground-based equipment so that Indian scientists had a lot of data to work with. The scientist also published a number of papers on subjects ranging from atmospheric ozone to the need for international instrument comparisons and national standardisation. Anna Mani received a citation from the International Ozone Commission for her work on ozone-level measurements from 1960 to 1990.

In 1963, at the request of Vikram Sarabhai of she successfully set up a meteorological observatory and an instrumentation tower at the Thumba rocket launching facility.

Anna Mani’s work of three decades made a valuable contribution to Indian meteorological sciences, indigenously manufactured instruments, reliable data, scientific rigour and up-to-date methodology. It was Mani who spearheaded India’s efforts to manufacture its own weather observation equipment, such as barometers and wind gauges, dramatically bringing down their cost – at the same time, she ensured their reliability and precision.

Anna Mani retired as deputy director general of the Indian Meteorological Department in 1976. She returned to the Raman Research Institute as a visiting professor for three years. Later she set up a millimetre-wave telescope at Nandi Hills, Bangalore. She published two books, The Handbook for Solar Radiation Data for India (1980) and Solar Radiation over India (1981), which have become standard reference guides for solar tech engineers.

Mani did not marry, she spent her life in the pursuit of science, In 1994 she suffered a stroke which affected her mobility; and died in 2001.

Anna Mani was steeped in, and driven by her passion for work. As she once said “I should be most unhappy to wake up without the prospect of some work to do.” But she went on to say that when the work was done, she enjoyed listening to music, reading and enjoying nature, her childhood passions.

Her advice to young meteorologists was, “We have only one life. First equip yourself for the job, make full use of your talents and then love and enjoy the work, making the most of being out of doors and in contact with nature.”

23 March is marked as World Meteorological Day. This is a good time to celebrate Anna Mani and her significant contributions that made independent India self-reliant in measuring aspects of the weather, and helped lay the ground for harnessing solar and wind power as alternative sources of energy.


World Meteorology Day: A Tribute to the Father of Indian Meteorology, Dr. P.R Pisharoty

He is the one of whom Sir C.V. Raman said: ‘I would include Mr. Pisharoty in a short-list of the ablest men I have ever had working with. His personal and intellectual qualities are such as to enable him successfully to undertake the highest type of scientific and administrative work.’

Dr. Pisharoty was not just the father of Indian Meteorology, he was a world authority as well. He pushed for the use of Numerical Weather Prediction in India and if today, we have the capacity to do fairly good short, medium and long term weather forecasts, it can be traced back to the foundations he laid.

Dr. Pisharoty was called the ‘Rain Man’ of india—it is he who fully understood the nature of the Indian Monsoon, and it is this understanding which should underpin our thinking on water conservation and management. He pointed out that rains in India are very different in nature to rains anywhere else. India gets 400 million hectare meters of rain annually, with a landmass of 329 million hectares—enough to submerge our land under 1.29 meters of water per year if spread evenly. But there are areas is India with rainfall as low as 200 mm per year and areas with rainfall as high as 11,400 mm per year. Moreover, the rain in India, unlike in Europe, falls within a very short time. There are parts of India where the entire quota of annual rainfall is received in just 100 hours. Hence he pointed out, the critical need for understanding the local patterns, and for proper planning for water management. With such planning and husbanding he maintained, even the lowest rainfall area of the country could have enough drinking water throughout the year.

He was given the responsibility of exploring the use of remote sensing for India, and when he succeeded in using remote sensing to detect coconut root wilt disease in the late 1960s, the foundation for remote sensing was laid in the country.

We, the Millennial Matriarchs, had the privilege of being mentored by Dr. Pisharoty, as a member of the Governing Council of our organization. He must have been over 75 years old when we first met him (he went to office every day till the age of about 85!). We used to be sent to this giant for getting ‘scientific validation’ of the educational material we developed. The enthusiasm he had for each and every project, the wisdom he imparted ever so gently, the Sanskrit slokas he would quote to bring out a point, the patience with which he put up with rooky, cocky youngsters—the memory of it still gives me goose bumps. Dr. Pisharoty was also a member of all our promotion review committees. The twinkle in his eyes would set us at ease and put life in perspective.  I think we were too young and foolish to appreciate how privileged we were.

My deepest regret: Typical of the old school, he wrote and wrote—letters, articles, notes, comments. He once wrote me a note with an alternative interpretation of my name ‘Meenalochani’ in the Dikshiter composition ‘Meenakshi  Me Mudem’. In my various house-moves, I have misplaced it.

And two quotes from Dr. Pisharoty, which I will think on today :

‘The more you write, the better will be your handwriting; and the more you think, the sharper will be your intellect.’

‘Science is our profession as well as our life’s hobby. Government is paying us for our hobby. Amount of money which we get from the Government should not worry us very much; we are being paid for our hobby.’