Carson documents and interprets India's environmental history

Sarah Carson, a doctoral student in history, is focusing her dissertation on weather science in South Asia from 1864-1945 to shed light on imperial governance and scientific future-telling. 

Growing up in a conservation-minded family was the root of Sarah Carson’s interest in environmental history.

Earlier this year, Carson was one of named one of the four winners of the Porter Ogden Jacobus Fellowship, Princeton University’s top honor for graduate students. The fellowships support their final year of study at Princeton and are awarded to one Ph.D. student in each of the four divisions (humanities, social sciences, natural sciences and engineering) whose work has exhibited the highest scholarly excellence. The Jacobus Fellows were honored at Alumni Day ceremonies in February.

Carson, a doctoral student in history, arrived at Princeton in 2013. She received her B.A. from Dartmouth College and studied Hindi as a non-matriculated student at the University of Washington in Seattle. Her dissertation, “Ungovernable Winds: Weather Science in South Asia, 1864-1945,” examines the history of state meteorology in India to shed light on imperial governance and scientific future-telling.

Drawing from archives and libraries across India, the United States and the United Kingdom, and weaving evidence from departmental records together with published scientific works, private papers, Bengali almanacs and fiction, she presents a narrative highlighting the complications of credibility and uncertainty that accompany the prediction of natural phenomena.

“My research shows that the uneasy historical relationship between state meteorologists and their varied publics has had lasting impacts on the credibility of science, scientists and government planners in India, offering lessons about the fallibility and vulnerability of predictive sciences,” she said. “These research interests align with my personal commitments to education and climate justice.”

As part of her project, Carson is filling an archival gap by building the historical record of the India Meteorological Department through oral history interviews and by encouraging scientists to preserve their personal papers and to write memoirs.

Carson received Princeton’s John R. Irwin Graduate Fellowship, a Fulbright-Nehru Research Grant, a Fulbright Critical Language Enhancement Award, and a Foreign Language and Area Studies Fellowship from the South Asia Summer Language Institute.

She was awarded a U.S. Department of State Critical Language Scholarship to study Hindi at the American Institute of Indian Studies in Jaipur, India. Prior to beginning her graduate research, she was named a Fulbright-Nehru English teaching assistant at the Kendriya Vidyalaya Cossipore School in Cossipore, Kolkata, India, which helped to set her future course of study.

Gyan Prakash, the Dayton-Stockton Professor of History, said Carson’s work stands out as a study of how a scientific discipline — meteorology — emerged in a particular historical and social context.

“Sarah’s work brings into view how the environment had always been an important part of India’s history, but something that was neglected,” Prakash said. “I think her work will showcase the importance of environmental history, and even those day-to-day things like crops and monsoon and agricultural production — to what extent they depend on an understanding of the weather, both scientifically but also in its popular form.”