Stevin Seminar: Troubled Waters, Clearing Skies: boundary disputes and the struggle for authority in 19th-century meteorology
Lecturer: Azadeh Achbari
Understanding weather conditions on land and at sea became a matter of prime concern and gained increasing relevance in the 19th-century globalizing world of colonial expansion and maritime trade. As the weather knew no boundaries, neither national, nor between land and sea, knowing its phenomena was a shared interest. Despite an increasing awareness of the need for international cooperation, however, 19th-century meteorology was a highly contested field. Naval officers and academic men of science struggled for authority in the emerging science. Practical concerns clashed with scientific ambitions when the primacy of marine or land-based observations was discussed. The growing practice of weather forecasts and storm warnings added a new dimension to the dispute as their scientific basis was severely questioned by academic elites. Meteorological theories abounded, but who was to be trusted as an expert? What meteorological standards should be met? While the British Royal Society sought to bend these issues to suit its concerns, it was the Dutch professor Buys Ballot who, mainly through his networking abilities, got the upper hand in most of these battles. In 1868 his rule of thumb was transformed into a universal law of nature, internationally referred to as “Buys Ballot’s Law”. Five years later his leading position was manifest in his appointment as president of the international meteorological conference held in Vienna.
Azadeh Achbari is a PhD student at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. She has a Master Degree in European Studies of the University of Amsterdam. Her research was funded by NWO and Fulbright.