Interview With Sir Charles Normand
Many of the treasures of the Norman cathedral were demolished or confiscated in the name of the Reformation in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. With the Restoration in 1660 a start was made on redressment, and during the past 150 years a lot has been done to restore the interior decorations and to repair and strengthen the structure, so that even if much still remains to be done, hordes of visitors are attracted to Winchester to admire the splendour and beauty of this majestic edifice. However, the reason that the Editor of the WMO Bulletin went there was to meet the eminent nonagenarian meteorologist, Sir Charles Normand.
Charles William Blyth Normand was born in Edinburgh on 10 September 1889. Son of a pharmaceutical chemist, he was the youngest of the four boys in the family. He went to the Royal High School and the University of Edinburgh, obtained an M.A. with first class honours in mathematics and physics, and subsequently a doctorate. He was a research scholar at Edinburgh University from 1911 to 1913 before joining the India Meteorological Department (IMD). His association with the IMD lasted some 32 years except for a break during the First World War. He learned meteorology under his colleagues Gilbert Walker, James Field and George Simpson.
During the First World War he served as an officer in the Indian Army Reserve, and was posted to Mesopotamia (Iraq) in May 1916 as meteorological officer. He made regular pilot balloon observations during his stay there, collected his own data and conceived some theories concerning wet bulb temperatures and the thermodynamics of the air. His first papers on these subjects were published as Indian Meteorological Memoirs during the period 1919-1922. This work culminated with the publication of his most famous paper (1938) entitled 'On instability from water vapour'. His theories describing the thermodynamics governing stability and instability of the atmosphere became an essential part of the training of all meteorologists. It is said that he had the inspiration to study this problem when he was lying on his bed in Iraq on a hot summer afternoon, the wet sheets which the servants hung up in his tent substantially relieving the discomfort of the local environment.
Charles Normand returned to India in 1919. In 1926 work started on a new building for the headquarters of the India Meteorological Department in Pune. In April 1927, Field left India and Normand replaced him as Director-General of Observatories. He had been the last British scientist to be appointed in the IMD and was by then almost the only one left. The period 1928-1939 marked a period of continuous expansion. This included the establishment of new pilot balloon stations, instrument workshops and greater thrusts in agricultural meteorology. This expansion went on to reach a peak during the years 1939-1944 because of the special demands of the Second World War. In September 1944, at the age of 55, Normand retired officially from his post in India but continued his liaison with military services and as chairman of a few meteorological committees. In mid-1945 he returned to the United Kingdom.
Normand first went to Cambridge and spent his time at the observatory there in 1945 and 1946. Then from 1946 to 1959 the Royal Meteorological Society gave him honoraria to work on atmospheric ozone with Professor G. M. B. Dobson in Oxford. When the International Ozone Commission was established, Dobson became its president and Sir Charles its secretary. The two scientists worked hard at improving Dobson's ozone instrument. By the time the International Geophysical Year came along, there were ozone spectrophotometers to be found in regions far and wide, including the Arctic and Antarctic. The IGY activities over, Sir Charles retired for the second time in 1959 at the age of 70.
In 1972 he moved to Winchester to live with his son who is a professor of child health in nearby Southampton. He was very happy in the company of his son, daughter-in-law (who is a medical consultant) and grandchildren whom he helped a great deal with their higher school and university work. Before leaving Oxford, he had been closely involved in working out equations and calculations relating to his son's research. As announced in the last issue, he died peacefully on 25 October 1982.
Sir Charles Normand received the following awards: Companion of the Order of Indian Empire (1938); Symons Gold Medal of the Royal Meteorological Society (1944); Knight (Bachelor) (1945); Honorary membership of the American Meteorological Society (1953); Honorary fellowship of the Royal Meteorological Society (1976). He was president of the Mathematics and Physics Section, Indian Science Congress (1931 and 1938) and founder member of the Indian Academy of Sciences. He was the author of many scientific papers.
This interview took place in Winchester on 18 May 1982. The Editor immensely enjoyed meeting Sir Charles. He will always remember the visit to Winchester cathedral in the company of the grand old man who expounded so enthusiastically on its history.
H.T. — Sir Charles, I should first like to ask you about your family background and your childhood. You are Scottish I believe?
C.W.B.N. — I can trace my forebears back through many generations, and all came from Fife in eastern Scotland. My father was born into a large family on a farm, but since he was a younger son he was able to branch out from agriculture and became a pharmaceutical chemist. My mother's father and brother were both captains of sailing ships. I was the youngest of four boys, being born on 10 September 1889. It was fortunate for my brothers and me that Father had settled in Edinburgh because of the much better educational possibilities. I went to the Royal High School; in those days all schools of that type devoted most of their curricula to Latin, Greek and mathematics—the classics were believed to be best for training the young mind. Since mathematics had been my strongest subject at school, I opted for science when I went on to the University of Edinburgh, and graduated in 1911 with an M.A. (first class honours) in mathematics and natural philosophy (i.e. physics) and a B.Sc. in advanced chemistry. Actually I had followed almost the same course as my elder brother ten years earlier.
H.T. — I understand that the results led to your being offered a research scholarship?
C.W.B.N. — It was the Professor of Chemistry, Sir James Walker, who suggested postgraduate work and arranged a Carnegie Scholarship. My work was a straightforward examination of the action of halogens on silver and other substances. The results were published in the Journal of the Chemical Society in 1912, and constituted my first paper. Then I went on to do work on catalysis under Sir James Walker and found this field far more interesting and stimulating. But although a report was written, there were no clear-cut results and it was never published.
H.T. — It does not seem that you had set your mind on a career in meteorology at this stage?
C.W.B.N. — Not in the least. But I was anxious to travel abroad. I might have gone to work with Professor Gilbert Lewis in America, and Sir James would have arranged for me to be offered a research fellowship to work with Professor Philippe-Auguste Guye in Geneva. However, at that moment I had a note from the University's physics department saying that the Royal Society was seeking nominations for a post of meteorologist in India, and could they put my name forward? I said yes, but I have to admit that meteorology was not then the prime motivating factor. My eldest brother had gone out to India in 1902—he was Professor of Chemistry at the Royalston College in Bombay—and his weekly letters home had told me much about India and made me want to know more. Well, I was called for an interview in London with the Secretary of the Royal Society, Sir Arthur Schuster, and Mr J. H. Field of the India Meteorological Department, and although my knowledge of meteorology was patently scanty I was offered the post of 'imperial meteorologist' and embarked in September 1913 for the three-week sea voyage to Bombay. People who could afford it travelled by train across France to join the ship at Marseilles, reducing the journey time to nearer a fortnight, but that was not the norm for government servants. The headquarters of the India Meteorological Department was then at Simla, 2200 m up in the foothills of the Himalayas; it took two nights and a day to get there by train from Bombay.
H.T. — The title 'imperial meteorologist' sounds most impressive! Were there many others?
C.W.B.N. — This title rather amused us. I believe the purpose was to show that we were directly under the Central Government of India rather than under a provincial government. J. H. Field had been so recruited in 1904, J. Patterson in 1905 and G. C. (later Sir George) Simpson in 1907. The Director-General of Observatories was Dr G. T. (later Sir Gilbert) Walker F. R. S. who had been appointed ten years earlier. These were scientists of extremely high calibre and provided intellectual resources comparable to those in any Meteorological Service in the world. I took the place of John Patterson who had recently gone to join the Meteorological Service in Canada. In due course he was to become head of that service, Simpson was to become head of the British Meteorological Office, and Field was to become Director-General of Observatories when Sir Gilbert retired and was appointed Professor of Meteorology at Imperial College, London.
H.T. — What sort of work did you do when you started in Simla?
C.W.B.N. — The head office of the India Meteorological Department was located in a crumbling old building held together with beams and scaffolding. It had previously been a cabinet minister's residence, but had been declared unfit for that purpose. I remember that my first jobs had been to take charge of the seismograph and supervise the calculation of the times of moonrise and moonset at Peshawar and Quetta each day in 1914. There were few books on meteorology, and I was immensely lucky to have such gifted and friendly men as Walker, Field and Simpson to introduce me to the subject. A few months after my arrival, Field went down to Delhi to start an upper-air observatory at Agra. However, Simpson and I were staying at the same hotel; we walked to work together and had our meals together so that I had plenty of opportunity to learn from him. Only the year before, Simpson had returned from the historic British expedition to the Antarctic when Scott and four companions had perished on their trek back to base from the South Pole.
H.T. — I see that from 1915 to 1919 you served as an officer in the Indian Army Reserve. How did that come about?
C.W.B.N. — When the First World War broke out I wanted to join up in the army, but at first the Government would not allow its civil servants to do so. However, in 1915 I got the necessary permission and was temporarily released from the Meteorological Department to serve in the Mahratta infantry regiment. In May 1915 I received orders to go to Mesopotamia and to report to HQ Intelligence. They needed someone to forecast wind, rainfall, duststorms, river floods and so on. Now it seems that Simpson, after visiting the area, had advised the army that, given the existing infrastructure, 'young Normand' would be just as capable of performing these duties as any more senior officer. Because it seemed odd for a meteorological officer to be in the infantry, I was transferred to the Sappers and Miners with the rank of second lieutenant. Arrangements were made with military hospitals in southern Iraq to make surface observations, and with the help of an artillery sergeant I myself made pilot balloon ascents each morning as soon as it was light. I prevailed upon the meteorological officer in Cyprus to send me coded messages whenever a depression reached or formed over the eastern Mediterranean.
H.T. — Did you spend the rest of the wartime period in Mesopotamia?
C.W.B.N. — Yes, but I did not need to be at HQ Intelligence all the time. Provided I were attainable by telephone if needed, I was free to visit any of the other units which would have me. Thus I camped with the Royal Flying Corps (RFC), a Royal Navy kite-balloon section, an anti-aircraft unit and an RFC kite-balloon section. The tethered balloons were used to carry up observers to direct artillery fire on the enemy positions. At first the commander of the naval section jibbed a bit at having an army officer in his unit, but this attitude changed one morning after his balloon encountered an unexpectedly strong wind at about 100 m, broke its cable and carried the observer helplessly away over the desert. The army had to mobilize a cavalry squadron to chase the balloon and rescue the observer. After that they were pleased to have me as one of the naval section for the winter 1916/17. Let me tell you of another way in which I was able to help the balloon unit. They found that in Iraq their balloon would only rise to somewhere around 150 m, whereas in France it easily reached 700-800 m. They put this down to the fact that the atmosphere in Iraq was less dense (although of course in winter it was comparable with summer conditions in France). I felt that the problem was due to air getting into the balloon as well as hydrogen—there was a long length of canvas tubing from the hydrogen generator on a river barge to the filling site—but since they were following to the letter their book of rules for inflating the aerostat, they were not disposed to take the word of a second lieutenant in the army! However, effusion tests bore out my theory, and when remedial steps were taken the balloon rose without trouble to its design ceiling. All in all, my three years in Mesopotamia were a rich experience in applied meteorology, and it was most satisfying to live and work among the people I was serving rather than issuing bulletins to an ill-defined set of users with no human contact.
H.T. — If I understand right, tribute was paid to your work when you were mentioned in dispatches?
C.W.B.N. — It is customary after any major military campaign for the commanding officer to write a report about it which reaches high levels in the government's war office. This naturally incorporates reports from unit commanders who may on occasion mention the names of a few individuals who have contributed in some way to success. I suspect that I owe my name being mentioned in dispatches to the naval unit commander rather than to HQ Intelligence.
H.T. — In 1919 at the end of the war you wrote two papers: 'Meteorological conditions affecting aviation in Mesopotamia' and 'Climate and weather in Iraq'. Can you say something about them?
C.W.B.N. — The first I wrote in answer to a specific question from the British Meteorological Office. I believe it was Ernest Gold who passed it on to the Royal Meteorological Society for publication. As for the second, weather observations had been made for several years at the British consulates in Basra and Baghdad, archaeologists had made observations at, for example, Babylon and Nineveh (Mosul), there were the observations from the military hospitals plus my own upper-wind soundings covering a period of two and a half years. At the end of hostilities in November 1918 I was ordered to return to my unit, then in charge of a pontoon bridge across the River Tigris. Therefore I had to do something with the instruments and data, so I sought an interview with the Civil Commissioner in Baghdad. The result was that I became a temporary member of his staff whilst I awaited permission to return to India, and used the time to write the monograph 'Climate and weather in Iraq'. Incidentally, my sergeant remained in Iraq after I left; they wanted to start up a Weather Service there.
H.T. — When you were demobilized you returned to the India Meteorological Department headquarters in Simla. What sort of work did you do?
Dr Ramanathan (see WMO Bulletin 32 (1) pp. 3-14) joined us the following year, and by the end of 1926 five more Indian meteorologists had arrived. They still needed to be trained, however. The building in Simla was really no longer habitable, and Field got through plans for a new headquarters to be built at Pune (Poona as we wrote it in those days). It was in 1926 during a period of leave in Europe that I spent a highly enlightening seven weeks in Bergen with Jack Bjerknes and Tor Bergeron. Bergeron was placing emphasis on the concept of air masses and the quasi-stationary fronts on which waves were prone to develop. At that stage I do not believe he had got round to publishing any significant papers on the subject. Back in Simla I attempted to pass on some of the 'Bergen school' ideas to the new recruits, hoping they would put some physical interpretation on the daily changes of weather.
H.T. — I go back a little in time to ask you about the paper 'Dust-raising winds in Mesopotamia' which you wrote in 1921.
C.W.B.N. — There was a medical practitioner in Agra who had made a splendid series of observations on the soaring flight of birds, at the same time also recording his observations of dust-raising winds. I thought it would be useful to compare his records with my own in Iraq and those of other authors. Dust may be raised by local turbulence (dust-devils), by frontal passages (normally associated with cumulonimbus) or simply by high winds at the surface. The latter were particularly dangerous for aviation because they could last for a good many hours. I know of several cases when aircraft took off in clear calm conditions of early morning, and were surprised by the onset of strong surface winds at around 08 or 09 h local time which raised such a thick dust haze that they could not find their landing strip and crashed when they ran out of fuel.
H.T. — In spite of your increasing administrative duties, you published a number of other papers during the period 1921-1925, on such subjects as wet-bulb potential temperature and storm tracks.
C.W.B.N. — Atmospheric thermodynamics was always a special interest of mine. A disturbance develops as a result of the air previously having been in a metastable state; what was it that gave the final push? I liken it to an avalanche caused by just so much extra snowfall tilting the balance to overcome the resistance to shear and static friction. Well, the paper on storm tracks over the Arabian Sea and Bay of Bengal was simply an updated version of a series of charts for each month originally published some 20 years earlier. My paper on wet-bulb temperature was published in 1921 as a memoir of the India Meteorological Department, and in it my philosophy was that the wet-bulb temperature has other significance than merely for deriving relative humidity. Apjohn's formula* relating wet- and dry-bulb temperatures with humidity does provide correct results, whatever doubts may be cast on the validity of its derivation. It implies that the heat content of any air equals the heat content of saturated air at its wet-bulb temperature. Also the entropy of a sample of air is equal to the entropy of the same air saturated at its wet-bulb temperature minus the entropy of the additional water required to saturate it. Several conclusions can be drawn: the wet-bulb potential temperature of any parcel of air remains constant throughout any adiabatic changes the parcel may undergo; in a parcel of air rising adiabatically, the values of its dry-bulb, wet-bulb and dew-point temperatures respectively follow the dry adiabatic, saturated adiabatic and dew-point curves to meet at a point which corresponds to the condensation level.**
H.T. — In 1927 the time had come for Mr Field to retire, and you were appointed Director-General of Observatories in his place even though you were still not yet 40 years old. How did you feel about this?
C.W.B.N. — I felt that it was due to fortuitous circumstances—Patterson and Simpson would both have been senior to me had they not left the Department—rather than any outstanding merit. As I said earlier, Field had fought for and obtained more meteorologists, as well as new premises at Pune which were soon to be ready for occupation. So my first two years in office were under anything but settled conditions as we moved the entire headquarters from the Himalayan foothills down to the Mahratta country centred on Pune—almost 1500 km as the crow flies, with a different climate and different local culture. By this time there was only one other British officer in the India Meteorological Department, namely Dr Royds who was director of the Kodaikanal Observatory and fully engaged in solar physics. Indian colleges were now producing graduates in mathematics and physics of a very high standard, so there was a fine field from which to choose recruits. I had splendid colleagues to help me achieve the ten-fold expansion that took place during my 15 years in office. In several respects the move was a good thing: it gave new stimulus to the staff, we went to an area where we were strangers, we had much more space and better facilities and so could organize ourselves into half-a-dozen separate sections and thus develop specializations and give rein to initiative, and nevertheless the Department as a whole was a well-knit, happy team. We made substantial advances in upper-air climatology, atmospheric physics, synoptic meteorology in the tropics, instrumentation and micrometeorology (the latter through the creation of a section for agricultural meteorology).
H.T. — It seems you still managed to publish several more papers in spite of your administrative duties. Would you say that your interest shifted more towards studies of the energetics of the atmosphere?
C.W.B.N. — No, it was not really a shift of interest. Margules on energetics and thermodynamic diagrams had always formed an important background for me. When Napier Shaw's tephigram was first published it became a challenge to see how many problems could be solved on it. The energy that would be released from certain unstable states—those calculated by Margules—could be. As you see, I had a great respect and affection for Margules. When I first joined the Department there were no textbooks in English on meteorology, instead I had to read original papers suggested by Walker and Simpson, and these included Cleveland Abbe's collections with translations from Neuhoff, Von Bezold and Margules. I can never forget Margules's pathetic opening sentence saying that he was forced to write his paper hurriedly, and with it bid farewell to meteorology, and it was sadder still to learn after the First World War that he had been living as a hermit and died from malnutrition resulting from the difficult economic conditions in Austria. Did he have too sensitive a nature for our real world? At all events the science of meteorology was the poorer for his silence.
H.T. — You were president of mathematics and physics at the Indian Science Congress in 1931 and again in 1938. Could you please tell me something about this?
C.W.B.N. — The Science Congress in India was modelled on the British Association. Scientists from all disciplines meet together for a week or ten days once every year, the venue shifting each time. In 1931 it was at Nagpur and in 1938 at Calcutta. The Calcutta congress was a special one because it was held jointly with the British Association. In my section there were to be papers from such eminent people as Lord Rutherford, Sir James Jeans, Sir Charles Darwin (the physicist) and Sir Arthur Eddington, among others. Actually Lord Rutherford was to have been president of the whole Congress, but sadly he died on 19 October 1937 after a very short illness. Only two days previously I had received a letter from him giving the title of his address to my section.
H.T. — You were also founder f
ellow of the National Science Academy of India. How did this body come into being?
C.W.B.N. — This was another society modelled on a British one, namely the Royal Society. The move towards forming such an institution started in the early 1930s, the purpose being to have a forum which would be recognized and listened to by the Government. I was a member of a small group of scientists from diverse disciplines which drew up a draft constitution, and the Indian National Science Institute (later renamed Academy) was created in 1935. The annual intake was, and possibly still is, limited to 15 persons. I must be almost the only surviving founder-member.
H.T. — In 1944 you reached the age of 55 and so retired from your post as Director-General of Observatories, but you stayed on performing special duties for the Government of India. What were these duties?
C.W.B.N. — The Second World War was still raging when I reached the age of superannuation, and the purpose was to relieve the pressure on my successor, Dr S. K. Banerji, in such matters as maintaining liaison with the military sector and serving as chairman of two committees which dealt with military meteorological requirements. I was also sent to the United Kingdom to report on the latest developments in the domain of meteorological telecommunication systems, upper-air observations and meteorological research in general.
H.T. — You finally left India in 1945 and returned to the United Kingdom, whereupon you were nominated member of the Air Ministry's Meteorological Research Committee. What was the function of that committee?
I think perhaps the greatest benefit of the MRC lay in its serving as a point of contact between the Met. Office and the university sector. Dobson succeeded Chapman as chairman in 1947, followed by Brunt from 1952 to 1955 and myself from 1955 to 1958.
H.T. — It seems that back in England you embarked on a new phase of your career when you took up the study of atmospheric ozone in association with Dobson. What led to this?
All instruments were formally calibrated at Oxford before shipment to their destination, and in this we had the assistance of Dr R. H. Kay and then of Dr C. D. Walshaw. We undertook the collection and publishing of ozone data; during the IGY there were about 50 instruments located at all latitudes from the Arctic to the Antarctic. It was a great privilege for me to work for a dozen years alongside such a brilliant physicist and experimentalist as Dobson and to enjoy his friendship.
H.T. — Did the ozone studies lead to any better understanding of the atmospheric circulation?
C.W.B.N. — Variations in ozone amounts with latitude and with season is largely a result of air motions in the stratosphere, and thus they can offer clues to the circulation at that layer of the atmosphere. However, there is no marked linkage with processes in the troposphere.
H.T. — You were president of the Royal Meteorological Society from 1951 to 1953. What memories do you keep of that period?
H.T. — You were knighted in 1945. Do you know how many people there are who have received that accolade?
C.W.B.N. — I believe the number of knights living today is between 4000 and 4500. My knighthood is Knight (Bachelor). Some other more senior orders are Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire (KBE), Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath (KCB) and Knight Commander of the Order of St. Michael and St. George (KCMG). Some knights—the baronets—have a hereditary title.
H.T. — Which of your awards gave you the greatest pleasure?
C.W.B.N. — Because it was so unexpected, I prize the Symons Gold Medal awarded to me by the Royal Meteorological Society in 1944. At that time I had not been in Britain for five years, it was a critical moment in the war in the East, and the news of the award was all the more gratifying. I was also specially pleased to be given a knighthood because it is a title shared by one's wife, and in my case this was so well merited!
H.T. — What other events connected with your professional life stand out in your memory?
C.W.B.N. — It is so invidious to single out events, that if you permit me I shall be a shade flippant. I remember that shortly after I had arrived in India the postman delivered a letter from someone local addressed 'Mr Normand, Mythological Office'! They must have thought that summed up our profession pretty well.
H.T. — You have been living in Winchester with your son and daughter-in-law for ten years. Do you still maintain any contacts with meteorology?
C.W.B.N. — I receive journals such as the Bulletin of the AMS, the Quarterly Journal of the Royal Meteorological Society, but I am afraid that reading tires me very quickly. No, I have to admit that my pastimes nowadays are crosswords and similar puzzles and watching sport, especially rugby, on television. My deafness is rather a handicap.
H.T. — My last question is always the same—do you have any advice to offer a young person thinking of becoming a meteorologist today?
C.W.B.N. — Times change so rapidly nowadays. Old age should not advise, it may only modestly suggest. I would say that as thorough a knowledge of certain branches of mathematics and physics as a young person of 21 or 22 can acquire will always constitute a sound foundation.
H.T. — Sir Charles, the alacrity with which you have answered my questions belies the fact that you will soon be 93, and I can only congratulate you on coming through such an exhausting ordeal with such patience. On behalf of the readers of the WMO Bulletin I should like to express gratitude to you not only for having agreed to be interviewed, but also for the great contributions you have made to our science during your long and illustrious career. Thank you very much.