Materials, tools, infrastructure

Ph.D. Dissertation project Kris Decker

Historical records are not commonly thought of as research materials for the investigation of the climate's past.  There is, however, a subfield of climate science in which the use of such written materials is part of everyday research: Historical Climatology.  On the basis of weather diaries, chronicles of cities, records of harvest production and logbooks, for instance, scientists constitute data that can be employed for reconstructions of climatic changes over the past millenium.

How do climate scientists make use of these written materials?  This is the basic question of my project.  Building upon interviews, conference visits and analyses of the literature, I deal with the fundamental conditions for historical-climatological findings to emerge.  Among these conditions are the setup and maintenance of a computer infrastructure, the conception and modification of analytical tools, and, most basically, the gathering and appropriation of the research materials itself – activities which are imbued with variegated practical challenges and surrounded by fervent discussions over the "right material for the job".  Written historical accounts stand side-by-side with other research materials like ice cores or tree rings that are said to be coming out of the archives of nature, whereas written accounts stem from man-made observations, which brings to the fore the different values research materials can have.

If we finally try to make sense of Historical Climatology as a material culture of its own, the depths that lie underneath the contemporary contours of this culture should not be left unnoticed:  how materials, tools, and the infrastructure are handed down and altered over time is quite consequential for today's work – or so I suggest.

The project is one of the Desktop Studies funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation