Sunday, August 27, 2006
As metaphors, clouds are almost never good things. There are clouds of suspicion, clouds of anger, clouds on the horizon, cloudy judgments. Clouds loom, darken, threaten, menace. Clouds get in the way of our tan. Oh, we do not like clouds.
And with them, of course, there's the rain: the tears of a cloud that wash out weddings, poison picnics, send us all running for cover. Keep on the sunny side of life, the song tells us, for the clouds and storm will in time pass away.
If ever a feature of nature was ripe for a PR makeover, clouds are it.
Enter Gavin Pretor-Pinney, a deliciously wry writer whose book "The Cloudspotter's Guide" (Perigree, $19.95) just may rescue clouds from ignominy -- or at least get us to look up as they slip by, ever-changing, right over our very noses. Published earlier this year in the United Kingdom and just this summer in the United States, the 38-year-old Englishman's treatise has been a surprise hit -- at least in Great Britain, where it rests comfortably among the top-10 nonfiction titles. Never mind the silver lining. It turns out the cloud is the thing.
Delving deep into cloud science, but also the lore, literature, art, history and even religion associated with them, Pretor-Pinney provides a thoroughly readable narrative about these wonderful "expressions of the atmosphere's moods that can be read like those of a person's countenance." Clearly these lofty masses of millions of water droplets and ice particles can bring out the poet and philosopher in one.
For Pretor-Pinney, it all started as a bit of a lark. A friend who knew of his peculiar fascination asked him to talk on the subject at a literary festival. Fearing that no one would show up, he declared the talk "the inaugural lecture of the Cloud Appreciation Society." It was a burst of meteorological genius that helped fill the room for the lecture. Not only did people show up, they wanted to join the society -- a society that, oh right, didn't actually exist.
Amazed by the response, Pretor-Pinney wasted little time creating a real Cloud Appreciation Society ( http:/
Soon, new members were contacting Pretor-Pinney asking him to recommend books on clouds. Finding only coffee table books or rigorous scientific journals, he decided to write his own. "It just seemed weird to me that there wasn't a book for the general reader about this subject, which, when I talk to people about it, everyone has something to say," he said in an interview last month. "There's that universal relationship with clouds, whether people like them or hate them." After 28 publishers rejected his book proposal (he still has the rejection letters), one finally took the bait.
Pretor-Pinney says his book and burgeoning society are rekindling a fondness for clouds that is cultured in childhood and then gradually tamped down as we grow older.
"There's something established in people, a connection with clouds when they're young, and then it gets buried or goes dormant," he says. "I think one reason why the book has been this surprise hit is that it has reawoken that childhood interest."
Aside from simply appreciating clouds, Pretor-Pinney wants us to understand them. He wants us to know, for instance, that a mature full-size cumulonimbus cloud is estimated to contain the energy equivalent of 10 Hiroshima-sized bombs. And that there is growing evidence that jet contrails, "the bastard son of the cloud family," are having a significant warming effect on ground temperatures. And that whether a cloud produces precipitation depends on the size of the water particles (the fair-weather cumulus clouds are comprised of extremely small water droplets, while a soaking nimbostratus has much larger ones.)
He also tells us about Zhonghao Shou, a Chinese chemist now living in New York, who believes the appearance of certain cloud types is a useful tool in short-term earthquake prediction. And he recounts the terrifying tale of Lt. Col. William Rankin, a military pilot who in 1959 ejected from his plane and parachuted through the heart of a monstrous cumulonimbus cloud and miraculously survived to tell his story.