When Luke Howard named the clouds 200 years ago, it was an exciting, popular event. Science writer Hamblyn taps into that electricity and sends it running through the pages of this exemplary, scientific-history deubt.
Others have tried to get a handle on clouds, the most ungraspable element in nature, explains Hamblyn. There were Thales of Miletus, the Taoist Ministry of Thunder, and three men whose heads were always far into the atmosphere: Democritus, Aristotle, and Lucretius. The brilliant if quixotic Robert Hooke had classified clouds in the mid-17th century (“cleer,” “checker’d,” “hairy,” “water’d,” and “lowring”), but it was Howard’s labels (“cirrus,” “stratus,” “cumulous,” and “nimbus”) that seized the popular imagination and held fast. The turn of the 19th century was a great age of science and talk, and the natural sciences were in “a search for narrative order among events. Since the sky has always been more read than measured, it has always been the province of words.” If something as restless and mutable as clouds could be captured in variations of four terms—well, that made Howard a latter-day alchemist who brought home the bacon. The author does a peerless job setting the scientific scene during the period, describing the increasingly charged atmosphere at the hall where Howard unveiled his classification, and the remarkable journey it led him on into “the nacreous realm of fame”: Goethe took his paper and made a poem out of it, while Constable consulted his work during his studies of clouds. Hamblyn is a particularly graceful writer, even when, rapt in the sound of his own voice, he finds another way to say what he said the sentence before. “Clouds themselves, by their very nature, are self-ruining and fragmentary,” he says, then quickly reminds us that “every cloud is a small catastrophe, a world of vapor that dies before our eyes.”
You’ll never confuse a nimbocumulus with a cumulonimbus again, once you finish this entertaining and a luminous history of meteorology.