The Science of How Clouds Actually Stay Up in the Sky
How to keep the weight of 100 elephants in the air.
By Maria Popova
As Georgia O’Keeffe marveled at the beauty of the Southwest sky, which inspired much of her legendary art, she was especially enchanted by the “grey blue clouds … riding all through the holiness of it,” “bunches of clouds,” “different kinds of clouds.” Clouds, indeed, hold immeasurable mesmerism for children, artists, and ordinary grownups alike. But why do they actually exist and how do they work?
In this wonderful short video based on Gavin Pretor-Pinney’s The Cloudspotter’s Guide: The Science, History, and Culture of Clouds (public library | IndieBound), Joe Hanson of It’s Okay To Be Smart turns to science to make visible the invisible magic by which clouds hang oh so effortlessly in the sky.
This must be precisely what Richard Feynman meant in his unforgettable monologue about how “the science knowledge only adds to the excitement, the mystery and the awe” of nature.
Pretor-Pinney, founder of The Could Appreciation Society, writes in the introduction:
I’ve always loved looking at clouds. Nothing in nature rivals their variety and drama; nothing matches their sublime, ephemeral beauty. If a glorious sunset of Altocumulus clouds were to spread across the heavens only once in a generation, it would surely be amongst the principal legends of our time. Yet most people barely seem to notice the clouds, or see them simply as impediments to the “perfect” summer’s day, an excuse to feel “under the weather.”
Prefacing the book is the wonderfully heartening manifesto of the Society:
We believe that clouds are unjustly maligned and that life would be immeasurably poorer without them.
We think that clouds are Nature’s poetry, and the most egalitarian of her displays, since everyone can have a fantastic view of them.
We pledge to fight “blue-sky thinking” wherever we find it. Life would be dull if we had to look up at cloudless monotony day after day.
We seek to remind people that clouds are expressions of the atmosphere’s moods, and can be read like those of a person’s countenance.
We believe that clouds are for dreamers and their contemplation benefits the soul. Indeed, all who consider the shapes they see within them will save on psychoanalysis bills.
And so, we say to all who’ll listen: Look up, marvel at the ephemeral beauty, and live life with your head in the clouds.
The Cloudspotter’s Guide was followed by the equally delightful The Cloud Collector’s Handbook.
For more of Hanson’s illuminating science-plus explainers, see how a glass of wine explains the universe, why sci-fi authors are so good at predicting the future, and the mathematical odds of finding your soul mate.
Published November 28, 2014