The Invention of Clouds

Richard Hamblyn

Read September-October 2004

All too many scientific biographies roil with Sturm und Drang. The hero is beset by adversity, barely overcomes punishing authority, and often dies penniless and forgotten. Or at least, that's the kind publishers want to send to their presses.

It is, therefore, a relief and pleasure to read this biography of the modern cataloguer of clouds, Luke Howard, a Quaker who was part of the great flowering of science in Britain in the early 19th century. There's stunningly little bad news here. Howard has a normal upbringing; he does his work in reasonable comfort (as part of the growing middle-class); his most strenuous battle concerns nomenclature, and in particular his insistence on Latin (which he thought more universal than English); he is recognized for his work during his life; he handles fame well; and he refrains from tarnishing his reputation. Hamblyn's genius is in avoiding embellishment, leaving us with a portrait of a lost, very public, era of science, and of a rather wonderful scientist who was fortunate to be a part of it.

Hamblyn takes us through a quick overview of nephology (the meteorological study of clouds) from (who else) Aristotle through Descartes to the dawn of the industrial age. New technology (in particular, baloons) slowly released humans from the earthly plane, renewing their curiosity with the skies. Howard, an amateur scientist in the classical mould, brings a patient, observant, categorizing mind to the problem, publishing a classic volume of nacreous prose. Hamblyn's admiration of Howard's prose is such that he includes, verbatim, the core of Howard's classification, which lives up to its billing.

The book doesn't stop with clouds, as indeed it shouldn't. We get a brief history of the winds, too, introducing Beaufort and a particularly curious amateur, a ship captain named Scoresby, who recorded scientific data on his voyages to Greenland for the benefit of Edinburgh professors (who were delighted to have a live captain in their classroom). Clouds seem to bring out the best in writing, for Scoresby's prose, too, has a power too often missing in scientific description. And, of course, the public responded to this, buying books and attending lectures in a public science that seems almost entirely absent today.

There are other little joys in this book. The prose is gently humorous and is often luminous (as when he calls Howard's first presentation on clouds a ``squar[ing] of an ancient and anxiogenic circle''). The vocabulary is effortlessly rich (``scoteography'', ``anacoluthic'', etc. slide by effortlessly). The photographs demonstrate the same attention to detail as the prose merits. And you can find the origin of the phrase ``cloud nine'' (p. 252).

The book's only blemish is a small surfeit of theater. Hamblyn begins with a compelling scene, takes his time to tell the early history of clouds, but eventually gets annoyingly dramatic as he ushers Howard on-stage. Elsewhere, Hamblyn is so thoroughly in control that you wonder if this wasn't at the behest of his editors. (And, well, it would have helped if the book's typeface had better hyphens.)

Hamblyn's book unsuccessfully tries to unresolve the Romantic clash with science. It needn't: Clouds have a special hold on our imagination. They represent our skyward aspirations, but equally serve as synecdoche for the power of nature. Who can forget the clouds of Ruisdael's ``View of Haarlem with Bleaching Grounds'', or Stephen Roche emerging at La Plagne?