The Invention of Clouds

Invention of CloudsInvention of Clouds by Richard Hamblyn

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I finished this book on an overcast evening. By the time I was done, the setting sun had broken through the clouds to reveal a strikingly three-dimensional panorama of torn vapor and gold. It was a cloudscape, the kind I try to capture in my stories “Unborn God” and “The Wizard’s House”—part of a series I’m calling Cartography of Clouds that will be published shortly in Beneath Ceaseless Skies. It was also a fitting backdrop to the conclusion of this book on the history of attempts to name and categorize these most fleeting of natural phenomena.

The nineteenth century was a heyday of classification schemes in natural philosophy. If one could accurately name and organize objects, one could ensure that observations of them were uniform around the world. In astronomy this involved attempts to measure star positions as accurately as possible, but it also led to schemes for measuring double star positions and stellar brightness and developing a more rational way to divide up the heavens into constellations. (I discuss a lot of this in my dissertation, which I will be defending very shortly.)

In biology, a similar categorizing impetus gave rise to the Linnaean system of classifying organisms. Hamblyn’s The Invention of Clouds tells the story of doing the same thing for the changing skies. If weather observations were to develop into a uniform science of meteorology, there needed to be some way to accurately designate and compare cloud forms. But the clouds are by their very nature always changing and each one seems different. What sort of natural scheme of division could be devised for these objects?

The book focuses one individual, the Quaker merchant and natural philosopher Luke Howard, and how Howard devised, promoted, and propagated the cloud divisions (cumulus, stratus, cirrus, etc.) that have since passed into common and official usage. On one level, Hamblyn’s work is a fairly simple (though at times romanticized) tale: Howard developed his classification, presented it in a lecture, published it in a philosophical magazine, and ultimately found success. It is a straightforward story but one that illustrates what the scientific endeavor looked like in the early nineteenth century.

This is a popularization of the history of science. There’s no discussion of previous work done on Luke Howard (a figure I admit I had never heard of before this book) or discussion of the archives or source materials the author utilized. As a popularization though, it does a good job of using Howard’s life and work to illustrate how science worked during this period. The reader gets a sense of the popular interest in amateur science—in particular meteorology—and the world of scientific periodicals through which Howard rose to fame. More compellingly for me though was what it showed about the impetus for classification and categorizing during this period, the drive to obtain a uniformity of observations that could bring objectivity to nature.

Besides Howard’s cloud classification scheme, Hamblyn also touches on quantitative measurement for wind speed, though he does not discuss earlier attempts to gather worldwide temperature and barometric observations or the instrumentation that made this possible. These early attempts (partially coordinated by John Herschel during his time at the Cape of Good Hope) had much in common with contemporary attempts to gather global data on the Earth’s magnetic field and worldwide tidal levels. These were important aspects in the narrative toward uniformity and quantification that Hamblyn is constructing in this work, and I would have welcomed more discussion of how Howard’s own endeavors related to these activities of “big science”.

Hamblyn represents Luke Howard as a romantic hero of science, someone who brought scientific rigor the clouds without sacrificing their sublime aspects. This claim is buttressed by his discussion of the ways in which Howard’s work influenced the writings of such varied and prominent figures as Goethe in Germany and the English landscape painter John Constable. In parts of the work, however, this romanticization of Howard’s life and work is taken a bit far. In the sense of literary effect, this is not too much of a problem. It becomes more difficult, however, when Hamblyn takes liberties with his source materials to connect dots related to the influence or motivations of his characters. Phrases like “Howard surely thought” or “certainly felt” litter the narrative.

Whether you’re interested in the history of science or simply want to know more about how the clouds were brought within the remit of natural philosophy, this is an accessible and compelling work. If you’re hoping to learn more about the physical nature and structure of the clouds themselves though, this may not be the place to start. The focus is on Howard and the human aspect of science—showing how the scientific is often tied closely with the ascetic. It is a book about the naming of clouds, only secondarily about the physical understanding of clouds. As with so many things in science though, Hamblyn effectively shows how objects must be named before they can be understood.

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