Thursday, May 25, 2006



Radiantly cloudy

May 25th 2006
From The Economist print edition

The Cloudspotter's Guide: The Science, History and Culture of Clouds
By Gavin Pretor-Pinney

Perigee; 304 pages; $19.95. Sceptre; £12.99

Buy it at

CLOUDS have had few friends. A metaphor for sadness and confusion, they have long been seen as spoiling the weather, rather than being one of its most lovable and interesting aspects.

Now a fondly compiled compendium of the nebulous world's facts and fancies redresses the balance. The author, Gavin Pretor-Pinney, is the founder of the Cloud Appreciation Society, and aims to convert even the most sun-loving reader. He introduces the half-dozen main types of clouds as if they were his oldest friends: there is the towering, thunderous cumulonimbus, the beautiful cirrus, the fluffy, fine-weather cumulus. Even dull, ponderous old stratus—basically fog-in-the-sky—gets a friendly mention.

When his head is not in the clouds, the author runs a magazine for dilettantes called the Idler. But his research for the book betrays a startling diligence. References abound to clouds in history, art and literature. “The Birds”, a play by Aristophanes, is cited to illustrate stratocumulus, those clouds that look so tantalisingly like a magic country in the sky. He reproduces Andrea Mantegna's magnificent “Martyrdom of St Sebastian”, which dates from the 15th century, not for the striking image of the arrow-pierced saint, but as one of the first pictorial depictions of a cloud (though the artist muddles his cumulus and cirrus).

The cultural, scientific and biographical references are interwoven in a whimsical style that readers may find either infuriating or captivating. But they certainly serve to enliven what a more leaden pen would turn into a schoolroom exercise of memorisation and lexicography. After a few chapters, the reader is delighted to learn that there are four types of cirrus (intortus, radiatus, vertebratus and duplicatus).

A pilot's account of a high-altitude parachute descent through a thunderstorm is gripping. So is the search for the “Morning Glory”—a rare, rotating tubelike cloud best seen in remote northern Australia. Plain old sunshine seems dull in comparison.

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