Dr. Fred Bortzbooks

Review of The Cloudspotter's Guide: The Science History and Culture of Clouds

by Gavin Pretor-Pinney

(Perigee hardcover, 304 pages, $19.95, June, 2006; paperback, $13.95, June 2007)

Reviewed by Dr. Fred Bortz

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Cirrus work with a cumulus effect

SCIENCE: Silver linings are many in delightful book about clouds

(Headlines from the Dallas Morning News)

"Clouds are Nature's poetry."

If readers are seeking a reason to settle down with British author and "former science nerd" Gavin Pretor-Pinney's The Cloudspotter's Guide, nothing says it better than those four words from the Manifesto of the Cloud Appreciation Society, which society founder Pretor-Pinney uses as the foundation of this delightfully literate and captivating journey through the skies.

The Manifesto includes such other statements and affirmations as these:

"We believe that clouds are unjustly maligned and that life would be immeasurably poorer without 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."

And "We believe that clouds are for dreamers and their contemplation benefits the soul... [and] will save on psychoanalysis bills."

This book will inspire readers of every stripe to obey the Manifesto's call to "live life with your head in the clouds." Some will be scientists at heart and will want to classify and discover the inner workings of clouds. Others will bask in contemplation of natural phenomena. Still others will drink in its lore and legends, appreciate its storytelling and drama, savor its subtle humor, or relish its well-turned phrases.

Progressing cloud genus by cloud genus from the low lying puffy cumulus to the high-altitude wisps of cirrostratus, Pretor-Pinney begins each chapter with a one-page sidebar of how to spot that genus and its various species. He then centers each chapter around a theme or story.

One of the most memorable stories comes early, in Chapter 2, where readers discover the inner structure and powerful dynamics of the towering thunderclouds known as cumulonimbus. Vivid prose carries them through the terrifying up-and-down ride of a test pilot who had to eject when his jet engine stalled at 47,000 feet, directly above an enormous storm. Yet the same chapter brings an easy smile when it relates the origin of the term "Cloud 9."

Another effective use of story transforms the chapter on the boring, gray, wet blanket of altostratus clouds into an adventure of migration of a Berwick's swan named Olya, who feasts on summer cloudberries in the Russian tundra and winters over in England's Severn Estuary. Pretor-Pinney even uses the different wavelengths Olya creates on landing and paddling to teach a lesson about the interaction of different colors of light with the altostratus.

Examples of the author's humor and skillful prose abound, bringing pleasure to word-spotting readers and even critics. Choosing a favorite is impossible, but finding an example is easy, like this description of a species of altocumulus cloud:

"Lenticularis means lens-shaped. The cloud can look like a very elongated lozenge or sometimes like a stack of pancakes, but the classic shape is of a flying saucer. Any cloudspotter lucky enough to catch sight of one when snowboarding in the Alps might wonder if aliens have parked their spaceship in the lee of the Matterhorn for a mug of Gluehwein before the long ride home through the Milky Way. Of course they haven't. They've just come to remind us that the clouds are Nature's poetry, spoken in a whisper in the rarefied air between crest and crag."

Matching the skill and passion of the prose are the production values the author and publisher have brought to this book. Photographs are varied and well-chosen, charts and line drawings are clear and instructive. Captions and headings are both informative and entertaining (for example, a column headed "cats and dogs" on a chart of types of precipitation).

Format elements, besides the aforementioned one-page sidebars, include artistic chapter-opening sketches featuring the cloud genus in question, and a one-page cloud classification table plus a two-page illustration showing the various cloud types at their proper altitudes labeled by name and chapter number. The only thing missing is color, which presumably would take the price out of the publisher's desired range.

Following the chapters on the major cloud genera, the book closes with three chapters on other cloud structures. The first describes the hangers-on and the remnants of rained-out clouds. The second describes clouds that begin as aircraft contrails and then turns to the issue of climate change. Those artificial clouds are likely to contribute significantly to global warming by mid-century, even more than the excess atmospheric carbon dioxide produced by the aircraft engines themselves.

No doubt, each reader will have individual quibbles about certain sections of the book. Some may object to Pretor-Pinney's including a fringe scientist's claim that certain cloud-formation events can predict earthquakes a month or two in advance. He does note that most mainstream scientists are dubious about the hypothesis--or worse, but he seems to be giving it more credence than it deserves by mentioning a few scientists who are taking notice of one particularly notable prediction (or coincidence).

In another section, he draws heavily the lyric "Why does the rain fall from up above?" from 13-year-old pop star Frankie Lymon's 1950s hit song, "Why Do Fools Fall in Love?" The humor clashes uncomfortably with Lymon's tragic death of a heroin overdose as "a washed-up has-been" at the age of 26.

But such minor lapses are easily forgiven in light of the overall pleasure of the book. This is especially true of the final chapter, where the author travels to a village in the wilds of northern Australia in search of the spectacular rolling "Morning Glory" cloud formation. Being in the right place at the right time is an iffy proposition, and readers share Pretor-Pinney's anxiety as he waits several days before his quarry arrives, barely visible in the moments just before dawn.

The next day, the Morning Glory rolls in just after daybreak, and he boards a glider, camera in hand, for the ride and photo-shoot of his life, which he shares with his enchanted readers. As they close the final pages of the book, they wonder whether someday they too will buy a plane ticket to an obscure place where they can chase ephemera.

It's the kind of ending that inspires poetry instead of literary criticism.

Harsh sunlight
Filtered through clouds
Illuminates Nature's outdoor reading room
Where we are found and lost in contemplation.

Physicist and sometime poet Fred Bortz is the author of Beyond Jupiter, a young reader's biography of Heidi Hammel, who is an expert on the clouds of Uranus and Neptune. For a complete cloudspotting experience, he recommends visiting the Cloud Appreciation Society website.