The Invention of Clouds: a book review

The Invention of Clouds: How an Amateur Meteorologist Forged the Language of the Skies by Richard Hamblyn (2001)

I recently read The Invention of Clouds by Richard Hamblyn, who also wrote Terra (which I reviewed some years ago). The present volume focuses on the Quaker pharmacist Luke Howard, who produced a taxonomy of clouds in 1802. Essentially the same classification is still used today (but not, as Hamblyn points out, without considerable debate during the 1800s):

Although the focus is on Howard’s work and life, Hamblyn in fact provides a brief history of meteorology (or at least of the study of clouds), and there is a chapter on the Beaufort scale. Contemporary literature referred to includes:

Google Ngrams plot for three of the cloud types (with and without hyphens). The words “cirrostratus” and “cirrocumulus” first appear in reprintings of Howard’s pioneering essay, while the word “cumulonimbus” is introduced around 1887. There is a renewed spike of interest in cloud types beginning in the early 1940’s.

The Invention of Clouds also has some interesting comments on clouds in art and on how to get an education at a time when the two English universities banned non-Anglicans from attending. However, the book does have a few small errors. For example, cloud droplets are not “a mere millionth of a millimetre across,” but in the range 0.005 to 0.05 mm. However, that does not stop the book from being both enjoyable and informative (although I did wish for colour images). See also this review from the NY Times.

The Invention of Clouds by Richard Hamblyn: 3½ stars


A warm day in Canberra

It’s been warm in Canberra, Australia recently. The temperatures above are from the Bureau of Meteorology, and the chart was constructed using R.

And maybe that chart looks better on parchment?

World Solar Challenge: Weather in Darwin

One very helpful input to race strategy in a solar car race is weather expertise. How much sunshine can we expect? And when can we expect it? In 2013, Solar Team Twente took along an expert from the Joint Meteorological Group of the Royal Netherlands Air Force to help with that. This year, Punch Powertrain Solar Team (team 8) is taking along an expert from the the Royal Meteorological Institute of Belgium, who will be blogging his insights and experiences.

For those without his specialist expertise, forget everything you thought you knew about Spring and Summer, Autumn and Winter. Darwin has 7 seasons, as the Larrakia People tell us, and the World Solar Challenge begins towards the end of Dalirrgang (the “Build Up” – click image above for multimedia tutorial). Dalirrgang is a kind of overture to the rainy season (the “Wet”). Traditionally, Dalirrgang is the time to hunt the Magpie goose (photo by Djambalawa below).

Long-term weather forecasts suggest that the World Solar Challenge this year might in fact begin on a partly sunny day, with a little rain, but that’s very uncertain, this far ahead.

The Field Guide to Natural Phenomena: a book review

The Field Guide to Natural Phenomena [Wonders] by Keith Heidorn and Ian Whitelaw (2010)

The Field Guide to Natural Phenomena [Wonders], subtitled The Secret World of Optical, Atmospheric and Celestial Phenomena (this book by Keith Heidorn and Ian Whitelaw seems to have two alternate main titles) describes and explains a range of natural phenomena that one is likely to meet. One might meet them while taking a long drive, for example. Included in the book are brief discussions of geysers, tides, clouds, mirages, meteors, waterspouts, rainbows, sundogs, aurorae, and much more.

Waterspout, moon, aurora, double rainbow, and sundogs (image credits: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5)

This is a great little book, and well-illustrated. Families interested in teaching children about science might like to keep a copy in the family vehicle.

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The Field Guide to Natural Phenomena [Wonders] by Keith Heidorn and Ian Whitelaw: 4 stars

The polar vortex

In weather news, the usual northern polar vortex (above, right) has been spilling frigid air over Russia, Canada, and the USA (above, left).

The phenomenon is not particularly unusual, but it has given the USA some rather cold weather (see weather map in °F for 8 Jan above, and photo of Chicago by Edward Stojakovic below):

170 years of hurricanes, mapped

Several months back, Wired magazine highlighted this map of all hurricane tracks in the 170-year database of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Wired highlighted the map again in their list of the “Most Amazing, Beautiful and Viral Maps” of 2013, which is well worth a look.