978-0-374-17715-7 / 9780374177157

The Invention of Clouds: How an Amateur Meteorologist Forged the Language of the Skies


Publisher:Farrar Straus Giroux



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About the book:

In The Invention of Clouds, Richard Hamblyn skilfully blends biography with scientific and cultural history to capture for modern readers the remarkable achievement of Luke Howard (1772-1864), the quiet Quaker whose classification of cloud types we still employ today. "Cirrus", "cumulus", and "stratus" now seem almost self-evident descriptions, but when Howard gave his epochal lecture at London's Askesian Society in 1802, the bewildering variety of clouds was more obvious than anything else. Howard's great achievement, writes Hamblyn with characteristic elegance, was "the penetrating insight that clouds have many individual shapes but few basic forms". His graceful résumé of meteorology from the time of the ancient Chinese shows just how difficult generations of scientists found it to make sense of clouds, which frequently served as a metaphor for the awesome complexity of the natural world. Hamblyn's marvellous portrait of English cultural life at the turn of the 19th century reminds us how enthralled the general public was by scientific lectures and demonstrations, which served as a form of popular entertainment as well as a valuable tool in the dissemination of knowledge. "People cheered at lectures," he notes, and young men like Howard, a pharmacist by trade, "refused to allow the circumstances in which they found themselves to deflect them from (a) heroic sense of destiny." This was the great age of amateur scientists, many of them Dissenters like Howard whose religious unorthodoxy barred them from government service and aristocratic clubs. They forged their own place in England's burgeoning industries and in the scientific revolution unleashed by Isaac Newton. Howard, a devoted husband and father active in educational work and the anti-slavery movement, was representative of the remarkable autodidacts who reshaped European culture. Their work "served the equal demands of pleasure, instruction, and imagination", states Hamblyn, whose delightful book fulfils the same admirable purpose. --Wendy Smith

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