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Review: The Invention of Clouds by Richard Hamblyn

Naming things is a powerful activity—it was man’s first task in Genesis—and this power is explored in Richard Hamblyn’s brilliant book The Invention of Clouds: How an Amateur Meteorologist Forged the Language of the Skies. I do not think I have ever read such a satisfying, lyrical, information-packed science history book before, although I have read many good ones.

A favorite pastime in the early 1800s was attending scientific lectures. Quakers were not allowed to attend universities, but because they could attend these lectures and even give them, they became a force to be reckoned with in the British scientific world. One of these Quakers, Luke Howard, gave a lecture in 1802, grouping clouds into categories: cirrus, cumulous, stratus, and nimbus. This talk, later expanded into an essay, spread like wildfire through Europe, greatly influencing both science and art and becoming the basis for modern meteorology.

Hamblyn tracks this development and its many aspects, from the growth of scientific journals to the increased fascination with meteorology throughout British and European society. We bump into one famous name after another: Napoleon, Jane Austen, Coleridge, Charles Darwin, Beaufort (of the Beaufort wind scale), Davy the scientist, Shelley, Keats, and many more. Goethe became a strong admirer of Luke Howard and even wrote poetry based on his cloud classifications, later adding verses celebrating Howard himself. Constable’s cloud studies were solidly based on the new developments in meteorology. One could almost say that, once there were words to categorize clouds, cloud mania enveloped Europe.

The Invention of Clouds ranges throughout the European world, pairing broad insights with fascinating details. It also discusses the beginnings of the dichotomy between science and the arts (also outlined in Pearcey and Thaxton’s The Soul of Science and Pearcey’s Saving Leonardo) and explains why Howard’s cloud names were accepted by both groups. Some of the most fascinating details in the book are the quotations:

  • “As a Quaker, Luke Howard shared Linnaeus’s profoundly religious sense that taxonomy was intended as “a respectful ordering of God’s Creation,” an outlook reflected by the lack of anything mechanical or life-denying in his classification of clouds.” (189)
  • “Art and science, after all, were both products of the human imagination; both were ways of representing and giving order to the world.” (307)
  • “Since the painting of nature is a means toward the clearer understanding of nature, it has a serious, even a profound, job to do.” (308)
  • …his profession as a painter could be shown to be “scientific as well as poetic; that imagination alone never did, and never can, produce works that are to stand by a comparison with realities.” (Constable, 317)
  • During the busiest time of his life as scientist, businessman, and teaching father, Luke Howard wrote, “Yet how to be more useful to others I do not yet clearly see; so I keep still in my corner.” (348)

The profound humility and eagerness to serve in this last statement should make many of us pause. Are we so eager to serve God? Are we so humble and busy for him?

In a most fitting conclusion to a life devoted to the contemplation of clouds and the service of God, Luke Howard died at 91 while listening to his son read aloud from Genesis about the rainbow in the clouds. (333)

In portraying Luke Howard and his society to us, Richard Hamblyn, perhaps unwittingly, gives us insight into a deeply Christian way of looking at the world and at human activity as well as insight into the beginnings of meteorology. He does it all with consummate skill, weaving all sorts of ideas together coherently and beautifully. All in all, The Invention of Clouds is one of the best science history books I have read.

This is the kind of book that could be used as science and math reading for high school. It could also be used for history or even for an extensive unit study, given the many possible rabbit trails it introduces. To really enjoy the book readers should know a bit about European history and culture at the time and regularly be able to take a few moments regularly to watch clouds.

If you enjoyed this review, you might want to connect with me on GoodReads where I eventually share what I read or friend me on Facebook where I occasionally show up

Disclosure:I borrowed this book from the library but it is one I would love to own someday.

This may be linked to Saturday Reviews, Booknificent Thursdays, 52 Books in 52 Weeks Challenge, Literacy Musings Monday, and The Book Nook  as well as to Inspire Me Monday, Raising Homemakers, Friendship Friday, Make My Saturday Sweet.

2 Comments

  1. Carol says:

    Thanks so much for your great review of this! Would you believe that I was actually looking at this last week as I was going over plans for my daughter’s science for the year?? It sounds great. I’ve started reading aloud ‘The Short History of Nearly Everything’ by Bill Bryson, which is definitely not Christian! but it’s certainly bringing about some interesting conversations. I was brought up on evolutionary ideas at school as I didn’t become a Christian until I was an adult but I was telling my dd that it was such a depressing way to look at the world – and she agrees. Funnily enough, it never got in the way of me believing in God, probably because I didn’t believe it all, but I think it’s important to know how others look at this as it’s often a real stumbling block to faith. Anyhow, I would like to balance a book like that with some others such as the one you’ve reviewed. X

    1. Annie Kate says:

      You are welcome, Carol! I think you and your daughter will enjoy this book. It covers so much in such an interesting way.

      I do not get the feeling that the author is Christian but Luke Howard, the subject of the book, certainly is and the author lets that shine through. As I recall, he also quoted a bit of Maxwell’s verse mocking the nonsense of the new idea of evolution, but I can’t write it out for you as I had to return the book to the library.

      Yes, they say evolution is often a real stumbling block to faith. I suppose that is one reason it is pushed so hard by militant atheists. I am so thankful it was not a problem for you!

      May God bless your conversations about ‘The Short History of Nearly Everything’ and all the rest of your homeschooling as well.

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