Placeholder Image

Subtitles section Play video

  • The Naming of Clouds

  • On a cold December evening in 1802,

  • a nervous young man named Luke Howard

  • stood before the assembled members of a London science club

  • about to give a lecture that would change his life,

  • and go on to change humanity's understanding of the skies.

  • Luke Howard was a pharmacist by profession, but he was a meteorologist by inclination, having been obsessed by clouds and weather since childhood.

  • As a school boy, he spent hours staring out of the classroom window,

  • gazing at the passing clouds.

  • Like everyone else at the time, he had no idea how clouds formed,

  • or how they stayed aloft.

  • But he enjoyed observing their endless transformations.

  • By his own admission, Luke paid little attention to his lessons,

  • but fortunately for the future of meteorology,

  • he managed to pick up a good knowledge of Latin.

  • Compared to the other natural sciences,

  • meteorology, the study of weather, was a late developer,

  • mainly because weather is elusive.

  • You can't snap off a piece of rainbow or a section of cloud for convenient study.

  • You can, of course, collect rain water in calibrated containers,

  • but all you really end up with are buckets of water.

  • Understanding clouds required a different approach,

  • which is where Luke Howard's idea came in.

  • His simple insight based on years of observation

  • was that clouds have many individual shapes

  • but they have few basic forms.

  • In fact, all clouds belong to one of three principle types

  • to which Howard gave the names:

  • Cirrus, Latin for tendril or hair,

  • Cumulus, heap or pile,

  • and Stratus, layer or sheet.

  • But that wasn't the clever part.

  • Clouds are constantly changing, merging, rising, falling, and spreading throughout the atmosphere,

  • rarely maintaining the same shapes for more than a few minutes.

  • Any successful naming system had to accommodate this essential instability,

  • as Howard realized.

  • So, in addition to the three main cloud types,

  • he introduced a series of intermediate and compound types

  • as a way of including the regular transitions that occur among clouds.

  • A high, wispy cirrus cloud that descended and spread into a sheet was named cirrostratus,

  • while groups of fluffy cumulus clouds that joined up and spread were named stratocumulus.

  • Howard identified seven cloud types,

  • but these have since been expanded to ten,

  • cloud nine being the towering cumulonimbus thunder cloud,

  • which is probably why being on cloud nine means to be on top of the world.

  • Howard's classification had an immediate international impact.

  • The German poet and scientist J.W. von Goethe wrote a series of poems in praise of Howard's clouds,

  • which ended with the memorable lines,

  • "As clouds ascend, are folded, scatter, fall,

  • Let the world think of thee who taught it all,"

  • while Percy Shelley also wrote a poem "The Cloud,"

  • in which each of Howard's seven cloud types was characterized in turn.

  • But perhaps the most impressive response to the naming of clouds was by the painter John Constable,

  • who spent two summers on Hampstead Heath painting clouds in the open air.

  • Once they had been named and classified,

  • clouds became easier to understand

  • as the visible signs of otherwise invisible atmospheric processes.

  • Clouds write a kind of journal on the sky

  • that allows us to understand the circulating patterns of weather and climate.

  • Perhaps the most important breakthrough in understanding clouds

  • was realizing that they are subject to the same physical laws as everything else on Earth.

  • Clouds, for example, do not float,

  • but fall slowly under the influence of gravity.

  • Some of them stay aloft due to upward convection from the sun-heated ground,

  • but most are in a state of slow, balletic descent.

  • "Clouds are the patron goddesses of idle fellows,"

  • as the Greek dramatist Aristophanes wrote in 420 B.C.

  • and nephology, the study of clouds, remains a daydreamer's science,

  • aptly founded by a thoughtful young man

  • whose favorite activity was staring out of the window at the sky.

The Naming of Clouds

Subtitles and keywords

B1 INT US howard cloud luke naming weather named

【TED-Ed】How did clouds get their names? - Richard Hamblyn

  • 24364 1369
    Ann   posted on 2016/01/19
Video vocabulary

Go back to previous version