The Cloudspotter’s Guide: The Science, History, and Culture of Clouds, by Gavin Pretor-Pinney. New York: Perigree, 2007. 320 pp. $16 (paperback).

Gavin Pretor-Pinney has loved looking at clouds since he was a child, and he shares what he loves about them in The Cloudspotter’s Guide: The Science, History, and Culture of Clouds. And, if you read this book, chances are good that you too will come to love looking at these wonders in the sky.

As the subtitle suggests, The Cloudspotter’s Guide is a collection of facts about clouds and how people view them rather than a strictly scientific account of what they are and how they are formed. This, for example, is how Pretor-Pinney introduces the cumulus cloud:

Leonardo da Vinci once described clouds as “bodies without surface,” and you can see what he meant. They are ghostlike, ephemeral, nebulous: you can see their shapes, yet it’s hard to say where their forms begin and end.

But the Cumulus cloud is one that challenges da Vinci’s description. Rising in brilliant-white cauliflower mounds, it looks more solid and crisply defined than other cloud types. As a child I was convinced that men with long ladders harvested cotton wool from these clouds. They look as if you could just reach up and touch them—and, if you did, they would feel like the softest things imaginable. . . .

Cumulus is the Latin word for “heap,” which is simply to say that these clouds have a clumpy, stacked shape. The people who concern themselves with such things divide them into humilis, mediocris, and congestus formations—these are known as “species” of Cumulus. Humilis, meaning humble in Latin, are the smallest, being wider than they are tall; mediocris are as tall as they are wide, and congestus are taller still. (p. 21)

Following this, Pretor-Pinney notes the typical altitude of cumulus clouds, shows pictures of the different varieties, and discusses ways to distinguish them from other clouds that may look similar, how and where they form, and interesting facts or stories about them. . . .

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