A book to satisfy your scientific and literary appetites

My latest published book review takes you to “Cloud 9,” among other wonderful places. If you appreciate great prose, great stories, and great science, you can’t go wrong with The Cloudspotter’s Guide: The Science, History, and Culture of Clouds by Gavin Pretor-Pinney.

Here are a few excerpts from the review, which appeared in today’s Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Other versions of the review are scheduled for the Seattle Times, the Dallas Morning News, and possibly other major metropolitan newspapers:

“Clouds are Nature’s poetry.”

If readers are seeking a reason to settle down with British author and “former science nerd” Gavin Pretor-Pinney’s A book to satisfy your scientific and literary appetitesThe Cloudspotter’s Guide, nothing says it better than those four words from the Manifesto of the Cloud Appreciation Society, which society founder Pretor-Pinney uses as the foundation of this delightfully literate and captivating journey through the skies.

…This book will inspire readers of every stripe to obey the Manifesto’s call to “live life with your head in the clouds.” Some will be scientists at heart and will want to classify and discover the inner workings of clouds. Others will bask in contemplation of natural phenomena. Still others will drink in its lore and legends, appreciate its storytelling and drama, savor its subtle humor, or relish its well-turned phrases.

Progressing cloud genus by cloud genus from the low lying puffy cumulus to the high-altitude wisps of cirrostratus, Pretor-Pinney begins each chapter with a one-page sidebar of how to spot that genus and its various species. He then centers each chapter around a theme or story.

One of the most memorable stories comes early, in Chapter 2, where readers discover the inner structure and powerful dynamics of the towering thunderclouds known as cumulonimbus. Vivid prose carries them through the terrifying up-and-down ride of a test pilot who had to eject when his jet engine stalled at 47,000 feet, directly above an enormous storm. Yet the same chapter brings an easy smile when it relates the origin of the term “Cloud 9.”

…Examples of the author’s humor and skillful prose abound, bringing pleasure to word-spotting readers and even critics. Choosing a favorite is impossible, but finding an example is easy, like this description of a species of altocumulus cloud:

“Lenticularis means lens-shaped. The cloud can look like a very elongated lozenge or sometimes like a stack of pancakes, but the classic shape is of a flying saucer. Any cloudspotter lucky enough to catch sight of one when snowboarding in the Alps might wonder if aliens have parked their spaceship in the lee of the Matterhorn for a mug of Gluehwein before the long ride home through the Milky Way. Of course they haven’t. They’ve just come to remind us that the clouds are Nature’s poetry, spoken in a whisper in the rarefied air between crest and crag.”

…[M]inor lapses are easily forgiven in light of the overall pleasure of the book. This is especially true of the final chapter, where the author travels to a village in the wilds of northern Australia in search of the spectacular rolling “Morning Glory” cloud formation. Being in the right place at the right time is an iffy proposition, and readers share Pretor-Pinney’s anxiety as he waits several days before his quarry arrives, barely visible in the moments just before dawn.

The next day, the Morning Glory rolls in just after daybreak, and he boards a glider, camera in hand, for the ride and photo-shoot of his life, which he shares with his enchanted readers. As they close the final pages of the book, they wonder whether someday they too will buy a plane ticket to an obscure place where they can chase ephemera….

Physicist and sometime poet Fred Bortz is the author of A book to satisfy your scientific and literary appetitesBeyond Jupiter, a young reader’s biography of Heidi Hammel, who is an expert on the clouds of Uranus and Neptune. For a complete cloudspotting experience, he recommends visiting the Cloud Appreciation Society website.