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The Theory of Cloudsby Stephane Audeguy
All children become sad in the late afternoon, for they begin to comprehend the passage of time. The light starts to change. Soon they will have to head home, and to behave, and to pretend.
On a Sunday in June, sometime around 5 p.m., the Japanese couturier Akira Kumo was speaking with a young woman whom he had just hired to catalogue his book collection. Kumo and the young woman were sitting in the loftlike top floor of Kumos hôtel particulier on Rue Lamarck in Paris; it was here that he had installed his library. The windows, including those in the north-facing bay windows that led to a small balcony overlooking the street, were made of double-paned glass, filtering out damaging rays and urban noises while offering a commanding view of the lead-gray Paris roofline. Above the roofline was an expanse of sky in which the clouds, always the same and always changing, drifted by, indifferent to the landscape over which they passed. Virginie Latour was examining the spines of books. She was only half listening to what the couturier was telling her—something about London at the turn of the nineteenth century. When he started talking about clouds, however, Virginie offered him her full attention.
In the early years of the nineteenth century, Kumo told Virginie, a number of unheralded and seemingly ordinary men across Europe began gazing up at clouds in a way that was serious and respectful yet also filled with longing. They looked at clouds as if they were in love with them. One was an Englishman named Luke Howard.
Luke Howard lived in London, where he worked in an apothecary. He also belonged to the Society of Friends, known more commonly as the Quakers. Howard was the kind of man impossible not to admire, for he devoted himself to his one god with the quiet constancy of the truly innocent. Once a week—sometimes more frequently—he took part in one of those meetings that are to Quakers what mass is to Catholics (though this is not a comparison that a Quaker would approve of; Quakers read the Bible incessantly and it says nothing regarding either clergy or pope). On November 25, 1802, Howard and his fellow Friends gathered in the small room situated directly over the laboratory where he worked during the day. They sat in a circle, in silence. Any participant in these meetings had the right to speak—so long as he had something to say. This was why, quite often and indeed typically, no one said anything at all. Now and again a line of thought might take hold. An actual discussion? A rarity. And when, most unexpected and unfortunate, an outright argument erupted, the meeting leader would immediately demand silence. Remaining silent was one of Howards great talents, one he had nearly perfected. So admirably did he not speak that it opened up space in his capacious heart for the Creator of All Things—first and foremost—and secondly for the welfare of his fellow man and, lastly, for the study of clouds.
The meeting on that November day was by general consensus very satisfactory indeed. There are many qualities of silence—Quakers are excellent judges in the matter—and they agreed that the silence at this particular meeting had been among the very finest. When it was over, Howard accompanied the participants down to the front door to bid them good-bye. Last to take their leave were his closest friends, with whom he chatted amiably about various matters for a few minutes. One of them enquired as to whether he had decided upon the subject of the lecture he was to present at the next meeting of their scientific society. Howard replied that he had not settled upon one; there were several possibilities. He was not being truthful and his friends could sense this—Howard had no notion of how to lie—and chided him gently for it. But they didnt press him, and eventually they went on their way. Howard returned to his room, settled himself before a venerable-looking if worn desk, and set to work.
His friends had been right, of course. From the very moment he had learned it was his turn to give the next lecture, Howard knew precisely what his subject would be. Clouds. More than simply talk about clouds, however, he intended to speak for them, and in a manner never before attempted. Until then, clouds were seen merely as symbols of something else: the gods displeasure or delight; the weathers whims; premonitions of good or ill. They were not accorded an existence independent of anything else. Howard felt deeply that this was not how clouds ought to be understood. It was essential they be appreciated for themselves; that they be, in a word, loved.
Luke Howard looked at clouds in a way no one had since the days of antiquity: He contemplated them actively rather than passively. Clouds, he believed, were composed of a unique material that was in perpetual transformation; every cloud was the metamorphosis of another. Their formations thus needed to be seen in a whole new light. Moreover, these formations needed names. A Frenchman had previously tried to name clouds, but he used native terms for them. Howard opted for Latin, hoping that this would encourage scientists of every nationality to adopt his system.
Is it not amazing how self-evident everything seems following an invention of this magnitude? Rudolf Diesels motor, or the principles behind fixed images established by Niepce and Daguerre. These are now so familiar to us that we can manipulate them. What is impossibly hard to imagine is that moment when a scientific discovery is first announced to the world. Whatever it is, or whatever it does, the discovery has to seem simultaneously self-sufficient and insufficient. In the case of clouds, language lies at the heart of the matter. And baptizing this new entity isnt like baptizing a person, who at birth receives a given name and a family name with which they can do whatever they want. Some drag their names through the mud; others carry theirs to the very heights of societys lists; a few manage to do both simultaneously. But entities—things—have an existence independent of a name and can go for centuries without it, though one might be out there somewhere, waiting for the scientist or the poet to seize upon it.
Discovering the name that facilitates comprehension of the thing named was Howards great gift. Today, thanks to him and his typology, we see clouds with him: cumulus and stratus, cirrus and nimbus.
In 1796, at Number 2 Plough Yard in the Lombard Street neighborhood—not far from the Thames—Howard and his friends had founded a scientific organization—really a kind of debating club—they called the Askesian Society, a name deriving from the Greek askesis, meaning application,” chosen to encourage them in their efforts. The societys rules were quite simple. Once a year each member was required to give a lecture; in the event he could or would not, he would be fined an amount sufficient to cover the costs of the refreshments and the wood burned in the stove to heat the room. The neighborhood around Lombard Street was home to a small community of Quakers, bankers, and tradesmen, many of whom avidly followed the proceedings of the Askesian Society.
Around eight oclock in the evening of December 6, 1802, Howard opened the door to the laboratory. He was wearing a plain, dark suit, a round hat, and black cravat; his shirt linen was white. Number 2 Plough Yard was an old building of three floors and had what some might call a forbidding appearance: The façade consisted of bare stone and its front bay windows were mostly obscured behind shutters. It had been rebuilt following the Great Fire more than a century before and untouched since. The owners had opened an apothecary on the ground floor, and during the day it hummed with activity. Howard normally could be found in the laboratory downstairs, working on preparations and tinctures, and it was in that laboratory that this meeting of the Askesian Society was convened.
By this hour the apothecary had been closed for some time. Howard went down the steps leading to the laboratory, which was located to the right of the staircase. His audience had already gathered and the room was crowded. There were five rows of five chairs, on which sat the women, children, and elderly men; along the sides and at the back of the room, their hats in their hands, were the men. Howard recognized a number of faces, including those of his fellow society founders, but their familiarity only augmented his shyness. Sitting on the right-hand side, as was their custom, were his closest associates—William Allen, a doctor, and William Haseldine Pepys, a naturalist; to their right was the societys secretary, Richard Phillips. All three wore dark suits and white shirt-linen; their hats poised on their knees.
© Editions GALLIMARD, Paris, 2005
English translation copyright © 2007 by Timothy D. Bent
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