One of the downsides of being constantly on the phone kids, is that I don't look up often. But thankfully I'm working on level 37 and I get to see amazing sights and cloud formations across London. Some of the best times of my life has been when I've been lying on the grass during summer and looking up into the skies and imagining the clouds. The fantastic shapes and animals and dragons and planes. So don't let this or any other summer pass without checking out the clouds kids. Some amazing memories then :)
Have a wonderful week kids. I love you
The Amateur Cloud Society That (Sort Of) Rattled the Scientific Community
Gavin Pretor-Pinney decided to take a sabbatical. It was the summer of 2003, and for the last 10 years, as a sideline to his graphic-design business in London, he and a friend had been running a magazine called The Idler. The Idler was devoted to the "literature for loafers." It argued against busyness and careerism and for the ineffable value of aimlessness, of letting the imagination quietly coast. Pretor-Pinney anticipated all the jokes: that he'd burned out running a magazine devoted to doing nothing, and so on. But it was true. Getting the magazine out was taxing, and after a decade, it seemed appropriate to stop for a while and live without a plan — to be an idler himself and shake free space for fresh ideas. So he swapped his flat in London for one in Rome, where everything would be new and anything could happen.
Pretor-Pinney is 47, towering and warm, with a sandy beard and pale blue eyes. His face is often totally lit up, as if he's being told a story and can feel some terrific surprise coming. He stayed in Rome for seven months and loved it, especially all the religious art. One thing he noticed: The paintings and frescoes he encountered were crowded with clouds. They were everywhere, he told me recently, "these voluptuous clouds, like the sofas of the saints." But outside, when Pretor-Pinney looked up, the real Roman sky was usually devoid of clouds. He wasn't accustomed to such endless, blue emptiness. He was an Englishman; he was accustomed to clouds. He remembered, as a child, being enchanted by them and deciding that people must climb long ladders to harvest cotton from them. Now, in Rome, he couldn't stop thinking about clouds. "I found myself missing them," he told me.
Clouds. It was a bizarre preoccupation, perhaps even a frivolous one, but he didn't resist it. He went with it, as he often does, despite not having a specific goal or even a general direction in mind; he likes to see where things go. When Pretor-Pinney returned to London, he talked about clouds constantly. He walked around admiring them, learned their scientific names and the meteorological conditions that shape them and argued with friends who complained they were oppressive or drab. He was realizing, as he later put it, that "clouds are not something to moan about. They are, in fact, the most dynamic, evocative and poetic aspect of nature."
Slowing down to appreciate clouds enriched his life and sharpened his ability to appreciate other pockets of beauty hiding in plain sight. At the same time, Pretor-Pinney couldn't help noting, we were entering an era in which miraculousness was losing its meaning. Novel, purportedly amazing things ricocheted around the Internet so quickly that, as he put it, we can now all walk around with an attitude like, "Well, I've just seen a panda doing something unusual online, what's going to amaze me now?" His fascination with clouds was teaching him that "it's much better for our souls to realize we can be amazed and delighted by what's around us."
At the end of 2004, a friend invited Pretor-Pinney to give a talk about clouds at a small literary festival in Cornwall. The previous year, there were more speakers than attendees, so Pretor-Pinney wanted an alluring title for his talk, to draw a crowd. "Wouldn't it be funny," he thought, "to have a society that defends clouds against the bad rap they get — that stands up for clouds?" So he called it "The Inaugural Lecture of the Cloud Appreciation Society." And it worked. Standing room only! Afterward, people came up to him and asked for more information about the Cloud Appreciation Society. They wanted to join the society. "And I had to tell them, well, I haven't really got a society," Pretor-Pinney said.
He set up a website. It was simple. There was a gallery for posting photographs of clouds, a membership form and a florid manifesto. ("We believe that clouds are unjustly maligned and that life would be immeasurably poorer without them," it began.) Pretor-Pinney wasn't offering members of his new Cloud Appreciation Society any perks or activities, but to keep it all from feeling ephemeral or imaginary, as many things on the Internet do, he eventually decided that membership should cost $15 and that members would receive a badge and certificate in the mail. He recognized that joining an online Cloud Appreciation Society that only nominally existed might appear ridiculous, but it was important to him that it not feel meaningless.
Within a couple of months, the society had 2,000 paying members. Pretor-Pinney was surprised and ecstatic. Then, Yahoo placed the Cloud Appreciation Society first on its 2005 list of Britain's "Weird and Wonderful websites." People kept clicking on that clickbait, which wasn't necessarily surprising, but thousands of them also clicked through to Pretor-Pinney's own website, then paid for memberships. Other news sites noticed. They did their own articles about the Cloud Appreciation Society, and people followed the links in those articles too. Previously, Pretor-Pinney proposed writing a book about clouds and was rejected by 28 editors. Now he was a viral sensation with a vibrant online constituency; he got a deal to write a book about clouds.
The writing process was agonizing. On top of not actually being a writer, he was a brutal perfectionist. But "The Cloudspotter's Guide," published in 2006, was full of glee and wonder. Pretor-Pinney relays, for example, the story of the United States Marine pilot who, in 1959, ejected from his fighter jet over Virginia and during the 40 minutes it took him to reach the ground was blown up and down through a cumulonimbus cloud about as high as Mount Everest. He surveys clouds in art history and Romantic poetry and compares one exceptionally majestic formation in Australia to "Cher in the brass armor bikini and gold Viking helmet outfit she wore on the sleeve of her 1979 album 'Take Me Home.' " In the middle of the book, there's a cloud quiz. Question No. 5 asks of a particular photograph, "What is it that's so pleasing about this layer of stratocumulus?" The answer Pretor-Pinney supplies is "It is pleasing for whatever reason you find it to be."
The book became a best seller. There were more write-ups, more clicks, more Cloud Appreciation Society members. And that cycle would keep repeating, sporadically, for years, whenever an editor or blogger happened to discover the society and set it off again. (There are now more than 40,000 paid members.) The media tended to present it as one more amusing curiosity, worth delighting over and sharing before moving on. That is, Pretor-Pinney's organization was being tossed like a pebble, again and again, into the same bottomless pool of interchangeable online content that he was trying to coax people away from by lifting their gaze skyward. But that was O.K. with him; he understood that it's just how the Internet works. He wasn't cynical about it, and he didn't feel his message was being cheapened either. It felt as if he were observing the whole thing from afar, and he tried to appreciate it.
Then Pretor-Pinney noticed something odd.
"The way I felt when I first saw it was: Armageddon," Jane Wiggins said. Wiggins was a paralegal, working in downtown Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in June 2006, when she looked out her office window and saw an impenetrable shroud of dark clouds looming over town. Everyone in the office stood up, Wiggins told me, and some drifted to the window. The cloud was so enormous, so terrible and strange, that it made the evening news. Wiggins, who had recently taken up photography, took out her camera.
Soon after that, Wiggins discovered the Cloud Appreciation Society website and posted one of her pictures in its gallery. But the anomaly Wiggins thought she had captured wasn't actually anomalous. Similar photos turned up in the Cloud Appreciation Society's gallery from Texas, Norway, Ontario, Scotland, France and Massachusetts. Pretor-Pinney assumed that this phenomenon was so rare that, until now, no one had recognized it as a repeating form and given it a name. "As the hub of this network, a network of people who are sky-aware," he said, "it's easier to spot patterns that, perhaps, weren't so easy to spot in the past."
In fact, many aspects of meteorology already rely on a global network of individual weather observers to identify cloud types with the naked eye, filing them into a long-established scientific framework: not just as cumulus, cirrus, stratus or cumulonimbus clouds, as schoolchildren learn, but within a recondite system for describing variations. Atypical clouds are either fitted into that existing map of the sky or set aside as irrelevant. Pretor-Pinney liked classifying clouds using these names; he was thankful to have that structure in place. And yet, it seemed a shame to repress the glaring, deviant beauty recorded in Wiggins's photograph by assigning it a name that didn't sufficiently describe it. He supposed, if you had to, you could call this thing an undulatus — the standard classification for a broad, wavy cloud. But that seemed to be selling the cloud tragically short, stubbornly ignoring what made it so sublime. This was "undulatus turned up to 11," he said. So he came up with his own name for the cloud: asperatus. (The word "asperatus" came from a passage in Virgil describing a roughened sea; Pretor-Pinney had asked his cousin, a high-school Latin teacher, for help.) He wondered how to go about making such a name official.
In 2008, while shooting a documentary for the BBC about clouds, Pretor-Pinney pitched his new cloud to a panel of four meteorologists at the Royal Meteorological Society. The scientists sat in a line behind a table; Pretor-Pinney stood, holding blown-up photos of asperatus for them to consider. "It was a lot like 'The X Factor,' " he said, referring to the TV talent show. The scientists were encouraging but diplomatic. A new cloud name, they explained, could be designated only by the World Meteorological Organization, an agency within the United Nations, based in Geneva, which has published scientific names and descriptions of all known cloud types in its International Cloud Atlas since 1896. The W.M.O. is exceptionally discerning; for starters, Pretor-Pinney was told, he would need more carefully cataloged incidences of these clouds, as well as a scientific understanding of their surrounding "synoptic situation." The process would take years. And even then, the chances of inclusion in the atlas were slim. The W.M.O. hadn't added a new cloud type to the International Cloud Atlas since 1953. "We don't expect to see new cloud types popping up every week," a W.M.O. official named Roger Atkinson told me. When I asked why, Atkinson said, "Because 50 or 60 years ago, we got it right."
A cloud is only water, but arranged like no other water on earth. Billions of minuscule droplets are packed into every cubic foot of cloud, throwing reflected light off their disordered surfaces in all directions, collectively making the cloud opaque. In a way, each cloud is an illusion, a conspiracy of liquid masquerading as a floating, solid object.
But for most of human history, what a cloud was, physically, hardly mattered; instead, we understood clouds as psychic refuges from the mundane, grist for our imaginations, feelings fodder. Clouds both influenced our emotions and hung above us like washed-out mirrors, reflecting them. The English painter John Constable called the sky the "chief organ of sentiment" in his landscapes. And our instinct, as children, to recognize shapes in the clouds is arguably one early spark of all the higher forms of creative thinking that make us human and make us fun. Frankly, a person too dull to look up at the sky and see a parade of tortoises or a huge pair of mittens or a ghost holding a samurai sword is not a person worth lying in a meadow with. In "Hamlet," Polonius's despicable spinelessness is never clearer than when Hamlet gets him to enthusiastically agree that a particular cloud looks like a camel, then not a camel at all, but a weasel. Then, not a weasel but a whale. Polonius will see whatever Hamlet wants him to; he is a man completely without his own vision.
We look for meaning — portents — in the clouds as well, the more grown-up version of picking out puffy animals. "There's a long history of people finding signs in the sky," Pretor-Pinney told me, from Constantine seeing the cross over the Milvian Bridge to the often-belligerent protesters outside Pretor-Pinney's talks, who are convinced that the contrails behind commercial airplanes are evidence of a toxic, secret government scheme and are outraged that Pretor-Pinney — the righteous Lorax of clouds — refuses to expose it. In short, clouds exist in a realm where the physical and metaphysical touch. "We look up for answers," Pretor-Pinney says. And yet, we often don't want empirical answers. There has always been a romantic impulse to protect clouds from our own stubbornly rational intellects, to keep knowledge from trampling their magic. Thoreau preferred to understand clouds as something that "stirs my blood, makes my thought flow" and not as a mass of water. "What sort of science," he wrote, "is that which enriches the understanding but robs the imagination."
The scientific study of clouds grew out of a collection of madly appreciating amateurs who struggled with this same tension. The field's foundational treatise was first presented to a small scientific debating society in London one evening in 1802 by a shy Quaker pharmacist named Luke Howard. Howard, then 30, was not a professional meteorologist but a devoted cloud-spotter with a perceptive, if wandering, mind. His interest in clouds started early. His biographer, Richard Hamblyn, explains that as a young student in Oxfordshire, Howard seems to have found school magnificently boring. He couldn't bring himself to pay attention, except to his Latin teacher, who punished daydreaming with beatings. Today Howard might covertly pull out his phone and read a link a friend shared about, say, an eccentric society in England that appreciates clouds. But poor Howard's boredom was analog: all he could do was look out the classroom window at the actual clouds rolling by.
Howard's intention that night in London was to bring clouds down to earth without depleting their loftiness. After years of closely observing clouds, his appreciation of them had hardened into analysis. He now insisted that, though clouds may appear to be blown around in random, ever-changing shapes, they actually take consistent forms, forms that can be distinguished from one another and whose changes correspond to changes in the atmosphere. Clouds can be used to read what Howard called "the countenance of the sky"; they are an expression of its moods, not just in a poetic way, as Constable meant, but meteorologically.
Howard's lecture was eventually published as "On the Modifications of Clouds, and on the Principles of Their Production, Suspension and Destruction." It stands as the ur-text of nephology, the branch of meteorology devoted to clouds. Howard divided clouds into three major types and many intermittent varieties of each, all similarly affixed with Latin names or compounds. (He had learned his Latin well.) Like Linnaeus, who used Latin to sort the fluidity of life into genera and species, Howard used his new cloud taxonomy to wrest our understanding of the world's diversity from superstition and religion. His signature assertion that "the sky, too, belongs to the Landscape" can be read as a call for empiricism — a conviction that science can, in fact, measure out the mystical.
Nearly a century later, Howard's work would be picked up by another energetic amateur, the Honorable Ralph Abercromby. Abercromby was the bookish great-grandson of a celebrated English war hero. He was apparently so meek and frail ("never robust, even as a boy," one tribute read after his death) that he was forced to drop out of school and was rarely able to hold a job. He served briefly in the military but seemed completely unsuited to soldiering; deployed to Newfoundland in 1864, Abercromby began theorizing about how the fog there was produced. Later, stationed in Montreal, he scrutinized the wind. It would have been tempting for his superiors to label him "absent-minded" or "unfocused" but, in retrospect, it was just another case of a young man intensely focused on something few people considered worthy of attention — another case of a young man in love with clouds.
In 1885, Abercromby took his first round-the-world voyage. He was a civilian again, and his private physician hoped the sea air would restore his pitiable health. But he worked slavishly the whole time, keeping a meticulous weather diary, photographing the clouds at sea. He published many scientific papers and a book about the clouds and weather that he encountered. And he kept traveling: Scandinavia and Russia, Asia and the United States, compelled, as he wrote, to "continue the observation and photography of cloud forms in different countries." Looking up, Abercromby came to realize that clouds looked essentially the same everywhere. Colonialism was sending goods, resources and culture around the planet; suddenly, it must have seemed obvious that we also shared the same sky.
Abercromby's primary interest was in refining the science of weather-tracking and forecasting, and he knew that meteorologists everywhere would need a standard way to discuss and share their observations. Eventually, collaborating with a Swedish cloud scientist named Hugo Hildebrand Hildebrandsson, he convened a Cloud Committee to hammer out Hildebrandsson's meticulous "Nomenclature of Clouds." They declared 1896 "the International Year of the Cloud." By year's end, the committee produced the first International Cloud Atlas.
The atlas is now in its seventh edition, and its meticulous taxonomy provides for 10 genera of clouds, 14 species, nine varieties and dozens of "accessory clouds" and "supplementary features." The atlas also establishes a grammar with which these terms can be combined to allow for the instability of clouds — the way they morph from one form into another — or to describe their general altitude. A cumulus, for example, might just be a cumulus; or it might be a cumulus fractus, if its edges are tattered; or a cumulus pileus, if a smaller cloud appears over it like a hood. An altocumulus lenticularis, meanwhile, is a vast, tightly bunched flock of clouds stretching across the sky at altitudes from 6,500 to 23,000 feet.
Of course, not everything in the sky needs to be precisely described. As a reference book for meteorologists, the atlas has been concerned only with clouds that have "operational significance" — that reliably reveal something about atmospheric conditions. As far as other clouds go, says Roger Atkinson of the W.M.O., one person might look at a cloud and say: " 'It's wonderful. It looks like an elephant,' and someone else might think, It's a camel." But the W.M.O. doesn't particularly care. It does not see its mission as settling disagreements about elephants and camels.
Soon after Pretor-Pinney appeared on the BBC, championing his asperatus cloud, the media seized on the possibility, however remote, that the W.M.O. would add asperatus to its atlas. Suddenly, there were stories about the Cloud Appreciation Society all over the place, all over again. This time, Pretor-Pinney — previously cast as a charming English eccentric with a funny website — was presented as the crusading figurehead of a populist meteorological revolt. Pretor-Pinney had initially turned defeatist after shooting the documentary and never bothered reaching out to the W.M.O.; the bureaucracy seemed too formidable. Now he didn't quite know what to say. When reporters called, he suggested they contact the W.M.O., impishly channeling them as de facto lobbyists.
Then, in 2014, the W.M.O. announced it was preparing the first new edition of the Cloud Atlas in nearly 40 years; the agency felt pressure to finally digitize the book, to reassert its authority over the many reckless cloud-reference materials proliferating online. One of the W.M.O.'s first steps was to convene an international Task Team to consider additions to the atlas. "Most public interest," a news release noted, "has focused on a proposal by the Cloud Appreciation Society" to recognize the so-called asperatus. The Task Team would report to a so-called Commission for Instruments and Methods of Observation. Last summer, the commission recommended to the World Meteorological Organization's 17th World Meteorological Congress in Geneva that the cloud be included. Everyone seemed confident that the recommendation would soon be ratified by the W.M.O.'s executive council. Except, the new cloud wasn't asperatus anymore; it was now asperitas. The Task Team had demoted it from a cloud "variety," as Pretor-Pinney had proposed, to a "supplementary feature," and the elaborate naming convention for clouds required supplementary features to be named with Latin nouns, not adjectives. "One of those things that's so close, but different," Pretor-Pinney told me, with a tinge of amusement and resentment.
When I spoke to Roger Atkinson, of the W.M.O., he stressed that asperitas would merely be "a fourth-order classification, not a primary genus, not one of the primary cloud types, not one of the Big Nine." Neither was it the only new classification the Task Team recommended adding; it was just the most famous one. The prominence of the cloud seems to have forced the scientists' hand. Asperitas didn't appear to have any operational significance, but the public enthusiasm Pretor-Pinney had gathered around the cloud ultimately made asperitas too prominent to ignore. One task-team member, George Anderson, told me that not giving such a well-known cloud a definitive name would only create more confusion.
Pretor-Pinney conceded all this, happily. "My argument is not that this is some hugely significant thing," he told me. By now, he was mostly using the cloud to make a point — to needle the "human vanity" inherent in "the Victorian urge to classify things, to put them into pigeonholes and give them scientific names." Clouds, he added, "are ephemeral, ever-changing, phenomenal. Here you have a discrete, scientific, analytic urge laid onto the embodiment of chaos, onto these formations within these unbounded pockets of our atmosphere where there's no beginning and no edge." All he wanted was to encourage people to look at the sky, to elevate our perception of clouds as beautiful "for their own sake."
Slowly, over the last 200 years, the impulse of cloud lovers like Howard and Abercromby to make the mystical empirical had ossified into something stringent and reductive. Pretor-Pinney wanted to clear a little more space in our collective cloudscape for less distinct feelings of delight and wonder. His championing of asperatus was, in reality, somewhat arbitrary. There were a few other unnamed cloud forms he saw repeating in the society's photo gallery. He just happened to pick this one.
The cultural history of clouds seemed to be shaped by a procession of amateurs, each of whom projected the ethos of his particular era onto those billowing blank slates in the troposphere. Pretor-Pinney was our era's, I realized — the Internet era's. He wasn't just challenging the cloud authorities with his crowdsourced cloud; he was trolling them.
I was one of the many reporters who contacted Pretor-Pinney when the first photos of asperitas made the rounds in 2009. I had seen an Associated Press article, with Jane Wiggins's photo of the cloud in Iowa, and a reference to Pretor-Pinney and his Cloud Appreciation Society and felt a kind of instant and exhilarated envy: Apparently, some people cultivated a meaningful connection to what I'd only ever regarded as vaporous arrangements of nothingness. I wanted in. Also, I was impressed that these enthusiasts seemed to be rattling the self-serious strictures of the scientific establishment. And so it was disappointing to realize, in those early days and as I checked back with him periodically, that nothing was really happening yet and that no one seemed particularly rattled. Pretor-Pinney even sounded slightly exhausted by asperitas. "It's the zombie news story that will never die!" he said.
He was, by then, closing in on his 10th year as head of the Cloud Appreciation Society and, as he'd done after 10 years with The Idler magazine, he was questioning his commitment to it. Somehow, being a cloud impresario had swallowed an enormous amount of time. He was lecturing about clouds around the world, sharing stages at corporate conferences and ideas festivals with Snoop Dogg and Bill Clinton and appearing monthly on the Weather Channel. Then there was the Cloud Appreciation Society's online store, a curated collection of society-branded merchandise and cloud-themed home goods, which turned out to be surprisingly demanding, particularly in the frenzied weeks before Christmas. The Cloud Appreciation Society was basically just Pretor-Pinney and his wife, Liz, plus a friend who oversaw the shop part time and a retired steelworker he brought on to moderate the photo gallery. It was all arduous, which Pretor-Pinney seemed to find a little embarrassing. "My argument about why cloud-spotting is a worthwhile activity is that it's an aimless activity," he said. "And I've turned it into something that is very purposeful, that is work."
At the same time, he realized that he'd conjured a genuine community of amateur cloud-lovers from all over the world but regretted never doing anything to truly nourish it; it felt so "fluffy," he said, "with no center to it, like a cloud." Soon, that spectral society — that cloud of people on the Internet — would be celebrating its 10th anniversary. "I'm thinking that it might be a nice reason to get everyone together," he said.
One morning last September, Pretor-Pinney was fidgeting and fretting in the auditorium of the Royal Geographical Society building, at the edge of Kensington Gardens in London. Escape to the Clouds, a one-day conference to celebrate the Cloud Appreciation Society's 10th anniversary, would be underway in 90 minutes, and Pretor-Pinney was impatiently supervising the small team of balloon-installation artists he had commissioned to rig inflatable cloud formations around the stage. This was the first big event that he organized for the Cloud Appreciation Society. The evening before the conference, he was expecting 315 attendees. But there was a late surge of ticket-buying, and now he was panicking about running out of artisanal Cloud-Nine Marshmallows for the gift bags. Outside, Pretor-Pinney kept pointing out, the London sky was impeccably blue. Not a single cloud. It was terrible.
Bounding onstage to kick off the conference, Pretor-Pinney seemed overwhelmed but cheerful. He reminded the muddle of cloud appreciators from all over the world, now crammed into the theater, that "to tune into the clouds is to slow down. It's a moment of meteorological meditation." And he celebrated the transcendence of cloud-spotting: how it connects us to the weather, the atmosphere, to one another. "We are part of the air," he told everyone. "We don't live beneath the sky. We live within the sky."
Who were they all? Why were they there? They were a collection of ordinary people with an interest in clouds. Behind all those user names on the Cloud Society website were schoolteachers, sky divers, meteorologists, retired astronomy teachers, office workers and artists. Many people had come alone, but conversations sparked easily. ("I've just seen the best cloud dress I've seen in my life," a woman said on the stairway. A second woman turned and said, "Well, yours is quite lovely, too.") The atmosphere was comfortable and convivial and amplified by a kind of feedback loop of escalating relief, whereby people who arrived at a cloud conference not knowing what to expect recognized how normal and friendly everyone was and enjoyed themselves even more.
The program Pretor-Pinney had pulled together was a little highbrow but fun. A British author recounted the misadventures of the first meteorologist to make a high-altitude balloon ascent. An energetic literary historian surveyed "English Literary Views of the Sky." Pretor-Pinney and a professor of physics tried to demonstrate a complicated atmospheric freezing process in a plastic bottle, but failed. And between the talks, a musician named Lisa Knapp performed folk songs about wind and weather. She had saved the obvious crowd-pleaser for her final turn onstage: the melancholy Joni Mitchell classic "Both Sides, Now."
There would be one more talk after Knapp finished, but it didn't matter. This — the Joni Mitchell moment — was the conference's transformative conclusion. Knapp had an extraordinary voice, Bjork-like, but gentler, and performed the song alone, accompanying herself with only a delicate, monotonal Indian classical instrument resting in her lap, a kind of bellows, called a shruti box. It let out a mournful, otherworldly drone. After hours of lectures and uncertain socializing with strangers, something about this spare arrangement and the sorrowful lyrics felt so vulnerable that, by the time Knapp finished the first lines — "Rows and flows of angel hair, and ice cream castles in the air, and feather canyons everywhere. I've looked at clouds that way" — she was singing into an exquisite silence.
The performance moved me. But it was more than that, and weirder. Maybe, somewhere in this story about clouds and cloud lovers, I'd found a compelling argument for staying open to varieties of beauty that we can't quite categorize and, by extension, for respecting the human capacity to feel, as much as our ability to scrutinize the sources of those feelings. Whatever the case, as Knapp sang, I started to feel an inexplicable rush of empathy for the people I met that day, the people sitting around me — all these others, living within the same sky. And I let my mind wander, wondering about their lives. What I felt, really, was awe: the awe that comes when you fully internalize that every stranger's interior life is just as complicated as yours. It seemed very unlikely that a meeting of an online cloud society in a dark, windowless room could produce such a moment of genuine emotion, but there I was, in the middle of it. Just thinking about clouds, I guess, had turned a little transcendent, at least for me.
Then I heard the sniffle. It was very loud. With the room so transfixed, it easily cut through Knapp's voice from a few rows behind me, and when I turned to look, I saw Pretor-Pinney's wife fully in tears. Then, the woman right next to me, she was crying, too. And I heard others inhaling loudly, oddly, and got the impression there were more. Immediately afterward, out in the hall, the first person I walked past was bashfully apologizing to two others. It was so strange, she kept saying. She just didn't know why she'd been crying.
A couple of days later, I tried to describe it in an email to a friend: "Many people spontaneously cried, just releasing their tears like rain, and I realized that we are all human beings — that's the truth ... in all our different forms and sizes, we are expressions of the same basic currents, just like the clouds." And when I read the email back, I was mortified by how fluffy and stoned it sounded, but still — even now — I can't pretend it's not true.