An Introduction to Space Weather

  1. Top of page
  2. An Introduction to Space Weather
  3. The Invention of Clouds: How an Amateur Meteorologist Forged the Language of the Skies
Thumbnail image of

Mark Moldwin

Cambridge University Press, 2008

Paperback £35.00

146 pp

ISBN 978–0521711128

This book is based upon college notes from the University College of Los Angeles and provides a textbook for undergraduates, although it is aimed at intelligent non-specialists as well. In the introductory chapter we are told that space weather is a relatively new scientific field that involves the study of how the Sun influences the Earth's space environment and therefore impacts upon space-related technology, communication systems and ground-based electricity grids, and thus on human society.

The book begins with a useful introduction and history of solar physics, and incorporates a very good description of the Earth's magnetosphere, ionosphere and thermosphere across two chapters. Its main focus is on magnetic disturbances on the Sun and how these impact with the Earth and its technology, together with a description of the solar system including some information about the interplanetary magnetic field and coronal mass ejections. It ends with a chapter that includes a brief discussion of possible climatic changes due to changes on the Sun and sunspot activity. We are informed that solar emissions in the UV band can change by 6–8% over the 11-year sunspot cycle (and similarly in the x-ray spectrum) and that this leads to chemical changes in the thermo-sphere, such as an increase in ozone concentration, and therefore a marked rise in temperature in the thermosphere (from 1000K to 2000K) at solar maximum. There is also a brief discussion of changes in solar activity and cosmic rays that may affect cloud formation: a weaker Sun will allow more cosmic rays to get through, which may increase available nuclei for cloud formation.

The information provided in this book is very useful, and it is well-worth reading as an educational tool for those interested in this area of research, although it is a little disappointing that there is a lack of a more detailed description of sunspot formation and characteristics, and research into how these cause solar flares, high-energy proton events and coronal mass ejections. More information about how the Sun is monitored, for instance through a description of the SOHO and ACE satellites in the Lagrange 1 orbit and the geostationary GOES satellites, would also have been useful.

Andrew Sibley

The Invention of Clouds: How an Amateur Meteorologist Forged the Language of the Skies

  1. Top of page
  2. An Introduction to Space Weather
  3. The Invention of Clouds: How an Amateur Meteorologist Forged the Language of the Skies
Thumbnail image of

Richard Hamblyn

Picador, 2nd edition, 2010

Paperback £8.99

304 pp

ISBN 978–0330391955

Nubification: you've probably never come across the term. It was invented by the late Luke Howard to describe the process by which clouds are formed, but unfortunately he was the only person to use it. Howard presented his seminal work, ‘On the Modification of Clouds’ to the Askisian society (a Quaker-formed scientific club) in 1802, when he christened the clouds with seven new names. It is strange how something can exist for centuries without a name, waiting for a thinker to seize upon it and bring it to the public sphere, so that it is as if it had never existed before. But Howard's cumulus, stratus, cirrus, cirro-cumulus, cirro-stratus, cumulo-stratus and nimbus hold the key to more than appearance in their names. The final four are modifications of the first three, emphasising their shape-shifting nature. Previous cloud classifications were based on what they looked like, such as Robert Hooke's (of the famous spring law) ‘checker'd’ or ‘hairy’ skies, whereas Howard's divisions had formation at its heart, and thus succeeded in capturing a moving target. His descriptions of evaporation and condensation (nubification in Howard-speak) challenged the prevailing belief of the time, the ‘bubble theory’, that clouds were composed of orbs of weightless material called ‘aura’ encased in a water shell. Howard was the first person to get cloud microphysics right.

The Invention of Clouds is a panoramic excursion around this scientific milestone. Running through it is a detailed biography of our mild-mannered hero, moving from his overbearing father to his training as a chemist to reluctant meteorological man-of-the-moment, and finally to wistful family man with his head in the clouds. It is as much as anything a story about the mood of London at the turn of the century, a hub of rational invention that produced a new form of celebrity, performers in the ‘theatre of science’: a part Howard was not eager to play. He drew in influences from volcanic clouds, the first hot-air balloons and parachutes, and exhaled his contribution onto the canvas of meteorological knowledge. His classification rapidly went on to influence the scale of Beaufort, the poems of Goethe, the paintings of Constable, and now 210 years later having undergone some further minor modifications (the addition of the ‘alto’ prefix to middle clouds being one) it is interesting to think where the modern cloud-spotter would be without it. Hamblyn's prose throughout is elegant, a swirling blend of history, philosophy and poetry (think ‘Wordsworthian fragments’), all perfectly ordered. In a world where it is often the case that the invention eclipses the inventor, Hamblyn's ode to Howard reminds us to whom to give rightful credit: he who gave ‘weight to the weightless forms of the air’.

Emma Turner

Authors wishing to see their books reviewed, and those interested in submitting reviews of recent books, should contact