Q&A Regarding 'Gathering Clouds:

The Story of Luke Howard'

(Cricket, April 2011)

Luke Howard, Joseph Taylor, Cirrus Cloud

Not a swan in flight but a cirrus cloud. High, white and wispy, such clouds stream with the wind, indicating the direction from which weather is approaching. Photo by my skywatching friend, picture book author June Sobel.   

How did you decide to write about Luke Howard?


It always amazes me how an idea can find its way to you at the moment you need it. I had enjoyed researching and writing about the Montgolfier brothers and their invention of the hot air balloon and was interested in writing about something similar in the natural world. I knew immediately after stumbling across Luke Howard that he was someone I wanted to investigate as a possible subject. That Luke as a boy was inspired by the Montgolfier’s achievement (which took place when he was eleven) only added to his appeal for me.

Why is Luke Howard important in the field of science?


Clouds were a rather hazy subject before Luke figured out that different types exist and named them. His classifications, with only some minor refinements and additions, have stood the test of time and are used today around the world. By bringing clouds into the realm of scientific study, Luke established the foundations of modern meteorology.

What challenges did Howard face with his cloud classifications?


Like the Montgolfier brothers, particularly Joseph, Luke had to first overcome the objections of his father, who had a more practical career course in mind for him: work as a pharmacist. Luke also had to counter his friends’ lack of interest in clouds and his own disdain for Latin (which he ultimately used to name the clouds). In the end, his love of clouds and the support of his wife Bella helped him to rise above these challenges—and leave a lasting legacy. 

Has learning Howard’s story changed you in any way?


I love to fly and have always admired the incredible views, but I can’t say I always saw clouds for the extraordinary natural entities that they are. As with most things in nature, understanding them helps us to see our world more clearly and respond to it appropriately. I find myself looking up a whole lot more now and trying to figure out if the clouds are cumulus, cirrus or stratus and what they might be saying about the weather. It’s fun.

“Clouds were a rather hazy subject before Luke figured out that different types exist and named them. His classifications… have stood the test of time and are used today around the world.”

Anything stand out about the publication of your Howard piece?


Besides loving Luke’s watercolors that Cricket’s editors had included along with the piece, I chuckled when I saw the cover illustration of a sun-baked snake in a parched India by an artist living in the often rainy United Kingdom. Then too, here I was, a resident of Southern California, known more for its clear, sunny weather, writing about clouds. We writers are often told that we should write what we know. I don’t disagree with this but feel we are capable of learning a whole lot more than we might think, so we shouldn’t limit ourselves.

How can someone learn more about Howard?


The Invention of Clouds: How an Amateur Meteorologist Forged the Language of the Skies by Richard Hamblyn (Picador, 2002) is the definitive book for adults. A good introductory video, by Anna Slingo, is now available on YouTube. Some online sources also contain some accurate information about Luke, though some of these have changed since I wrote my piece. One of my favorite websites that I think Luke would love is Clouds 365 Project, which contains daily photos of various clouds by photographer Kelly DeLay. His unique project is still going strong, after, at last count, 1825 days—or five years!

Luke Howard, Joseph Taylor, Cirrocumulus Clouds

Cirrocumulus clouds are small, puffy and often found in patches, as seen in this photo taken by June Sobel in Southern California. In the U.S., they indicate fair but cold weather, but in tropical climates their presence might mean a hurricane is approaching.

March 24, 2015