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Book on clouds delights in beauty, also informs

By Eric M. Wilcox

Duncan Baird: 2008

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This review first appeared in the March 9, 2009 issue of the North County Times.

Eric Wilcox, who studied at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography and now works as an atmospheric specialist for NASA, has produced a gorgeously illustrated exploration of clouds.

While a scientist by profession, Wilcox seems to be aiming for a fusion of science and art in "Clouds." The book's foreword is written by the founder of the Cloud Appreciation Society, and the first section of the book (taking up about three-quarters of its length) is largely a paean to the visual beauty of clouds.

The oversized book (9.75 by 9 inches) is printed on heavy stock glossy paper, and the hundreds of color photographs of various clouds do more to capture their ephemeral beauty than any poet ever could. Wilcox doesn't really try to compete with the poets, though, preferring to sprinkle quotes from them in his descripitions of the different types of clouds (which is how this first part of the book is organized – by cloud type).

One issue that diminishes the scientific impact of the book is Wilcox's habit of treating cloud categories as if they're real and absolute, rather than what they really are: Labels created to help us human beings communicate more clearly. So when he writes, "This cloud layer appears to be making the transition from cirrocumulus to cirrus," it's a bit anthropomorphizing a weather pattern. A more accurate description might have been, "This cloud layer is in a condition between what we refer to as cirrocumulus and the one we call cirrus."

Those who aren't immediately familiar with the different cloud classifications might want to start with the illustrated glossary that takes up the last part of the book. This section shows how clouds form, and why they take the different shapes they do – as well as why some clouds bring rain and others don't.

It's an informative read, with as many examples of the different formations as one could want. Wilcox never talks down to his audience, and his lifelong excitement about clouds comes through clearly in his writing.