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TEDGlobal 2013

Gavin Pretor-Pinney: Cloudy with a chance of joy

June 13, 2013

You don't need to plan an exotic trip to find creative inspiration. Just look up, says Gavin Pretor-Pinney, founder of the Cloud Appreciation Society. As he shares charming photos of nature's finest aerial architecture, Pretor-Pinney calls for us all to take a step off the digital treadmill, lie back and admire the beauty in the sky above.

Gavin Pretor-Pinney - Cloudspotter
Cloud Appreciation Society founder Gavin Pretor-Pinney shows how seemingly idle pursuits provide unexpected paths to appreciating overlooked wonders. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
Clouds.
00:12
Have you ever noticed how much people moan about them?
00:14
They get a bad rap.
00:17
If you think about it, the English language
00:19
has written into it negative associations towards the clouds.
00:22
Someone who's down or depressed,
00:26
they're under a cloud.
00:28
And when there's bad news in store,
00:30
there's a cloud on the horizon.
00:32
I saw an article the other day.
00:34
It was about problems with computer processing
00:37
over the Internet.
00:40
"A cloud over the cloud," was the headline.
00:42
It seems like they're everyone's default
00:46
doom-and-gloom metaphor.
00:48
But I think they're beautiful, don't you?
00:51
It's just that their beauty is missed
00:53
because they're so omnipresent,
00:56
so, I don't know, commonplace,
00:58
that people don't notice them.
01:01
They don't notice the beauty, but they don't even notice the clouds
01:03
unless they get in the way of the sun.
01:06
And so people think of clouds as
01:08
things that get in the way.
01:11
They think of them as the annoying, frustrating obstructions,
01:13
and then they rush off and do some blue-sky thinking.
01:18
(Laughter)
01:21
But most people, when you stop to ask them,
01:23
will admit to harboring a strange sort of fondness for clouds.
01:25
It's like a nostalgic fondness,
01:30
and they make them think of their youth.
01:33
Who here can't remember thinking, well,
01:36
looking and finding shapes in the clouds
01:39
when they were kids?
01:42
You know, when you were masters of daydreaming?
01:43
Aristophanes, the ancient Greek playwright,
01:50
he described the clouds as the patron godesses
01:53
of idle fellows
01:56
two and a half thousand years ago,
01:58
and you can see what he means.
01:59
It's just that these days, us adults seem reluctant
02:00
to allow ourselves the indulgence
02:05
of just allowing our imaginations
02:09
to drift along in the breeze, and I think that's a pity.
02:11
I think we should perhaps do a bit more of it.
02:15
I think we should be a bit more willing, perhaps,
02:17
to look at the beautiful sight of the sunlight bursting out
02:20
from behind the clouds and go, "Wait a minute,
02:24
that's two cats dancing the salsa!"
02:28
(Laughter) (Applause)
02:30
Or seeing the big, white, puffy one up there
02:31
over the shopping center looks like
02:37
the Abominable Snowman going to rob a bank.
02:39
(Laughter)
02:43
They're like nature's version of those inkblot images,
02:46
you know, that shrinks used to show their patients
02:50
in the '60s,
02:52
and I think if you consider the shapes you see in the clouds,
02:54
you'll save money on psychoanalysis bills.
02:57
Let's say you're in love. All right?
03:01
And you look up and what do you see?
03:03
Right? Or maybe the opposite.
03:05
You've just been dumped by your partner,
03:08
and everywhere you look, it's kissing couples.
03:10
(Laughter)
03:13
Perhaps you're having a moment of existential angst.
03:15
You know, you're thinking about your own mortality.
03:19
And there, on the horizon, it's the Grim Reaper.
03:21
(Laughter)
03:24
Or maybe you see a topless sunbather.
03:27
(Laughter)
03:31
What would that mean?
03:32
What would that mean? I have no idea.
03:35
But one thing I do know is this:
03:41
The bad press that clouds get is totally unfair.
03:43
I think we should stand up for them,
03:46
which is why, a few years ago,
03:48
I started the Cloud Appreciation Society.
03:49
Tens of thousands of members now
03:52
in almost 100 countries around the world.
03:55
And all these photographs that I'm showing,
03:57
they were sent in by members.
04:00
And the society exists to remind people of this:
04:02
Clouds are not something to moan about.
04:06
Far from it. They are, in fact,
04:09
the most diverse, evocative, poetic aspect of nature.
04:11
I think, if you live with your head in the clouds
04:19
every now and then, it helps you keep your feet on the ground.
04:22
And I want to show you why, with the help of
04:25
some of my favorite types of clouds.
04:27
Let's start with this one. It's the cirrus cloud,
04:29
named after the Latin for a lock of hair.
04:31
It's composed entirely of ice crystals
04:34
cascading from the upper reaches of the troposphere,
04:36
and as these ice crystals fall,
04:38
they pass through different layers with different winds
04:40
and they speed up and slow down,
04:42
giving the cloud these brush-stroked appearances,
04:44
these brush-stroke forms known as fall streaks.
04:47
And these winds up there can be very, very fierce.
04:50
They can be 200 miles an hour, 300 miles an hour.
04:52
These clouds are bombing along,
04:55
but from all the way down here,
04:56
they appear to be moving gracefully, slowly,
04:58
like most clouds.
05:01
And so to tune into the clouds is to slow down,
05:03
to calm down.
05:07
It's like a bit of everyday meditation.
05:08
Those are common clouds.
05:11
What about rarer ones, like the lenticularis,
05:12
the UFO-shaped lenticularis cloud?
05:15
These clouds form in the region of mountains.
05:18
When the wind passes, rises to pass over the mountain,
05:20
it can take on a wave-like path in the lee of the peak,
05:23
with these clouds hovering at the crest
05:26
of these invisible standing waves of air,
05:29
these flying saucer-like forms,
05:32
and some of the early black-and-white UFO photos
05:34
are in fact lenticularis clouds. It's true.
05:37
A little rarer are the fallstreak holes. All right?
05:40
This is when a layer is made up of very, very cold
05:43
water droplets, and in one region they start to freeze,
05:46
and this freezing sets off a chain reaction which spreads outwards
05:49
with the ice crystals cascading and falling down below,
05:52
giving the appearance of jellyfish tendrils down below.
05:54
Rarer still, the Kelvin–Helmholtz cloud.
05:59
Not a very snappy name. Needs a rebrand.
06:03
This looks like a series of breaking waves,
06:07
and it's caused by shearing winds -- the wind
06:11
above the cloud layer and below the cloud layer
06:13
differ significantly, and in the middle, in between,
06:15
you get this undulating of the air,
06:18
and if the difference in those speeds is just right,
06:20
the tops of the undulations curl over
06:22
in these beautiful breaking wave-like vortices.
06:24
All right. Those are rarer clouds than the cirrus,
06:28
but they're not that rare.
06:30
If you look up, and you pay attention to the sky,
06:32
you'll see them sooner or later,
06:35
maybe not quite as dramatic as these, but you'll see them.
06:37
And you'll see them around where you live.
06:39
Clouds are the most egalitarian
06:42
of nature's displays, because we all have a good,
06:44
fantastic view of the sky.
06:47
And these clouds, these rarer clouds,
06:49
remind us that the exotic can be found in the everyday.
06:51
Nothing is more nourishing, more stimulating
06:56
to an active, inquiring mind than being surprised,
06:59
being amazed. It's why we're all here at TED, right?
07:02
But you don't need to rush off
07:06
away from the familiar, across the world
07:09
to be surprised.
07:11
You just need to step outside,
07:13
pay attention to what's so commonplace, so everyday,
07:16
so mundane that everybody else misses it.
07:18
One cloud that people rarely miss is this one:
07:22
the cumulonimbus storm cloud.
07:24
It's what's produces thunder and lightning and hail.
07:27
These clouds spread out at the top in this enormous
07:30
anvil fashion stretching 10 miles up into the atmosphere.
07:33
They are an expression of the majestic architecture
07:36
of our atmosphere.
07:39
But from down below, they are the embodiment
07:41
of the powerful, elemental force and power
07:45
that drives our atmosphere.
07:49
To be there is to be connected in the driving rain
07:51
and the hail, to feel connected to our atmosphere.
07:55
It's to be reminded that we are creatures
07:58
that inhabit this ocean of air.
08:00
We don't live beneath the sky. We live within it.
08:02
And that connection, that visceral connection to our atmosphere
08:05
feels to me like an antidote.
08:10
It's an antidote to the growing tendency we have
08:12
to feel that we can really ever experience life
08:15
by watching it on a computer screen, you know,
08:19
when we're in a wi-fi zone.
08:21
But the one cloud that best expresses
08:24
why cloudspotting is more valuable today than ever
08:26
is this one, the cumulus cloud.
08:29
Right? It forms on a sunny day.
08:32
If you close your eyes and think of a cloud,
08:34
it's probably one of these that comes to mind.
08:36
All those cloud shapes at the beginning,
08:39
those were cumulus clouds.
08:41
The sharp, crisp outlines of this formation
08:43
make it the best one for finding shapes in.
08:47
And it reminds us
08:50
of the aimless nature of cloudspotting,
08:52
what an aimless activity it is.
08:56
You're not going to change the world
08:58
by lying on your back and gazing up at the sky, are you?
09:00
It's pointless. It's a pointless activity,
09:04
which is precisely why it's so important.
09:06
The digital world conspires to make us feel
09:11
eternally busy, perpetually busy.
09:15
You know, when you're not dealing with
09:18
the traditional pressures of earning a living
09:19
and putting food on the table, raising a family,
09:22
writing thank you letters,
09:25
you have to now contend with
09:27
answering a mountain of unanswered emails,
09:30
updating a Facebook page,
09:33
feeding your Twitter feed.
09:35
And cloudspotting legitimizes doing nothing.
09:38
(Laughter)
09:42
And sometimes we need —
09:44
(Applause)
09:46
Sometimes we need excuses to do nothing.
09:52
We need to be reminded by these
09:56
patron goddesses of idle fellows
09:59
that slowing down
10:02
and being in the present, not thinking about
10:05
what you've got to do and what you should have done,
10:09
but just being here, letting your imagination
10:12
lift from the everyday concerns down here
10:15
and just being in the present, it's good for you,
10:17
and it's good for the way you feel.
10:20
It's good for your ideas. It's good for your creativity.
10:22
It's good for your soul.
10:26
So keep looking up,
10:29
marvel at the ephemeral beauty,
10:31
and always remember to live life with your head in the clouds.
10:34
Thank you very much.
10:38
(Applause)
10:39

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Gavin Pretor-Pinney - Cloudspotter
Cloud Appreciation Society founder Gavin Pretor-Pinney shows how seemingly idle pursuits provide unexpected paths to appreciating overlooked wonders.

Why you should listen

As co-founder of The Idler magazine, Gavin Pretor-Pinney is a longtime advocate of the joys of time ill-spent. In The Cloudspotter's Guide and The Cloud Collector's Handbook, he tackles the idlest pursuit of all: cloudwatching.

Pretor-Pinney’s blend of tranquil appreciation and hard science have floated his cloud books to the top of bestseller lists. For Pretor-Pinney, clouds illustrate how mundane phenomena reveal the complex vectors that connect the natural wonders around us.

Pretor-Pinney is also the author of The Wavewatcher's Companion.

The original video is available on TED.com
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