Clumper'd in balls of clouds

Despite the completely irrational nature of the rainstorms that have been sporadically whipping Los Angeles, we on Earth are lucky, weather-wise. We don't have to deal with rains of sulphuric acid droplets, nor infinite giant hurricanes like those which make up Jupiter's red spot or the dark spot on Venus, which, until the mid-1990's, consisted of storms larger than our entire planet. We don't have helium condensation dripping on our heads, or oceans of ethane blanketing our meteor-battered landscape. Our atmosphere isn't blisteringly hot and poisonous, nor freezing and whipped with unforgiving winds, as seems to be the norm in the rest of the galaxy, on all the other planets which stubbornly continue to exist and be strange, despite how much I can't handle thinking about them.

Rather, denizens of Earth are privy to a soft blueness, which is generally forgiving, and a rational flow of water particles, which result in the pillowy white puffs we call "clouds." Our clouds, too, are only condensations of water vapor -- not swirls of ammonia and methane. They're not as psychedelic and colorful as the dense clouds of surging ammonia ice which blanket Saturn, but at least we can see the sky through them most of the time.

Our sky is big, of course, so big as to warrant something aviation specialists call "Big Sky Theory" -- the idea that the sky is so big that two bodies traveling through it have a near-zero probability of ever colliding. This is good news for the air-travel-phobic, of course, but it also renders much more impressive the fact that human beings have managed to pose an environmental threat to something so massive that even the clouds can't cover it all.


Of course, we are steadily screwing our sky up, and though I'm sure the runaway greenhouse gases on Earth are never going to trap carbon dioxide in the atmosphere as thoroughly as they do on Venus (where temperatures are 460 degrees celsius all of the time) our sky is still in danger of overheating. Fossil fuel emissions raise the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by a terrifying 4% every year; we'd have to get to virtually zero emissions in the next two decades if we wanted to stop climate change in its tracks, a literal impossibility in a world where environmentalism's marketable cool factor has been irrevocably destroyed by the movie "Bio-Dome" and people who drive cars that look like Nazi tanks.

The notion of weather control is certainly not new, at least on a human time-scale. Scientists have certainly always fantasized about harnessing the power of the atmosphere, for both hostile and good-natured means. There was a devastatingly good article in Harper's two months ago about this (recommended to me, like many things, by my awesome friend Dean Bein, and is a recommendation I pass on to y'all, if you can find it), called "Owning the Weather," by Ando Arike which I feel profoundly inadequate even referring to, so I won't dally on the subject long.

In any case, I tripped out pretty hard recently when I learned that "cloud seeding" is a fairly common, albeit only tenuously worthwhile, practice. By dispersing into clouds chemicals which allow water droplets or ice crystals to form more easily, climatologists can change the amount of precipitation a cloud yields. While reduced cloud cover is pretty visibly achieved, it's impossible to know if cloud-seeding works to, say, make more rain, because it's impossible to know how much precipitation would have occurred had the cloud not been "seeded" in the first place, which is kind of a cool little Zen koan. The practice is used today to increase precipitation in drought areas, to reduce the size of hailstones that form in thunderstorms, and to reduce the amount of fog in and around airports.

Interestingly, the use of silver iodide as the primary chemical in the seeding of clouds was discovered by an atmospheric scientist called Bernard Vonnegut, the brother of (the novelist) Kurt Vonnegut. As an aside, Vonnegut (Kurt, that is) used some of Vonnegut's (Bernard, that is) ideas about ice crystallography in Cat's Cradle, which, satisfyingly, makes for another nice synaptic connection between the arts and sciences in history.


Many physicists believe that the end of the Universe may come in the form of something they call "The Big Chill:" as the Universe continues to slowly expand, all the stars might, one by one, dim out, the black holes would evaporate, and everything else, generally, would disintegrate into a dilute sea of particles. If this kind of "Chill" happens, life as we know it -- human life, sexy life, life with furry things and airplanes -- could not persist. It would be too cold, for one thing, not to mention the fact that the space-time continuum would be stretched beyond recognition. Humanity could not exist in a Universe so dispersed that it is effectively a void.

Consciousness may well continue, in altered forms. The wholly legitimate physicist Freeman Dyson, father of the discipline of cosmic eschatology (good vocabulary word, eschatology: the study of the end of the Universe), believes that "all conscious life will take the form of interstellar dust clouds," as "an ever-expanding network of charged dust particles, communicating by electromagnetic forces, has all the complexity necessary for thinking about an infinite number of novel thoughts." These clouds, spread over billions of light-years of space, could continue to think an infinite amount of thoughts using the finite amount of left-over energy by spending a large percentage of their existence in a kind of atmospheric hibernation.

The consciousness of inorganic sentient clouds sounds insane, of course, but so does human life, after all -- carbon and water-based lumps of bipedal flesh, powered by the few square inches of protoplasm inside of delicate skulls? Life as we know it has only been on this planet for a couple hundred thousand years, and, though we humans have a hell of a lot of temerity in the face of even our own atmosphere -- boldly shooting rockets and airplanes through our nice clouds, burning holes in the ozone layer with cans of hairspray, puffing fossil fuel emissions into the atmosphere -- we are perhaps only the inauspicious debut to the the millennial reign of eschatological brain-clouds. The fact that we may someday turn into clouds ourselves seems to me like a cosmic table-turning scenario.

If that's not a good enough reason to stop driving Hummers, I don't know what is.


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When asked for our highschool yearbook what his favorite place was, one of my classmates responded, "The sky." I don't believe that this boy was particularly into airplanes. I believe that he longed for life as a cloud.

I would like to speak with you about your picture of sun rays through the clouds. I would like to have your permission to use your picture for the front cover of a book I have developed. I would be happy to give credit in the book for your picture and provide your web site if you would like.
Please email me back or call 623-877-0922 as soon as possible.
Unfortunately I do not have alot of time to make a decision on the cover page as it is due this Friday.
Thank you,
Janette Mertz

By Janette Mertz (not verified) on 06 Nov 2007 #permalink