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Beautiful Clouds in Motion

Posted by Josh Rothman  June 4, 2011 05:59 PM

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I just can't get enough of time-lapse videos lately! Via Jason Kottke, here's an incredible video of thunderclouds forming and dissipating. It was filmed by the Australian artist Murray Fredericks, who specializes in capturing nature at its most minimal.

If you're curious about clouds, here's an interesting take on them from Steve Grand, the artificial life researcher. In Creation: Life and How to Make It, Grand explains that clouds aren't really things -- instead, it makes more sense to think of them as regions of space in which a cooler climate prevails. Water vapor enters the cloud and condenses, then evaporates when it leaves the cloud. To us, it looks as though a cloud is like a puff of steam -- a unique and consistent gathering of vapor particles moving through space. In fact, though, the 'contents' of a cloud are constantly changing as the cloud-space moves through the sky. Imagine the pool of light a flashlight makes as you shine it around a dark room: the pool of light moves, while its contents change:

The puffy, white, cumulus clouds that you see on a summer's day are constantly changing.... The vapour condenses at a certain height, moves up through the cloud and then re-evaporates as it begins to fall down the sides of the mushroom of convecting air. This is why clouds are such a paradox: we know that they contain many tons of water, and yet they float lazily over our heads as if they weigh nothing at all. In a very real sense, they do weigh nothing at all, since a cloud is just a name we give to a region of space, through which moist air passes and momentarily renders its water content visible.

Clouds are not unique in this respect. To take a frivolous example, if you dug a hole in the ground, and then repeatedly removed earth from one side and added it to the other, the hole would move along. Is it still the same hole?

"You," Grand argues, "are like a cloud: something that persists over long periods, while simultaneously being in flux. Matter flows from place to place and momentarily comes together to be you. Whatever you are, therefore, you are not the stuff of which you are made."

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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