The Amateur Cloud Society That (Sort Of) Rattled the Scientific Community

Gavin Pretor-Pinney decided to take a sabbatical. It was the summer of 2003, and for the last 10 years, as a sideline to his graphic-design business in London, he and a friend had been running a magazine called The Idler. The Idler was devoted to the “literature for loafers.” It argued against busyness and careerism and for the ineffable value of aimlessness, of letting the imagination quietly coast. Pretor-Pinney anticipated all the jokes: that he’d burned out running a magazine devoted to doing nothing, and so on. But it was true. Getting the magazine out was taxing, and after a decade, it seemed appropriate to stop for a while and live without a plan — to be an idler himself and shake free space for fresh ideas. So he swapped his flat in London for one in Rome, where everything would be new and anything could happen.

Pretor-Pinney is 47, towering and warm, with a sandy beard and pale blue eyes. His face is often totally lit up, as if he’s being told a story and can feel some terrific surprise coming. He stayed in Rome for seven months and loved it, especially all the religious art. One thing he noticed: The paintings and frescoes he encountered were crowded with clouds. They were everywhere, he told me recently, “these voluptuous clouds, like the sofas of the saints.” But outside, when Pretor-Pinney looked up, the real Roman sky was usually devoid of clouds. He wasn’t accustomed to such endless, blue emptiness. He was an Englishman; he was accustomed to clouds. He remembered, as a child, being enchanted by them and deciding that people must climb long ladders to harvest cotton from them. Now, in Rome, he couldn’t stop thinking about clouds. “I found myself missing them,” he told me.

Clouds. It was a bizarre preoccupation, perhaps even a frivolous one, but he didn’t resist it. He went with it, as he often does, despite not having a specific goal or even a general direction in mind; he likes to see where things go. When Pretor-Pinney returned to London, he talked about clouds constantly. He walked around admiring them, learned their scientific names and the meteorological conditions that shape them and argued with friends who complained they were oppressive or drab. He was realizing, as he later put it, that “clouds are not something to moan about. They are, in fact, the most dynamic, evocative and poetic aspect of nature.”

Slowing down to appreciate clouds enriched his life and sharpened his ability to appreciate other pockets of beauty hiding in plain sight. At the same time, Pretor-Pinney couldn’t help noting, we were entering an era in which miraculousness was losing its meaning. Novel, purportedly amazing things ricocheted around the Internet so quickly that, as he put it, we can now all walk around with an attitude like, “Well, I’ve just seen a panda doing something unusual online, what’s going to amaze me now?” His fascination with clouds was teaching him that “it’s much better for our souls to realize we can be amazed and delighted by what’s around us.”

At the end of 2004, a friend invited Pretor-Pinney to give a talk about clouds at a small literary festival in Cornwall. The previous year, there were more speakers than attendees, so Pretor-Pinney wanted an alluring title for his talk, to draw a crowd. “Wouldn’t it be funny,” he thought, “to have a society that defends clouds against the bad rap they get — that stands up for clouds?” So he called it “The Inaugural Lecture of the Cloud Appreciation Society.” And it worked. Standing room only! Afterward, people came up to him and asked for more information about the Cloud Appreciation Society. They wanted to join the society. “And I had to tell them, well, I haven’t really got a society,” Pretor-Pinney said.

He set up a website. It was simple. There was a gallery for posting photographs of clouds, a membership form and a florid manifesto. (“We believe that clouds are unjustly maligned and that life would be immeasurably poorer without them,” it began.) Pretor-Pinney wasn’t offering members of his new Cloud Appreciation Society any perks or activities, but to keep it all from feeling ephemeral or imaginary, as many things on the Internet do, he eventually decided that membership should cost $15 and that members would receive a badge and certificate in the mail. He recognized that joining an online Cloud Appreciation Society that only nominally existed might appear ridiculous, but it was important to him that it not feel meaningless.

Within a couple of months, the society had 2,000 paying members. Pretor-Pinney was surprised and ecstatic. Then, Yahoo placed the Cloud Appreciation Society first on its 2005 list of Britain’s “Weird and Wonderful websites.” People kept clicking on that clickbait, which wasn’t necessarily surprising, but thousands of them also clicked through to Pretor-Pinney’s own website, then paid for memberships. Other news sites noticed. They did their own articles about the Cloud Appreciation Society, and people followed the links in those articles too. Previously, Pretor-Pinney proposed writing a book about clouds and was rejected by 28 editors. Now he was a viral sensation with a vibrant online constituency; he got a deal to write a book about clouds.

The writing process was agonizing. On top of not actually being a writer, he was a brutal perfectionist. But “The Cloudspotter’s Guide,” published in 2006, was full of glee and wonder. Pretor-Pinney relays, for example, the story of the United States Marine pilot who, in 1959, ejected from his fighter jet over Virginia and during the 40 minutes it took him to reach the ground was blown up and down through a cumulonimbus cloud about as high as Mount Everest. He surveys clouds in art history and Romantic poetry and compares one exceptionally majestic formation in Australia to “Cher in the brass armor bikini and gold Viking helmet outfit she wore on the sleeve of her 1979 album ‘Take Me Home.’ ” In the middle of the book, there’s a cloud quiz. Question No. 5 asks of a particular photograph, “What is it that’s so pleasing about this layer of stratocumulus?” The answer Pretor-Pinney supplies is “It is pleasing for whatever reason you find it to be.”

The book became a best seller. There were more write-ups, more clicks, more Cloud Appreciation Society members. And that cycle would keep repeating, sporadically, for years, whenever an editor or blogger happened to discover the society and set it off again. (There are now more than 40,000 paid members.) The media tended to present it as one more amusing curiosity, worth delighting over and sharing before moving on. That is, Pretor-Pinney’s organization was being tossed like a pebble, again and again, into the same bottomless pool of interchangeable online content that he was trying to coax people away from by lifting their gaze skyward. But that was O.K. with him; he understood that it’s just how the Internet works. He wasn’t cynical about it, and he didn’t feel his message was being cheapened either. It felt as if he were observing the whole thing from afar, and he tried to appreciate it.