After centuries of serving as the metaphor for mutability, clouds began to be classified by genera and species in the nineteenth century, on the model of Linnaean taxonomy. In order to standardize nomenclature, cloud watchers had to learn to see in unison, recognizing cloud types as one would recognize human faces. The analogy between cloud and facial recognition runs deep: in both cases, a few salient features (that aquiline nose, those long wispy streaks) are foregrounded at the expense of a great many others. What the art of caricature is to faces, condensed description was to clouds: a few bold strokes that focused attention on the essential and screened out everything else. Cloud classification depended crucially on description by omission.
Lorraine Daston is Director at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin and a regular Visiting Professor in the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago. Her work spans a broad range of topics in the early modern and modern history of science, including probability and statistics, wonders and the order of nature, scientific images, objectivity, quantification, observation, and the moral authority of nature.
Lorraine Daston; Cloud Physiognomy. Representations 1 August 2016; 135 (1): 45–71. doi: https://doi.org/10.1525/rep.2016.135.1.45
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