HOW COME? Why we see shapes in clouds

I would like to know why, when people look at clouds, they see shapes? asks reader Lauren Teneriello.

In William Shakespeare's play "Hamlet," Prince Hamlet and Polonius chat about a passing cloud. "Do you see yonder cloud that's almost in shape of a camel?" Hamlet asks. "By the mass, and 'tis like a camel indeed," replies Polonius.

But as the cloud changes, so does what the two see. "Methinks it is like a weasel," Hamlet says. "It is backed like a weasel," Polonius notes. "Or like a whale?" Hamlet wonders. Polonius agrees: "Very like a whale."

Our human brains are hard-wired to look for patterns in the world around us. Is that a pile of black clothes on the floor, or Midnight the cat? Is that a face in the bushes, or just the play of light and shadows? The behavior clearly has survival value, which is why a dog may run toward a rabbit sitting in the yard -- only to find a disappointing pile of brown grass.

But while it might seem like a stretch to picture random stars as "Orion, the Hunter," the shapes we see in clouds seem obvious to us. We can thank one particular kind of cloud, known as "cumulus," for providing a perfect canvas for human imagination.

In 1802, Luke Howard, a pharmacist and amateur weather-watcher in England, devised categories for clouds based on their shapes. He called high, wispy curling clouds "cirrus," which is Latin for "curl." Flat clouds were named "stratus," which means "layer." And the billowy clouds of summer afternoons were named "cumulus," meaning "heap."

Fluffy cumulus clouds grow when a parcel of warm, moist air rises -- say, from a big, hot parking lot -- into higher, colder air. Cooling water vapor condenses around floating bits of dust, clay, soot, or salt particles. The result? A visible cloud, drifting through the air. Even as new droplets appear at the cloud's bottom, rising moisture evaporates at the top. This shapes cumulus clouds into cauliflower-like blossoms, as if the clouds were boiling.

It's our imagination, and what we've personally seen (or read about), that puts the pictures in cumulus clouds: Cartoon characters, the faces of presidents, French poodles, Hamlet's camel.

And because the clouds change in seconds or minutes -- roiling, drifting, disappearing -- what we imagine we see changes, too. To watch the show, just sit down on the grass on a sunny day. Better yet, bring a friend and prepare to debate what you see.

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