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Johnston: On clouds and wonder

By Adam Johnston - Special to the Standard-Examiner | Nov 16, 2022

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Adam Johnston

There’s a short list of the things I understand. It includes a few ideas about atoms and forces. That list is dwarfed by the long column of things I don’t understand at all, which includes how gravity really works, most things regarding love, and the function and placement of most of my internal organs.

But the longest of my lists is the one that compiles things I wonder about. It’s the hybrid of what I understand and what I don’t. Most of my thinking wanders in this vague bubble of wonderment.

This is the life of a scientist and a teacher. Just recently, in the midst of unraveling the nature of the universe, my class was making sense of really basic ideas about states of matter. You’ve heard of these and you’re probably even an expert in them on some level, founded on an understanding developed in the fifth grade. “Stuff,” even so complex and diverse, arranges itself in just a few basic patterns. Solids are coherent and compact assemblies of particles. Liquids are sloshes of particles continually rearranging within their confines. And gases expand further, with squishable voids between particles that allow them to tumble where random chance takes them.

It’s all perfectly reasonable and simple — and makes you wonder how hard my job could really be. We could write definitions and memorize them pretty quickly. But frankly, I’m sorry if that’s the end of this science lesson for you. It gets much more wonderful.

This came up in class when we were distinguishing these states and, in response to one of these definitions, someone said, “Right, like a cloud.” Then there was a pause and a mutual look of uncertainty. Was that right? What exactly is a cloud anyway? Raindrops or snow fall out of these fluffy features of sky, so surely there’s water there, but in what form? Or forms? And how is it that we can see it?

There were obvious answers at first. And then there were none at all.

I’ll interject here to admit that you can look this up on the internet. There are clear answers from NASA, Wikipedia, even physics professors’ webpages bestowing their knowledge right onto your screen. You could end there. But whose knowledge and wonder is it? And even when I know “the answer,” I’m confident it always leads to another set of questions. I’ve built a career on this.

Scientists came back the next day and we fell into a more complicated morass. Someone pointed out that snow is white, just like clouds, and it would make sense if those solid snowflakes made up clouds. And then an excellent argument was added that we often experience fog, a kind of ground cloud, and that seems completely airy and void when you walk through it. And yet another argument was made that we often see liquid water splashing and frothing, making what would otherwise be clear have cloudy foam. We hadn’t found anything that limited what a cloud must be.

In the very best of ways, it got worse. Isn’t it interesting that ice itself is clear, but snow is white? And we know that there’s humidity, water content, in the air, but that’s perfectly invisible. Before long, people were bringing up glaciers, condensation on glasses, weird forms of precipitation that could be clear or white, round or jagged. And what is color, anyway? What makes something clear or white or anything else? And later: Why should that solid, seemingly compact form of solid ice float on the sloshy liquid in our glass of water? Using our elementary school definitions of matter, this makes no sense.

We figured a lot of this out — it’s all answerable — and we still had more questions at the end of it. If there’s nothing else that comes of that class, or you reading this column, I hope it’s the idea that the stock answers aren’t the end or even the point of science. Something as simple as the puff of a cloud provides another question, another space to wonder.

Adam Johnston is a professor of physics and director of the Center for Science and Mathematics Education at Weber State University, where he helps prepare future teachers and supports educators throughout Utah.

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