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In honor of the clouds

3 min read

Today I was observing the clouds through the window of an airplane. It got me into a strange and deep pondering state.

Humanity has looked up to the skies, watching the clouds in awe, fear and wonder since the beginning of our existence. Today, hundreds of thousands of years since the first humans, 12 thousand years since the first settlements, 6 thousand years since the beginning of the common era and almost 250 years since we learned how to fly over the clouds in a balloon, we still look up and wonder “will it rain today?” or say “look, that cloud looks like a bunny!“.

The curiosity stemming from observing the clouds and yearning for understanding what are they, how, when and where are they formed and will turn into rain has guided multiple scientific discoveries throughout the years. It has expanded from admiring the fluffy clouds here on Earth to analyzing gigantic nebulae, very sparse clouds of gas in interstellar space.

The Cloud Chamber, for example, was invented to study cloud formation and their optical properties but became one of the first detectors for ionizing radiation. Nowadays, CERN has the CLOUD experiment, an experiment dedicated to understanding the influence of cosmic rays in the clouds and the climate.

In the year 2000, the Clay Mathematics Institute made a statement listing the seven biggest problems that humanity was facing coming into the new millennium, along with a one million-dollar prize for each one. As they described:

The Prizes were conceived […] to emphasize the importance of working towards a solution of the deepest, most difficult problems; and to recognize achievement in mathematics of historical magnitude.

One of those Millennium Problems is the existence of a solution to the Navier–Stokes Equation, the equation that describes the movement of fluids, like the movement and formation of, you guessed it, the clouds. Actually, the challenge is to “make substantial progress toward a mathematical theory which will unlock the secrets hidden in the Navier-Stokes equations”. They consider it a historical achievement not only to find a solution but even just making progress in that direction.

Our understanding of the universe, from the smallest to the largest structures, was developed, among many, many other things, based on a partial understanding of the laws of interacting particles. Nowadays, any hobbyist is capable of shooting a laser from their backyard at the moon with high enough precision and accuracy to hit a single reflector left there half a century ago and then measure the reflected light. We’ve come so far, and yet when we get out of our houses, we still wonder if we should bring an umbrella.

If asked, I’d say this curiosity is what brought us this far. And this desire to understand the world around us is what drives these discoveries and what’s gonna bring us further. It comes from all sorts of problems from the trivial ones around us to some of the deepest unsolved problems in mathematics.

So, next time you look at some clouds, think about how much this simple act has moved humanity over our history, inspiring from multiple religions to hundreds of scientific discoveries. And if it rains, that’s good, it marks the start of a new revolution in a cycle that we’ve just recently started to comprehend.