Gavin Pretor-Pinney: Why Should We Look At The Clouds More Often? You don't need to plan a trip to find beauty and perspective. Just look up, says Gavin Pretor-Pinney, and stop for a moment every day to admire the beauty in the sky above and in our everyday lives.

Gavin Pretor-Pinney: Why Should We Look At The Clouds More Often?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And on the show today, ideas about Quiet. So about 10 years ago, Gavin Pretor-Pinney, who's a graphic designer, moved from the U.K. to Rome for about a year. And he would wander around the city, pop into museums and churches, and he started to notice a pattern in the artwork.

GAVIN PRETOR-PINNEY: There were lots of clouds - clouds in the Baroque frescoes, clouds in the churches in Rome. When I came back, I thought, you know, maybe clouds are something I should do something with more generally.

RAZ: Gavin mentioned the idea to a friend who suggested he give a talk at a local arts festival. But he worried that nobody would show up to a presentation about clouds.

PRETOR-PINNEY: So I called it The Inaugural Lecture of the Cloud Appreciation Society.

RAZ: And it worked.

PRETOR-PINNEY: But of course, they all came up to me afterwards and said that was great, you know, how do I join your society?

RAZ: And at that moment, the Cloud Appreciation Society was born. That was a few years ago. And it literally changed Gavin's life because his future wife also became a member.

PRETOR-PINNEY: We've got two kids. And the oldest one, Flora, her middle name is Cirrus, actually.

RAZ: Oh...


RAZ: ...Makes perfect sense.

PRETOR-PINNEY: I love it. I love it for that one.

RAZ: And so, as Gavin says in his TED Talk, there's something about that quiet moment when you stop, look up and notice a cloud.


PRETOR-PINNEY: But I think they're beautiful. Don't you? It's just that their beauty is missed because they are so omnipresent, so - I don't know - commonplace that people don't notice them. They don't notice the beauty, but they don't even notice the clouds unless they get in the way of the sun. They think of them as the annoying, frustrating obstructions. And then they rush off and do some blue-sky thinking.

But most people, when you stop to ask them, will admit to harboring a strange sort of fondness for clouds. It's like a nostalgic fondness, and they make them think of their youth. Who here can't remember thinking of looking and finding shapes in the clouds when they were kids? You know, when you were masters of daydreaming. It's just that these days, us adults seem reluctant to allow ourselves the indulgence of just allowing our imaginations to drift along in the breeze. And I think that's a pity. I think we should perhaps do a bit more of it. I think we should be a bit more willing, perhaps, to look at the beautiful sight of the sunlight bursting out from behind the clouds. And go wait a minute - there's two cats dancing the salsa, or seeing the big - the big, white, puffy one up there over the shopping center looks like the abominable snowman going to rob a bank.


RAZ: So why do we forget to do that - I mean, to just like look at the sky and let our imaginations run wild?

PRETOR-PINNEY: Well, you know, there are a lot of distractions (laughter). And in fact, there are probably more distractions these days than there've ever been. You know, you never stick on anything for long. And so I talk about cloud spotting being something that legitimizes doing nothing. And I had this the other day before a talk. I was kind of nervous. And I stepped outside and walked along, and then I saw a hummingbird come along and take some nectar from the blossom of a tree in front of me. And I just sort of locked on that and looked at it for a moment, and that was kind of enough to sort of center me. It's the same thing with - with clouds. I find that sometimes by paying attention to something outside of yourself is just enough for you to kind of find yourself centered again.


PRETOR-PINNEY: Clouds are not something to moan about, far from it. They are in fact the most diverse, evocative, poetic aspect of nature. I think if you live with your head in the clouds every now and then, it helps you keep your feet on the ground. And I want to show you why. And it's the cirrus cloud named after the Latin for a lock of hair. It's composed entirely of ice crystals cascading from the upper reaches of the troposphere. And as these as crystals fall, they pass through different layers with different winds. And they speed up and slow down, giving the cloud these brushstroked appearances - these brushstroke forms known as full streaks. And these winds up there can be very, very fierce. They can be 200 miles an hour - 300 miles an hour. These clouds are bombing along, but from all the way down here, they appear to be moving gracefully - slowly - like most clouds. And so to tune into the clouds is to slow down, to calm down. And it's like a bit of everyday meditation. We need to be reminded that slowing down and being in the present - not thinking about what you've got to do and what you should have done, but just being here, letting your imagination lift from the everyday concerns down here and just being in the present. It's good for you. It's good for your ideas. It's good for your creativity. It's good for your soul. Thank you very much.


RAZ: Cloud spotter Gavin Pretor-Pinney. You can see his full talk at By the way, Gavin, where's the best place to look at clouds?

PRETOR-PINNEY: The best place to go cloud spotting is in your backyard.

RAZ: Oh. OK.

PRETOR-PINNEY: Clouds are the most egalitarian of nature's displays 'cause we all have a great view of the sky. And you don't have to go somewhere special to see them. You can - if you're in the right frame of mind - if you're paying attention to the sky, you will be able to see interesting, unusual, exotic formations wherever you are.

Copyright © 2014 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.