Cloud 9: The Most Comfortable Cloud of All

It’s Monday again, & that means it’s time for another installment of Bill’s Bologna.

Cloud 9 is a popular expression we use to describe feelings of euphoria. It’s such a popular phrase, even the great George Harrison released a song called “Cloud 9” as the title track to his 1987 release.

george-harrison-cloud-nine-seal-422480

Cloud 9. You know, the one where George looks all cool with his shades & Gretsch Duo Jet on the cover.

A few weeks ago, I started reading A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson. It’s exactly what the title says it is: a book full of facts about the history of the entire Universe, & what transpired down here on Earth that allowed us humans to be here today. It’s an amazing book & if you’re a science nerd like I am & love facts & concepts, but would wind up blowing up a billion dollar NASA rocket because you forgot to carry the 2, then this is the book for you. Even if you can pull off the math, unlike yours truly, I think you’ll love this book.

Anyway, while I’d love to rave about it a little more, that’s not why I’m here.

While I was reading, I came across his passage about weather systems & he explained one of the origins of the term.

Bryson writes about a man named Luke Howard. Howard was an amateur meteorologist who wrote the first edition of the Cloud Atlas at the turn of the 19th Century. If you Google Cloud Atlas, you’ll no doubt get a bunch of info on the recent novel & movie, which have absolutely nothing to do with what we’re talking about here. Actually, you know what? Don’t even click the link.

Anyway, The Cloud Atlas that Howard started still is used as an extensive catalog of different types of clouds & what they do. It’s been greatly expanded & updated since Howard started it, but the original names he coined (cumulus, cirrus, nimbus & stratus) for these clouds have remained the four main families into which the types of clouds are sorted.

One of the additions to the atlas was the cumulonimbus cloud. It was added sometime in the 1880’s.

Cumulonimbus_cloud

Cumulonimbus: See how comfortable it looks? Too bad you’d fall right through & be struck by lightning on the way down…

These clouds lie in the layer of the Earth’s atmosphere called the Troposphere, which extends from the ground, up to about 50,000ft. Cumulonimbus clouds can have bodies reaching all the way to the top of the Troposphere, but aren’t strong enough to break through the Tropopause, or the boundary between the troposphere & the next layer, called the Stratosphere. Because of this, the top of the cloud hits the Tropopause & flattens out, giving it its familiar anvil shape. It looks like a soft platform, which you could stand on or comfortably stretch out on, right? Well, guess what number cumulonimbus is in the Cloud Atlas.

It’s number 9.

Cumulonimbus_cloud_over_Africa

Cloud 9: Cumulonimbus as seen from above. “Cumulonimbus” comes from the Latin words, “cumulus” & nimbus”, which mean “heap” & “rain” respectively.

Another accepted explanation is given on Amazon.com . It hypothesizes that the expression comes from Dante, author of the Divine Comedy. The final volume, The Paradiso, or The Paradise, describes the 10 levels of Heaven. According to Dante, humans can only reach the 9th level of Heaven because the 10th & best is reserved for God. When most people think of Heaven, they think of clouds. Boom: Cloud 9.

In his book, Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins, Nigel Rees claims that the phrase didn’t actually become popular until a radio show in the 1950’s found out the US Weather Bureau was using the Cloud Atlas system & combined it to make a quick joke referencing Dante’s Paradise. In the broadcast, the hero became knocked out & woke up on Cloud 9.

Another explanation involves Buddhism & how according to that belief, Cloud 9 is one step away from reaching Nirvana. Most think this isn’t true because Buddhist monks tend to view Cloud 9 as no more important than any other step along the path to Enlightenment.

So there you have it. There are more than a few possibilities as to how the term, “Cloud 9” made it into pop culture. You decide which one is right.

Now you know. You’re welcome.

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Filed under Etymology, Nerdy Science Stuff

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