A Cloud is a Cloud is a Cloud...

    Because my recent foray into meteorology has revealed a black hole of understanding of chemistry—the structure of a water molecule (the building blocks of clouds), for instance—I have borrowed my son’s college text book on Conceptual Chemistry, a book he acquired from a textbook rental company called Chegg until August 1. It is June 22. I must hurry.
     I put the book on the small table next to the chair where I write in morning. I love the cover: a cloudless blue sky in the background, a snowy Yosemite National Park in the middle ground, and a sky-blue, computer-enhanced river in the foreground. In the water are the reflections of the snowy landscape and submerged models of water molecules—two small white balls attached to one red ball. I get it. Water as a solid, water as a liquid and…uh oh…where is the gaseous phase?
    I turn the book over and see that the entire back cover is dedicated to explaining the front-cover photograph. The gaseous phase is not shown, because, water vapor is invisible. (Remember, visible steam is not water vapor—it is liquid water, condensed water vapor). The back cover explains that when skies are clear, as in the Yosemite scene, the amount of water vapor in the atmosphere is relatively low. “This, in turn, makes it easier for the water molecules of snow to scatter directly into the gaseous phase. This process, called sublimation, explains why much of the fresh snow seen on dry sunny mountain peaks soon disappears without ever melting.”
     And then the best part of this book, the part that makes me know this book and I are going to be friends:  “These molecular perspectives enhance our ability to see beauty, rhyme, and reason in the world around is. This is the premise upon which this book you are now holding was written.”
     I love the fact that I am holding a book, an actual paper book of considerable weight (I am sorry about the trees, but am cutting back on paper consumption elsewhere in order to avoid e-books.) I love the fact that by holding this book—and also reading it—more beauty, rhyme, and reason will come into my life.
      I love the fact that a few years back, I was in Yosemite National Park in January to give a talk on marbled murrelets. My husband and I arrived at the park on a rare warm and sunny day. There was plenty of snow on the ground--just like in the photo above. It was stunning and perfect. The afternoon before my talk, we took a hike. I hadn’t walked on snow in a long time. It felt good. My head was down, watching my step, looking for the trail. It occurred to me that I was walking on former clouds. These were clouds in their packed down, solid, crunchy form. The waterfall across the valley was a former cloud, too. So was the river that has cut its way through the granite. As we hiked up the trail, my warm breath condensed with each exhalation. The visible vapor was a kind of cloud and I, therefore, was a cloud maker. As we followed the switchback up the mountain, I warmed up and started to sweat. My skin was moist. I had the potential to vaporize. All the liquid inside my body, my organs, my blood cells could vaporize. Then I remembered my skin had pores. I hoped they hadn't forgotten how to close. I really didn't want to be part of the water cycle--literally.
    This morning, I opened Conceptual Chemistry. Naturally, I do not start with Chapter 1, but Chapter 4, which is the chapter my son told me would be most helpful. It is about subatomic particles—electrons, protons, and neutrons—and how we understand these parts of the atom through conceptual, not physical, models. The two small white balls attached to the sides of one larger red ball is a conceptual model of a water molecule, the white balls representing hydrogen, and the red representing oxygen. We cannot create a physical model—a large-enough-to-be-visible replica of a water molecule—because we cannot actually see individual water molecules. Nor can we see the atoms of hydrogen or oxygen. Nor can we see the atoms’ electrons orbiting around a center of protons and neutrons the way planets orbit the sun.
   This planetary approach--the pretty darn good conceptual model I grew up with, has, according to the author of Conceptual Chemistry, become outdated. In new and more accurate conceptual models of the atom, electrons appear as…you guessed it…a cloud.