Beauty in the sky

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Frank Schultz
Saturday, June 30, 2012

Did you see those amazing clouds that rolled through southern Wisconsin on Friday morning? People at the Gazette building went outside and gazed at them for a bit longer than the boss, perhaps, would have liked. But they were worth it.

If you didn’t see them, go Google up some images of “mammatus clouds.” They’re fascinating, fanciful, gorgeous shapes that often trail the loud, wet parts of thunderstorms. I can recall seeing them only three times in my 56 years. So anyway, go look at some photos. Then come back. I’ll wait ….

… See what I mean? I’m no meteorologist, (But at least I can pronounce it, unlike the folks on television, who pronounce it “meat-er-ologist,” as if their specialty was cuts of beef. But that’s fodder for a different blog.) but I did take Meteorology 101 at UW Madison years ago, and I’m pretty sure those were mammatus clouds, or mammatus clouds that were in the process of breaking up.

One 60-something co-worker said she had never seen anything like it. “They’re beautiful,” she said.

The name of this cloud formation is fun to play around with. “Mamatus” comes from the Latin “mamma,” meaning "udder" or "breast,” and indeed, these clouds often are reminiscent of breasts, as in the word “mammary.”

I found some word-origin information that says variations of “mamma,” are almost universal among Indo-European languages. Indo-European is a family of related languages and includes most of the European languages (not Finnish or Basque or Hungarian). Linguists tell us the Indo-European languages originated in the Indian subcontinent and also produced Sanskrit. Strange as it might seem, English, Spanish and German are relatives of Hindi, Punjabi, Bengali and Urdu.

“Mamma” is “Probably a natural sound in baby-talk, perhaps imitative of sound made while sucking” according to “Online Etymology Dictionary.” I had the same thought. If you’ve had children, you may have seen these syllables forming on your children’s lips before or after a feed. I can remember one of my kids with an look on her/his face of sheer pleasure as he/she drifted off to sleep, milk still coating his/her lips. (Trying not to embarrass my boy and girl, now young adults, and I can’t remember which one it was, anyway.)

The following tidbit is from a scientific paper. I throw it in here because I like to imagine the authors struggling with their need to be objective and their obvious delight in these formations:

“Mammatus clouds are an intriguing enigma of atmospheric fluid dynamics and cloud physics. Most commonly observed on the underside of cumulonimbus anvils, mammatus also occur on the underside of cirrus, cirrocumulus, altocumulus, altostratus, and stratocumulus, as well as in contrails from jet aircraft and pyrocumulus ash clouds from volcanic eruptions. Despite their aesthetic appearance, mammatus have been the subject of few quantitative research studies.”

Hmm. Perhaps that’s because they are more properly the field of study for poets and not meteorologists.

“I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now,” the old song says. For me, “mammatus” is associated with pleasures. My pleasure would have been greatly enhanced on Friday, however, if those clouds had yielded some precious drops of water. Right now, I would trade the pleasures of mamatus formations for the chance to stand under plain, blue-gray clouds that were drenching the earth.

Last updated: 10:06 am Wednesday, August 28, 2013

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