How many marvellous places are there in London, where no one goes, except the inquisitive?
Try the little room on the top of the physics building, twelve floors up and arrived at through a narrow black spiral staircase. What happened, did everyone just evacuate one day? If they did, they left in a hurry, leaving notebooks, computers and equipment. There are power cables from the scientist’s disused experiment on the roof coming through an open window, so the wind whistles around this space of forgotten contents.
We circulate around the octagon in brilliant sunlight, looking at the views and the dust covered stuff. I try an old fashioned rotary dial phone on the wall, wondering if a voice from the past will answer. Then we pick the best view of the clouds, arrange the chairs and put our feet on the windowsill. It is a particularly spectacular day above our heads, and everyone else is busy.
The view is glittering and ever changing. Today it’s mostly the whitest cumulus clouds. The scientist says they tend to be about 1km above the ground, so we estimate their distance from us and then size. And writing this back home, I’m calculating - if they are one kilometre long and half a kilometre deep and high and the scientist said that water makes up one millionth of the volume, this cloud weighs a quarter of a million kilograms or 200 cars.
Above the cumulus, are cirrus clouds at around 8 km, classic horse tails of ice crystals. Planes are threading through, leaving little in the way of con trails, the air is so dry and we guess it’s not cold enough.
We watch the weather move in from the west and wonder if the day will be transformed.
The scientist tells me that his experiment - on the roof above our heads, measured carbon dioxide flux. The point was to figure out how to get good measurements of the general flux for comparison with computer models.... and sheer curiosity. One day in ten, the wind comes from the east and the measurements picked up exhaust from the college power station in the engineering building. We just make out the heat haze exiting the chimney.
We talk about hurricanes, tornadoes, making clouds in bottles at home and the importance of introducing smoke for the vapour to condense on to, the stratosphere, the influences on the air flows across the earth: the coriolis force (the spinning of the earth) and the drag from her surface.
Who needs to photograph or film or paint these immaculate clouds? Just looking is enough.
We must have watched for over an hour.
Then we get up and examine the anemometers, which someone seems to have made from ping pong balls and calibrated; we spin them round on their little axes; and look at the hand drawn graphs.
We take a last walk around the small room and return reluctantly to earth.
Nathan Sparks is in the last two weeks of his PhD researching carbon dioxide fluxes. He also travels around the country teaching children about weather from a 7m long trailer as part of the OPAL project.