The #weatherchallenge: celebrating the art of careful observation

A public engagement project of Studium Generale and Peter Kuipers Munneke

Observation is one of the key ingredients of science. By carefully observing the world around us, we discover new processes, uncover hidden patterns, and validate theories. Especially in the marine and atmospheric sciences at IMAU, observations almost always play a crucial role in our research.

There is no easier way to observe fascinating physical processes than to stare out of the window and look at the weather. Therefore, from my own experience as a weather presenter, the weather is an ideal topic to get a broad audience engaged with scientific observation.

Weather challenge

To celebrate the art of observation, Studium Generale and I launched The Weather Challenge as a public engagement project. The idea of The Weather Challenge is to make careful observations of the weather and to collect as many different weather phenomena as possible. For The Weather Challenge, we recorded 20 short videos that explain the physical basics of several of these phenomena, from God's rays to fog to blue skies to rainbows. Through The Weather Challenge website or using Instagram or Facebook, everyone can upload photos of these phenomena. The result is a user-built collection of weather photographs sorted by physical processes.

Studium Generale and I set out to design The Weather Challenge as a celebration of the work by professor Marcel Minnaert, who worked at Utrecht University from 1918 until his retirement. He died in October 1970, almost exactly 50 years ago. Minnaert was a gifted astronomer, but also, he was a keen observer. In the 1940s, he wrote a book in three parts called "Natuurkunde van het vrije veld", translating loosely as the "Physics in the Field". It refers to all sorts of outside observations, ranging from optics to electricity, motion and acoustics. This extraordinary work helped to popularize the science of everyday (and not-so-everyday) physics.

Obviously, the weather played an important role in Minnaert's observations. In The Weather Challenge, we therefore aim to translate Minnaert's keen eye for everyday physics to the modern era. We decided to use social media, nowadays the most popular way to share your personal observations. This helped to create the photo collections. On top of that, we added three layers of information: one explanatory video, a written explanation, and finally a link to the original paragraph in Minnaert's book.

Personally, I was overwhelmed by the response to The Weather Challenge. In total, we collected almost 900 photos, and I have answered more than 200 questions about weather phenomena (asking a question is an option upon submission of a photo). As an added bonus, I had a crash course in cloud classification, because the most frequently asked question was "What is this cloud called" from people expecting a Latin magic spell as a response! Neither at IMAU, nor as a TV meteorologist do you normally get to master the art of cloud classification, so for me this was an unexpected side effect.

Finally, I would like to acknowledge very kind financial support for the Weather Challenge provided by IMAU, the Department of Physics, and by the UU Public Engagement Seed Fund.


Peter Kuipers Munneke


The website of the Weerchallenge.

A special remark on cloud classification.