POINT CLOUD: The Metaphor of the Cloud, Micro to Macro

Valentine Maurice

10 min readDec 18, 2023

From January 19 to 22, FIBER hosted Part 4 of its Reassemble Lab: The Weathercapes Lab. The Lab broadly explored how the weather works; from the relationship between weather and climate as well as the relationships between weather measurements and the development of contemporary forecasting models and computer technology, and more. Throughout history, humans have recognised the value of collecting data, from primitive notches on bones to today’s vast digital landscape. In her article, Valentine Maurice explores how we can utilise microphenomena in order to understand “history” through a transversal, non-linear lens.

Beirut, Devastating the terrible aftermath of the Beirut explosion, Arab News


On August 4, 2020, the port of Beirut experienced two explosions. The second explosion, involving 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate stored in Warehouse Number 12 in the port area, caused significant human and material damage across the city and among the ships moored at the port. The final toll was 215 dead and 6,500 injured.

In the project POINT CLOUD, alongside fellow Weatherscapes Lab participant Ahmad Beydoun, we aim to explore how we can utilise the cloud and its material and physical specificities as an agent to illustrate and emphasise human disruption. Drawing upon post-materialism and post-humanist theories, we conducted fundamental research on how the cloud formed by the explosion can serve as a testimony of social and political disturbance.

In pursuit of this, we embarked on a transversal research of the emissions released and established tangible connections to real events. What does this explosion signify, and how can microphenomena serve as a tool for comprehending the macro-level?

Barad and postmaterialism

Drawing inspiration from the insights of Karen Barad, a physicist and feminist theorist, we explore their proposition that objects and bodies are active agents with inherent meaning. According to Barad, matter becomes an integral part in a process of materialisation. Actions are “intra-connected” rather than “inter-connected”. [1] This perspective allows us to interpret the past within the material and understand matter as a conduit for social interaction, capable of serving as an agent for reading the past and generating meaning.

Barad’s philosophy sees matter as a dynamic process of intra-actions, actively contributing to and expanding the narrative of humanity. In their view, existence is not an isolated story; phenomena emerge through intra-actions and extend through time and space. Time, in this context, becomes a spatial material.

In the process of contextualisation, we focus on using cloud composition to dive into the realm of politics, and on using the micro-level to illuminate the macro-level.

That is to say: by analysing the chemical composition of the cloud, we interrogate broader political issues. Nitrogen nitrate particles are used here as evidence of human disturbance.

The chemical particles thus become a metaphor for pollution and the violence that humans inflict on their environment, but more than that: they raise questions about responsibility: who is responsible for this explosion? How can we take this into account, and how can these chemical molecules become agents for questioning?

The key question becomes: How can we leverage this information?

Translation into design

Our initial approach involves the creation of a “point map,” a tool that meticulously outlines the density of the cloud. Through this mapping process, we discovered that the cloud takes the form of a Wilson Cloud. The scientific data captured in the point map becomes a powerful means through which to bring attention and awareness to the situation.

Self-analysis — Point Cloud density

Moving forward, our investigation extends to the examination of gas emissions affecting particulate matter in the air. This step is crucial for a comprehensive understanding of the aftermath.

Meteorological investigation

Following the investigation at the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute (KNMI), we seized the opportunity to emphasise the presence of nitrogen (azote) in the sky. Echoing the insights of Arnoud Apituley, a meteorologist and researcher at the KNMI, “clouds are made of water droplets that create particles that can have different shapes or dimensions. Some particles are very often some kind of environmental pollution.” [2]

Nitrogen could give rise to a pinkish cloud that lingered over the city for an extended period. In this context, the micro serves as a metaphor, offering a form of awareness that aids in understanding human disturbance and becomes a tool to scrutinise the macro level, where science transcends its literal implications. But how can we harness the power of metaphor to translate scientific data and probe into larger scales? Can material itself be imbued with metaphor?

Map — nitrate density Beirut and its surroundings

The role of metaphor

In her essay, “In search, research”, Naomi Lamdin delves into exploring metaphors across various narratives, from thinkers such as Aristotle to Nietzsche [3]. If metaphor enables us to perceive and navigate reality distinctly, how does it operate? From a psychological standpoint and its associations, how can we translate the concept of metaphor into artistic practice, and how is metaphor intertwined with an object itself?

In literature, figures of speech allow the reader to envision a situation, an object, or a person. It is a tool that facilitates the stretching, amplification, or sharpening of a situation for the reader. In essence, figures of speech contribute to the magnification or minimisation of the sense of words. These nuances are observable in the images we manipulate. While metaphors assist us in integrating a sense of logic into everyday objects, they also facilitate our projection into the realm of imagination. These tools serve an ergonomic function, but the metaphor, in particular, holds a cognitive significance.

Returning to the POINT CLOUD project, its overarching goal is to utilise representation and metaphor as tools for delving into the micro-level, providing a distinctive embodiment of microparticles. The intention is to decentre our human perspective and observe the micro from a non-human standpoint.

In this project, the molecule of nitrogen (azote) transforms a map (refer to the illustration below) that serves to emphasise the density of nitrogen within the sky.

Self experimentation — cloud and nitrate and azote density inside the cloud

The second explosion

To contextualise the events surrounding the second explosion, which was markedly more violent and destructive than the first, occurring at approximately 6 p.m. local time: it wrought havoc on the entire port area, numerous ships at anchor or offshore, and the heart of Beirut itself. The explosion generated a Wilson cloud followed by a mushroom cloud, with a column of red and grey-black smoke emerging as the shockwave dispersed. The unfolding of the Wilson cloud over the Mediterranean revealed a Rayleigh-Taylor instability [4] creating waves on the surface that ran parallel to the shockwave. The blast resulted in extensive damage to both people and property. Notably, the explosion’s impact extended as far as Larnaca on the island of Cyprus, just over 200 km away.

Laws and responsibilities

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the second explosion equated to an earthquake measuring 3.3 on the Richter scale (measuring the tremor itself, not the resultant damage). In contrast, the Jordanian Seismological Observation Centre reports an energy release corresponding to a magnitude of 4.520.

According to specialists at the University of Sheffield, the explosion in Beirut had 1/10th of the power of the atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima and is unequivocally recognised as “without doubt one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history”. Initial hypotheses in Lebanese media pointed to a fireworks warehouse, an oil storage facility, or a chemical storage facility. An article for Frontiers in Public Health suggested that warehouses in the port were storing explosive materials and chemicals, including nitrates, common components of fertilisers and explosives [5].

A few hours after the explosion, the Director-General of Lebanese Public Security stated that it had been caused by explosive materials that “had been confiscated and stored for years”. Subsequently, the Higher Defense Council declared that the explosions were due to the detonation of 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate in the port.

In this context, the micro perspective prompts us to question the political and social consequences of the explosion, facilitating our engagement with a fundamental social and political context. Drawing upon Karen Barad’s theories and the notion of deconstructing science to highlight human distribution, it is crucial to explore the responsibility and consciousness associated with using quantum physics as a means of understanding power dynamics that may disproportionately affect minorities. In the case of the situation in Lebanon, identifying responsibility and sharing knowledge become critical considerations. What does it mean to disseminate this information, and what enduring impact does the explosion have on the social and political landscape? These are questions that resonate with the broader implications of the incident.

The UN Human Rights Council should mandate an investigation, and countries with the Magnitsky Act and similar sanctions regimes for human rights violations and crimes of corruption should penalise officials involved in the ongoing violations that led to the August 4 blast and those who have attempted to obstruct accountability. The 127-page report, titled “‘They Killed Us from the Inside’: An Investigation into the August 4 Beirut Blast,” provides evidence of official misconduct against a backdrop of long-standing corruption and mismanagement at the Lebanese capital’s port [6]. This mismanagement allowed ammonium nitrate, a potentially explosive chemical compound, to be stored under perilous conditions for almost six years. The resulting blast, caused by the chemical, stands as one of the most destructive non-nuclear explosions ever recorded, pulverising the port and damaging more than half the city.

Lama Fakih, director of Human Rights Watch’s Crises and Conflict division and Beirut office director, stated, “There is overwhelming evidence that the August 2020 explosion in the port of Beirut was caused by the negligence of senior Lebanese officials who failed to accurately communicate the dangers posed by ammonium nitrate, knowingly stored the compound in unsafe conditions, and failed to protect the population. One year on, the scars of that devastating day remain etched on the city, while survivors and families of the victims still await answers.” [7]

Human Rights Watch drew on official correspondence regarding the Rhesus, the ship that brought the ammonium nitrate to the port, and its cargo, some of which had never been made public. Additionally, interviews with the Lebanese government, security, and judicial officials were conducted to delineate how these hazardous products arrived at the docks and were stored there. Human Rights Watch also shed light on what government officials knew about ammonium nitrate and what measures they did or did not take to protect the population.

Human Rights Watch urges countries with the Magnitsky Act and similar human rights and anti-corruption sanctions regimes to impose sanctions on Lebanese officials implicated in ongoing human rights violations and obstructing accountability related to the Beirut explosion. These sanctions would signal a commitment to combating impunity for serious human rights violations and provide additional leverage in the pursuit of justice through domestic judicial proceedings.

“Despite the devastation caused by the explosion, Lebanese officials continue to choose the path of avoidance and impunity over that of truth and justice,” asserted Lama Fakih. “The UN Human Rights Council should immediately authorise an investigation, and other countries should impose targeted sanctions on individuals involved in ongoing abuses and obstruction of justice.” [8]

Conclusion and reflections

In essence, the approach here involves using the micro-level, such as the particle of the cloud, to scrutinise the macro context. The goal is to comprehend “history” through a transversal, non-linear lens. By employing the micro as agents, we can navigate and question social and political issues. In this instance, the particle of the cloud serves as a gateway to a deeper understanding of the political context of the explosion, fostering empathy for the social aspect and illuminating the question of responsibility.

Valentine Maurice graduated with a master’s in Social Design at the Design Academy Eindhoven. She then developed a practice questioning the transdisciplinarity research that explores issues around care and health, that is a scientific approach related to well-being focusing on insomnia problems, light deregulation and technology dependence. Valentine aims to create a relationship with our biological clock through the lens of the objects of our daily routine such as curtains, clocks, and screens, to induce a perception of time in harmony with our biological system in our everyday life.


[1] Karen Barad. On Touching — the Inhuman That Therefore I Am, 2012.

[2] Valentine Maurice. DATASKY. Stimuleringsfonds. 2023.

[3] In/Search Re/Search: Imagining scenarios through art and Design. Gabrielle Kennedy (ed.) Valiz, 2021

[4] The Rayleigh-Taylor instability, named after the British physicists Lord Rayleigh and G. I. Taylor, is an instability at the interface between two fluids of different densities, resulting from the thrust of the heavier fluid on the lighter fluid (acceleration in the case of a dynamic system, or gravity for an initially static system, is directed towards the lighter phase.

[5] Samar Al-Hajj et al. “Beirut Ammonium Nitrate Blast: Analysis, Review, and Recommendations.” Frontiers in public health vol. 9 657996. 4 Jun. 2021. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8212863/

[6] Lama Fakih & Aya Majzoub. “They Killed Us from the Inside”: An Investigation into the August 4 Beirut Blast. 3 Aug. 2021. https://www.hrw.org/report/2021/08/03/they-killed-us-inside/investigation-august-4-beirut-blast

[7] Liban : Des preuves établissent les responsabilités dans l’explosion de Beyrouth. Human Rights Watch. 3 Aug. 2021. https://www.hrw.org/fr/news/2021/08/03/liban-des-preuves-etablissent-les-responsabilites-dans-lexplosion-de-beyrouth

[8] Ibid.




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