February 17, 2019

Why Is an Icicle Shaped Like an Icicle?

“In his cluttered lab at the University of Toronto, Stephen Morris peers through the viewfinder of a camera pointed into a slot in an insulated plywood box the size of a beer fridge. Jutting wires and hoses connect the box to water tanks, drains, and power sources. Inside, a mixture of water and fluorescent dye dribbles from a hose onto a rotating wooden spike dangling in the chilled interior. Each drop of the liquid gradually freezes, layer upon layer. An object slowly takes shape: a delicate icicle. As the tapering column of ice lengthens and widens, something curious happens: the smooth surface develops ridges and valleys. From stem to tip, the entire icicle grows a new, textured skin.

Morris is a physicist who specializes in geomorphology—the study of why natural objects are shaped the way they are. At fifty-nine years old, he has been searching for an explanation for the ripples on icicles for more than a decade. If he can find an answer, he’ll be adding a small piece to one of the biggest scientific puzzles on the planet: Is there a unifying theory that can account for the structure of all things—animal, vegetable, and mineral?

Some physicists search for a “theory of everything” by smashing subatomic particles together or by imagining the inside of a black hole. Morris chose another path, focusing on “emergent properties”—natural behaviours that could reveal universal principles about how nature develops order and complexity from seeming chaos.”

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