September 18, 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.”

Read more

JJ Editor's Picks

"Congratulations, Mr. President. It took an extraordinary effort, but you finally managed to spark a serious global crisis. I know you don’t like to share credit, but don’t worry. The current mess in the Middle East centered around Iran is all..."

"We’re approaching the anniversary of one of the nastiest political battles it has been my misfortune to witness—the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court despite credible accusations of sexual harassment and assault and his..."

"There are few one-offs in life on Earth—rarely can a single species boast a trait or ability that no other possesses. But human language is one such oddity. Our ability to use subtle combinations of sounds produced by our vocal cords to create..."

"He walked through the coffee shop door and scanned the crowd. A familiar smile bloomed as he recognized me, despite how my appearance had changed over the years. I’m bald and bearded now, and heavier. I wear an extra decade on my face, and I’m..."

"The poverty rate in the United States fell to 11.8 percent in 2018, according to data released last week by the Census Bureau — the lowest it’s been since 2001. But this estimate significantly understates the extent of economic deprivation in..."

"Streaming is the future of TV. But for now a big part of the streaming business revolves around old TV shows. Latest case in point: Netflix is paying a lot of money for the rights to show Seinfeld to its 150 million subscribers around the world..."

"On the eve of the second Israeli election of 2019, there is no shortage of apocalyptic rhetoric about the potential consequences of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s re-election. From the New York Times' editorial column to The Forward’s..."

"Is there a backlash toward the technology industry in the culture? I tend to think so, having written about its various twists and turns most weekdays for the past couple years now. But sometimes an obsession with a beat can lead to myopia, and..."