The Joys of Walking Across An Icy Field

Education has met its goals, not necessarily when it has landed you a dream job—which I think is an illusion for the vast majority of people who have slaved in the past and who are working now— but when it can intensify the sensual and intellectual pleasures of the simplest acts of life—like walking to work.

Same field as being described but from another day.

Weather-wise, we have had an erratic month of February in Montreal, with more than the usual cycles of freezing and melting. One day, after a morning of snow and an afternoon of freezing rain, the snowscape was glazed with a thick, milky ice, thick enough to support the weight of a toddler. It was cold for a few days afterwards, but subsequent rain transformed the veneer. I was reminded that with every subzero drop, the forms of snow and ice, like the size of all crystals, depend on how quickly the temperature drops and on the impurities and imperfections that seed them. During my 2 km-walk that morning, I experienced different textures and densities.  This is because sources of dust, pools of water,  their depth and amount of surface exposed to air are all variable and not every spot is equally affected by wind and footsteps.

Over two thousand five hundred footsteps that gave me an uplifting return on by body’s investment in adenosine triphosphate, ATP. (For the uninitiated, ATP is not a drug.  It is the currency of cells, the facilitator for all of our energy-requiring reactions. It’s what chloroplasts produce when photosynthesizing before creating glucose, and it is what our cells create when oxygen breaks down the metabolites of that same sugar. )

As I felt the unmonotonous sequence of pressures around my boots, each different area that I walked on created a unique sound  Since childhood, my favourite sound of that type is that of thin ice shattering above an air pocket. I was also reminded that the frictional coefficient of naturally-formed ice varies significantly. That morning no one else braved the -22 oC windchill factor. So with no one watching, I was a free 54-year old, giving myself a little run and testing to see how far I’d glide on various sections of the ice field.

The way light interacted with all the surfaces also accentuated their differences. There were sparkles from icy particles acting as tiny prisms; there were lakes of yellow-orange as the rising sun caught expanses of smooth surfaces; and other parts of the frozen field glistened with different hues. Every hue corresponded to a different frequency, suggesting a unique interaction of matter with light energy.

103_9405Another benefit of immersing myself into the walk was that it lifted the weight of the thoughts about the oncoming day. It also dissipated any of the usual worries that the condensation of water in my breath was beginning to accumulate and cool my neck-warmer. If anything, the journey was far too short. I was tempted to turn 180 degrees and repeat the walk with even more attention to detail…Oh but, wait, I said to myself. The fact that I did not indulge in an extended trek was not a wasted opportunity. After all, there was the journey home that afternoon.




Snow, Chemistry And The Spirit Of Christmas

Sometimes a view from an outsider is what’s needed to make us pause and reflect. Two of our students, one on an exchange program from Germany and one here from the southern U.S, have been enthralled this week at school not by the equations on the board or by the books we read but by the snow that they rarely see in their native environment.

One of them went out and ate the fluffy form of H2O, like we did when we were children,and then he fell back and made snow-angels. The other student just couldn’t wait for the week’s second snowfall.

Too accustomed to snow, as Canadians we associate it with shoveling and difficult driving conditions. We dream of escaping the cold and forget what a privilege it is to live in a land of ice and snow at a point in history when thanks to technology and science we can enjoy and understand snow. Unlike our Nordic ancestors, we are not condemned to shivering in a storm with inadequate clothing and poorly insulated shelter. In a country endowed with hydroelectricity, it is so easy to stand in warmth and to watch a cascade of transient crystals land on a window.

We know why it is truly rare for two snowflakes to be alike because their patterns depend on their immediate environment.   The slightest changes in pressure or temperature can affect the shape; as one drop of water crystallizes it releases energy, changing the destiny of an immediate neighbor. And yet all these differences represent variations upon a theme: all flakes have six sides and six needles. In the three dimensions of its solid form, snow molecules maximize the number of intermolecular attractions between themselves. Specifically, the oxygen of one H2O molecule attracts two hydrogen atoms from two different molecules.

Conversely, each of water’s hydrogen atoms bonds to an oxygen atom from two different H2O’s. A staggered hexagon results with a water molecule at each vertex. Even when, in the smallest of snowflakes, this arrangement is repeated about three billion trillion times, the basic pattern remains the same.

But enough said about chemistry. Snow is also the framework for the spirit of the holiday season. A few months ago my daughter was told there was no Santa and that parents were the ones filling the stockings on Christmas Eve. She approached me on the subject but seemed more curious than sad, so I told her a “transition-truth”. I told her that Santa is a spirit who gets into parents and makes them buy the gifts that children desire. In previous years we had written to Santa Claus together, but last week she wrote the letter, sealed the envelope, walked past me, and headed to the mailbox. I said, “Wait. Aren’t you going to tell me what you asked for?”

“No,” she replied. “You will be filled with the spirit of Santa and you’ll know what to get me.”

Let’s hope that the snow does not melt before Christmas.

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