Between the Lines: Science can be cool, except when it’s not

David Lias

David Lias

By David Lias

My mornings lately have involved a strenuous wrestling match, where I find myself thrown into a headlock and being slammed to the carpet a time or two.

This a.m. it appeared I was going to be pinned to the floor, but I was able to break my opponent’s grip and, by using my patented Greco-Roman knuckle lock, I was soon free to walk out the door to my car.

I’m guessing my morning routine hasn’t been unique this week. We’ve all to struggle, to make just the right moves, as we apply several layers of clothing topped by a big heavy coat before we can step outside into sub-zero temperatures.

I was a bit disappointed, however, to discover this morning that the invigorating wrasslin’ bout I had with my winter coat wasn’t needed. Don’t get me wrong – I appreciated the warm feeling (and cardio workout) that my struggle with sleeves, double zippers and gloves, provided. As I write this, it is 10 degrees above zero in Vermillion. The wind is practically non-existent, at a paltry four miles per hour.

We’re in heat wave.

It appears the polar vortex, which attempted to shift the northern ice cap of the planet to approximately 10 miles east of Platte, has subsided.

The National Weather Service, in fact, is the bearer of good news today. On Sunday, temps could hit 40 degrees in Vermillion. Thank goodness.

This should put a stop, at least temporarily, to the thousands of people that have decided, while much of the nation has been locked in a deep freeze, to conduct cold-related scientific experiments.

The most popular of these seems to be the tried and true “Step Outside With a Pan of Boiling Water, Throw It Into the Air and See What Happens” procedure.

I’ve seen numerous videos of this done safely and properly, and the outcome is rather fabulous. The hot water turns into ice crystals before it hits the ground.

Mark Seeley, a climatologist at the University of Minnesota, explains:

“When it’s cold outside, there’s hardly any water vapor present in the air, whereas boiling water emits vapor very readily that’s why it’s steaming,” he told National Public Radio. “When you throw the water up in the air, it breaks into much smaller droplets, so there’s even more surface for water vapor to come off of.

“Now, cold air is very dense, and this makes its capacity to hold water vapor molecules very low. There’s just fundamentally less space for the vapor molecules. So when you throw the boiling water up, suddenly the minus 22 air has more water vapor than it has room for. So the vapor precipitates out by clinging to microscopic particles in the air, such as sodium or calcium, and forming crystals. This is just what goes into the formation of snowflakes.”

There’s just one problem with this experiment. Quite a few people don’t know how to perform it safely.

Over Monday and Tuesday, the Los Angeles Times counted at least 50 people on social media who reported burning themselves or their friends after trying to turn boiling water into snow. There were also several reports of people going to the hospital to receive treatment for burns.

Tuesday night, the Argus Leader shared the tale of Danielle Albers, a Sioux Falls woman, who simply wanted to entertain her kids with this experiment.

She went outside earlier that day and stood in front of her picture window so her children could watch as she began to heave boiling water into the air.

“As I was throwing it, I slipped on the ice and the water went up,” she said. “It went all over my neck and down my back.”

Albers sustained second- and third-degree burns along her neck and back. Large, yellow blisters had bubbled up across her lower back.

It’s too warm now to try to do this experiment, but the Sioux Falls woman has advice for anyone tempted to try it should we get hit by another blast of subzero weather.

“Just don’t do it,” Albers said. “It’s not worth it.”

I’ve heard that blowing bubbles in severely cold weather can be kind of cool.

And very safe.

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