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Assignment: Impossible

Assignment: Impossible

Exploring the area between the unknown and the impossible.

"Worth Pitching?": Mysteries of Rain and Ice

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In the series, "Worth Pitching?" I'll describe research I've come across in the course of science journalism and whether or not I pitched it to editors as a story. All research may be worthwhile, but what might the general public want to read about?

Nature conspires with the sacred lotus to keep it clean and pure, a trick scientists hope to learn to protect everything from ship hulls to the latest fashions. The leaf of the lotus is covered with a wax that helps water roll off, taking any dirt along with it. Waxes and oils are water-repellant or "hydrophobic" materials, the fact underlying the dictum that oil and water don't mix. Surface tension — the tendency of a surface of a liquid to resist an outside force — makes water naturally want to bead up into balls that can roll away.

The leaf of a lotus also possesses tiny bumps that boost its surface area, giving its wax more chances to repel water and making the leaf overall extremely water-repellant, or "superhydrophobic." Superhydrophobicity is also what helps water strider insects tread on watery surfaces instead of falling through them.

Although superhydrophobic surfaces repel water, do they keep off ice as well? Not always. As Michael Nosonovsky and Vahid Hejazi at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee explain, the often-bumpy of superhydrophobic surfaces traps air pockets between the solid and the liquid. When water freezes, these air pockets become the basis of cracks in the ice, and the larger cracks are, the easier it is to dislodge ice off a surface.

So is this research worth pitching as a news story? Keep in mind that what each science reporter likes to write about can be idiosyncratic, so my choices might not be the choices another science reporter or you would make. Also, it bears saying — whether I pitch a story or not isn't a judgment on whether I think the research is worthwhile, since my hope is that all research moves human knowledge forward. I'm focused on whether whatever audience I write for might be interested in reading about it.

Superhydrophobicity is a neat concept found everywhere in nature, such as bird feathers and beetle shells. Readers often like detailed explanations of how nature works, as long as its done in an interesting enough manner. Superhydrophobicity and icephobicity also have industrial applications — you don't want ice building up on plane wings, do you? — so that helps ground this in the real world.

In the end, though, I think it's too esoteric for a general audience to like. The research isn't about superhydrophobicity or icephobicity, it's about why one is not always the other. The explanation is not long enough to carry a story, or of wide enough interest — do people care whether or not a surface is both water-repellent and ice-repellent? A story might be possible if the researchers used their work to create a coating that was both superhydrophobic and supericephobic, but even then, it'll be hard to sell to readers.

A lot of science is about exploring little mysteries and fascinating minutiae of nature, taking joy in the careful unraveling of how something works much as one would solving any puzzle. It's difficult conveying that joy in the news sometimes — only the splashiest examples often work. It's at least worth a reporter's time to see if it's possible.

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You can email me regarding Worth Pitching? at toohardforscience@gmail.com.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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