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Critical Opalescence

Critical Opalescence


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As Ice Forms, It Can Create Amazing Spirals

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


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In our February issue, Scientific American had an article on the phenomenon of liquid-rope coiling—the way that viscous fluids curl as they fall onto a surface, forming what looks like a miniature basket. Dribbling honey onto toast is a classic example (not to mention a great way to liven up your breakfast with physics experiments). Now reader Brian Parker of Dartmouth, England, sends us these remarkable photographs of ice spirals, which appear to be a related phenomenon. The spirals emanate from holes near the top of hollow tube stanchions on a metal staircase at a sports field.

Photographs courtesy of Brian Parker

George Musser About the Author: is a contributing editor at Scientific American. He focuses on space science and fundamental physics, ranging from particles to planets to parallel universes. He is the author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to String Theory. Musser has won numerous awards in his career, including the 2011 American Institute of Physics's Science Writing Award. Follow on Twitter @gmusser.

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





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  1. 1. oldfarmermac 11:59 pm 05/5/2014

    My guess is that these spirals as amazing as they are to look at do not amount to much in terms of throwing light on the behaviors of materials.

    Water frequently gets into such structures and often freezes inside doing substantial damage.

    If there is water in the tubing and the air temperatures and level of sunlight are just right the water can freeze just as it leaks out thru a small hole.It could easily freeze faster on one side than the other and cause the corkscrew effect.Sun on the tubing can keep the water liquid until it leaks out into sub freezing air.

    I do not have the equipment to post some old pics I have taken of ice on the edge of my barn roof. There was a substantial build up of slushy snow which was sliding slowly off the roof. It was frozen just hard enough to hold together as it slid slowly down and as it got extended farther off the edge it actually bent down in a smooth curve and froze hard.

    The explanation for this is that there was enough heat leaking thru the roof from the interior of the barn to keep the slush soft as long as it was actually on the metal but as soon as it extended just a bit off the metal it hardened up in the air which was well under freezing.

    Seeing water go from liquid to solid and form curves in the process is not all that unusual. But spirals are no doubt rare.

    I have seen pictures of this happening online a few times in the same way it did on my barn.

    Link to this

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