Well, well, well

<chirp, chirp> “Moire here.”

“Hi, Sy, it’s Susan Kim. I’m at a break point while this experiment runs. Do you want to check the scones at Al’s?”

“I’ve got a bad case of February, feel like just hibernating somewhere. Can’t get started on anything so I might as well head over there.”

“You need Al’s patented Morning Dynamite brew. See you in a couple of minutes.”

“Hi, Al. My usual mocha latte, please, and your special wake-up potion for Sy. He’s got the Februaries.”

“Here you go, Susan. Bottom of the pot coming at ya, Sy. It’ll get ya lively, for sure.”

<We grab a table.> “So, Susan, what’s this experiment that you can just let alone for a while?”

“One of your blog posts inspired it. Do you remember the one about warm water freezing faster than cold?”

“Sometimes it does that, but the point of the post was how it’s only randomly sometimes in some experiments and not at all in others. Are you experimenting with water freezing?”

“No, but I’m working on a related problem. I can’t say much about it other than that there’s an industrial process that depends on recovering a crystalline product from a hot, concentrated solution. The problem is that if the solution is too weak nothing crystallizes when it cools but if it’s too concentrated the whole batch solidifies in one big mass. The industry wants to find the right conditions for making lots of small crystals. I’ve got a grant to research ways to do that.”

“That does sound a little like water freezing. How did my blog post help?”

“I was thinking about how crystals form. We know a lot about how ions or molecules come in from solution to attach to the surface of a growing crystal. Either they’re electrostatically pulled to just the right spot or they bounce on and off the surface until they find a place they fit into. But how does that surface get started in the first place?”

“Well, I imagine it happens when two molecules love each other very mu— OW!”

“Sy Moire, get your mind back on Science! … Sorry, did it really hurt that much?”

“It wouldn’t have but that’s the same spot on the same shoulder that Cathleen got me on.”

“Actually, your flip remark isn’t that far from what we think happens except the correct verb is ‘attract,’ not ‘love.‘ Some researchers even call the initial speck ‘the embryo‘ but most of us say ‘nucleus.’ Nucleation might start with only a few molecules clicking into the right configuration, or it might require a cluster of hundreds being mostly right. The process might even require help from short‑lived solvent structures. So many variables. Nobody has a good predictive theory or even broadly useful models. It’s all by art and rule of thumb.”

“Sounds like a challenge.”

“Oh, it is. Here’s the tip I took from your blog post. You mentioned that some of the freezing studies used hundreds of trials and reported what percent of them froze. Most of the industrial crystallization studies work at pilot plant scale, with liters or gallons of solution going into each trial. I decided to go small instead. Lab supply companies sell culture plates for biological work. Typically they’re polystyrene trays holding up to a hundred one‑milliliter wells. I bought a bunch of those, and I also bought a machine that can automatically load the wells with whatever solutions I like. I’ve positioned it next to a temperature‑controlled cabinet with a camera to photograph a batch of trays at regular intervals.”

“Nice, so you can set up many duplicates at each chemical concentration and keep statistics on how many form crystals at each temperature.”

“At high concentrations I expect all the wells to show crystals. The obvious measurement will be crystal size range at each temperature. But with no change in apparatus I can go to lower and lower concentrations to where crystallization itself is random like the freezing experiments. Some wells will crystallize, some won’t. Statistics on those trays may tell us things about nucleation. It’s gonna be fun.”

“D’ya suppose the planets are culture plate wells for creation’s life experiments?”

~~ Rich Olcott

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