The Edge of Pinkness

Susan Kim takes a sip of her mocha latte. eyes me over the rim. “That’s quite a set of patterns you’ve gathered together, Sy, but you’ve left out a few important ones.”


A log-linear plot

“Regularities we’ve discovered in Nature. You’ve written about linear and exponential growth, the Logistic Curve that describes density‑limited growth, sine waves that wobble up and down, maybe a couple of others down‑stack, but Chemistry has a couple I haven’t seen featured in your blog.”

“Such as?”

“Log-linear relationships are a biggie. We techies use them a lot to handle phenomena with a wide range. Rather than write 1,000,000,000 or 109, we sometimes just write 9, the base‑10 logarithm. The pH scale for acid concentration is my favorite example. It goes from one mole per liter down to ten micro‑nanomoles per liter. That’s 100 to 10-14. We just drop the minus sign and use numbers between 0 and 14. Fifteen powers of ten. Does Physics have any measurements that cover a range like that?”

“A handful, maybe, in theory. The limitation is in confirming the theory across a billion-fold range or wider. Atomic clocks that are good down to the nanosecond are our standards for precision, but they aren’t set up to count years. Mmmm … the Stefan‑Boltzmann Law that links an object’s electromagnetic radiation curve to its temperature — our measurements cover maybe six or seven powers of ten and that’s considered pretty good.”

“Pikers.” <but I like the way she grins when she says it>

“I took those Chemistry labs long ago. All I remember was acids were colorless and bases were pink. Or maybe the other way around.”

“You’ve got it right for the classic phenolphthalein indicator, but there are dozens of other indicators that have different colors at different acidities. I’ll tell you a secret — phenolphthalein doesn’t kick over right at pH 7, the neutral point. It doesn’t turn pink until the solution’s about ten times less acidic, near pH 8.”

Adapted from this file by Damitr, CC BY-SA 4.0

“So all my titrations were off by a factor of ten?”

“Oh, no, that’s not how it works. I’m going to use round numbers here, and I’ll skip a couple of things like the distinction between concentration and activity. Student lab exercises generally use acid and base concentrations on the order of one molar. For most organic acids, that’d give a starting pH near 1 or 2, way over on the sour side. In your titration you’d add base, drop by drop, until the indicator flips color. At that point you conclude the amounts of acid and base are equivalent, not by weight but by moles. If you know the base concentration you can calculate the acid.”

“That’s about what I recall, right.”

“Now consider that last drop. One drop is about 50 microliters. With a one‑molar base solution, that drop holds 50 nanomoles. OK?”

<I scribble on a paper napkin> “Mm-hm, that looks right.”

“Suppose there’s about 50 milliliters of solution in the flask. Because we’re considering the last drop, the solution in the flask must have become nearly neutral, say pH 6. That means the un‑neutralized acid concentration was 10-6 moles per liter, or one micromolar. Fifty milliliters at one micromolar concentration is, guess what, 50 nanomoles. Your final drop neutralizes the last of the acid sample.”

“So the acid concentration goes to zero?”

“Water’s not that cooperative. Water molecules themselves act like acids and bases. An H2O molecule can snag a hydrogen from another H2O giving an H3O+ and an OH. Doesn’t happen often, but with 55½ moles of water per liter and 6×1023 molecules per mole there’s always a few of those guys hanging around. Neutral water runs 10-7 moles per liter of each, which is why neutral pH is 7. Better yet, the product of H3O+ and OH concentrations is always 10-14 so if you find one you can calculate the other. Take our titration for example. One additional drop adds 50 nanomoles more base. In 50 milliliters of solution that’s roughly 10-6+10-7 molar OH. Call it 1.1×10-6, which implies 0.9×10-8 molar H3O+. Log of that and drop the minus sign, you’re a bit beyond pH 8 which sends phenolphthalein into the pink side. Your titration’s good.”

I eye her over my mug of black mud. “A gratifying indication.”

~~ Rich Olcott

The Latte Connection

An early taste of Spring’s in the air so Al’s set out tables in front of his coffee shop. I’m enjoying my usual black mud when the Chemistry Department’s Susan Kim passes by carrying her usual mocha latte. “Hi, Sy, mind if I take the socially distant chair at your table?”

“Be my guest, Susan. What’s going on in your world?”

“I’ve been enjoying your hysteresis series. It took me back to Physical Chemistry class. I’m intrigued by how you connected it to entropy.”

“How so?”

“I think of hysteresis as a process, but entropy is a fixed property of matter. If I’m holding twelve grams of carbon at room temperature, I know what its entropy is.”

“Mmm, sorta. Doesn’t it make a difference whether the carbon’s a 60‑carat diamond or just a pile of soot?”

“OK, I’ll give you that, the soot’s a lot more random than the diamond so its entropy is higher. The point remains, I could in principle measure a soot sample’s heat capacity at some convenient temperature and divide that by the temperature. I could repeat that at lower and lower temperatures down to near absolute zero. When I sum all those measurements I’ll have the entropy content of the sample at my starting temperature.”

“A classical definition, just what I’d expect from a chemist. But suppose your soot spills out of its test tube and the breeze spreads it all over the neighborhood. More randomness, higher entropy than what you measured, right?”

“Well, yes. I wouldn’t have a clue how to calculate it, but that goes way beyond Carnot’s and Clausius’ original concept.”

“So entropy has at least a thin linkage with history and hysteresis. To you chemists, though, an element or compound is timeless — lead or water have always been lead or water, and their physical constants are, well, constant.”

“Not quite true, Sy. Not with really big molecules like proteins and DNA and rubber and some plastics. Squirt a huge protein like catalase through a small orifice and its properties change drastically. It might not promote any reaction, much less the one Nature designed it for. Which makes me think — Chemistry is all about reactions and they take time and studying what makes reactions run fast or slow is a big part of the field. So we do pay attention to time.”

“Nice play, Susan! You’re saying small molecules aren’t complex enough to retain memories but big ones are. I’ll bet big molecules probably exhibit hysteresis.”

“Sure they do. Rubber molecules are long-chain polymers. Quickly stretch a rubber band to its limit, hold it there a few seconds then let go. Some of the molecular strands lock into the stretched configuration so the band won’t immediately shrink all the way down to its original size. There’s your molecular memory.”

“And a good example it is — classic linear Physics. How much force you exert, times the distance you applied it through, equals the energy you expended. Energy’s stored in the rubber’s elasticity when you stretch it, and the energy comes back out on release.”

“Mostly right, Sy. You actually have to put in more energy than you get out — Second Law of Thermodynamics, of course — and the relationship’s not linear. <rummaging into purse> Thought I had a good fat rubber band somewhere … ah‑hah! Here, stretch this out while you hold it against your forehead. Feel it heat up briefly? Now keep checking for heat while you relax the band.”

“Hey, it got cold for a second!”

“Yep. The stretched-out configuration is less random so its entropy and heat capacity are lower than the relaxed configuration’s. The stretched band had the same amount of heat energy but with less heat required per degree of temperature, that amount of energy made the band hotter. Relaxing the band let its molecules get less orderly. Heat capacity went back up. temperature went back down.”

“Mmm-HM. My hysteresis diagram’s upward branch is stretch energy input and the downward branch is elastic energy output. The energy difference is the area inside the hysteresis curve, which is what’s lost to entropy in each cycle and there we have your intriguing entropy‑hysteresis connection. Still intrigued?”

“Enough for another latte.”

~~ Rich Olcott

Hysteresis Everywhere

“We’ve known each other for a long time, ain’t we, Sy?”

“That we have, Vinnie.”

“So I get suspicious when we’ve specific been talking about a magnetic field making something else magnetic and you keep using general words like ‘driver‘ and ‘deviation‘. You playing games?”

“You caught me. The hysteresis idea spreads a lot farther than magnetism. It addresses an entire dimension Newton was too busy to think about — time.”

“Wait a minute. Newton was all about velocity and acceleration and both of them are something‑per‑time. It’s right there in the units. Twice for acceleration.”

“True, but each is really about brief time intervals. Say you’re riding a roller‑coaster. Your velocity and acceleration change second‑by‑second as forces come at you. Every force changes your net acceleration immediately, not ten minutes from now. Hysteresis is about change that happens because of a cause some time in the past. Newton didn’t tackle time‑offset problems, I suppose mostly because the effects weren’t detectable with the technology of his time.”

“They had magnets.”

“Permanent ones, not electromagnets they could control and measure the effects of. Electromagnetic hysteresis generates effects that Newton couldn’t have known about. Fahrenheit didn’t invent temperature measurement until two years before Newton died, so science hadn’t yet discovered temperature‑dependent hysteresis effects. The microscope had been around for a half‑century or so but in Newton’s day people were still arguing about whether cells were a necessary part of a living organism. Newton’s world didn’t have an inkling of cellular biophysics, much less biophysical hysteresis. At human scale, country‑level economic data if it existed at all was a military secret — not a good environment for studying cases of economic hysteresis.”

“So what you’re saying is that Newton couldn’t have tackled those even if he’d wanted to. Got it. But that’s a pretty broad list of situations. How can you say they’re all hystereseseses, … loopy things?”

“They’ve all got a set of characteristics that you can fit into similar mathematical models. They’re all about some statistical summary of a complex system. The system is under the influence of some outside driver, could be a physical force or something more abstract. The driver can work in either of two opposing directions, and the system can respond to the driver to change in either of two opposing ways. Oh, and a crucial characteristic is that the system has a buffer of some sort that saves a memory of what the driver did and serves it up some time later.”

“Wait, lemme see if I can match those pieces to my magnetic nail. OK, the driver is the outside magnetic field, that’s easy, the system is the magnetic iron atoms, and the summary is the nail’s field. The driver can point north‑to‑south or south‑to‑north and the atoms can, too. Ah, and the memory is the domains ’cause the big ones hold onto the direction the field pointed last. How’d I do?”


“Goody for me. So why are those guys on the radio saying the economy is hysterical, ‘scuse, has hysteresis? What’s which part?”

“Economies are complex beasts, with a lot of separate but interacting hysteresis loops. These guys, what were they discussing at the time?”

“Unemployment, if I remember right. They said the job market is sticky, whatever that means.”

“Good example. Here’s our basic hysteresis loop with some relabeling. Running across we’ve got our driver, the velocity of money, which claims to measure all the buying and selling. Up‑and‑down we’ve got total employment. The red dot is the initial equilibrium, some intermediate level where there’s just enough cash flowing around that some but not all people have jobs. Then a new industry, say cellphones, comes in. Suddenly there’s people making cellphones, selling cellphones, repairing cellphones –“

“I get the idea. More activity, money flows faster, more jobs and people are happy. OK, then the pandemic comes along, money slows down, jobs cut back and around we go. But where’s the stickiness?”

“In people’s heads. If they get into Depression thinking, everyone holds onto cash even if there’s a wonderful new cellphone out there. People have to start thinking that conditions will improve before conditions can improve. That’s the delay factor.”

“Hysterical, all right.”

~~ Rich Olcott

The Tale of A Nail

“Wait, Sy, let me get my head around that hysteresis loop diagram. You got my iron nail starting at that red dot because it’s not magnetized yet so that’s zero on the up‑down magnetism deviation scale, right? And it’s also zero on the left‑right driver scale because we’re not laying a magnetic field on it.”

“Yup, that’s the starting point, Vinnie.”

“OK, then we turn on the outside field and if it’s strong enough the nail gets magnetic, too, and so we travel up the red line. But the line’s not straight, it’s bendy. Why ain’t it straight?”

“To keep this specific, I’ll stick to the current theory for magnetization of iron. At point zero the individual iron atoms have their personal magnetic fields in completely random orientations. What we measure outside the nail is the average of all of that, which nets out to zero. Now we turn on the external magnetic field a little bit at a time so we can measure the effect. You remember we said that the iron atoms in a magnet are organized in domains.”

“Sure. I don’t forget easy.”

“I’ve noticed. OK, that upward bend at the beginning is slow increase in the nail’s magnetization while those domains are forming up. First a few atoms in one small area orient their local fields relative to the external field. Their combined field influences neighboring atoms to join in. The process is called nucleation because those first few atoms form the nucleus of a domain. The nucleus gains strength by recruiting more atoms, making it an even stronger recruiter. The red line rises exponentially until there aren’t any more unrecruited atoms.”

“That’s the end of the upward bend, huh?”

“Mm-hm, now we enter the linear phase and a different magnetization process. Energy in the external field feeds the domains pointed parallel to it at the expense of domains at a different angle. Domain growth is roughly linear with applied field strength. That line would like to stay straight but nothing goes on forever except maybe the Universe. Sooner or later the domains start running out of room to grow into. Increasing the driver strength doesn’t produce any further effect and we say that the nail’s magnetic field is saturated.”

“That makes sense. Let’s see if I can figure the blue loop from where the head end is north. The number 2 arrow says that if we dial down the driver, that’s the outside field and we’re moving to the left, when we get to zero the deviation, that’s the nail’s field, is still going strong and we got a permanent magnet. If we adjust the outside field leftward beyond zero that kills off the nail’s field … Hey, so the backward domains are eating the forward ones, right?”

“Probably. Depends on the material. Not good to ride the theory too far without checking the experimental data but that’d be my guess.”

“OK, so we drive those little domains until they saturate with the head end south. When we dial down the driver’s field backward strength we move to the right and the nail climbs the number 3 curve. The driver field returns to zero but the nail’s still a backward permanent magnet. We push the driver and the nail to forward saturation again and we can go loop‑de‑loop. But we never go through the red dot again — either the nail’s a permanent magnet when the driver’s zero or it not a magnet while the driver’s strong but they’re never both zero again.”

“Unless we scramble all the domains by heating the nail white-hot and letting it cool away from any external fields.”

“You know what’s missing from that picture, Sy?”

I’d wondered if he’d spot it. “I’ll bite. What?”

“Numbers. Up‑down is how strong the magnet is, right, but I know my knife‑holder magnets are a lot stronger than my calendar marker magnets. And the side‑to‑side part is about how well the stuff holds its magnetism. What’s the theory that puts numbers on the graph?”

“Sorry to tell you this given your math aversion, Vinnie, but the numbers are buried in big, thick books with equations in them. Pictures can only get you so far.”

~~ Rich Olcott

The Hysterical Penguin

“Sy, you said that hysteresis researchers filled in two of Newton’s Physics gaps. OK, I get that he couldn’t do atomic stuff ’cause atoms hadn’t been discovered yet. What’s the other one?”

Proposition XI, Problem VI
from Book I of Newton’s Principia


“You’re gonna have to explain that.”

“It’s a math thing. I know you don’t go for equations, so here’s a picture to get you started on how Newton solved problems. Look at all familiar?”

“Whoa, looks like something toward the end of my Geometry class.”

“Exactly. Newton was trained as a geometer and he was good at it. His general strategy was to translate a physical system to a geometrical structure and then work out its properties as a series of geometric proofs. The good news was that he proved a lot of things that started us on the way to quantitative science. The bad news was that his proofs were hard to extend to situations where the geometry wasn’t so easy.”

“That’s easy?”

“For Newton, maybe it was. Who knows? Anyway, the toolkit they gave you in Geometry class was what Newton had to work with — logic, straight lines and some special curves like ellipses and parabolas whose properties had been studied since Euclid, all on a flat plane. Nearly everything depended on finding proportionalities between different distances or areas — this line is twice that one but equal to a third, that sort of thing. Proportionality like that is built into equations like here+(velocity×time)=there. See how distance traveled is proportional to time? The equation plots as a straight line, which is why it’s called a linear equation.”

“So what’s non‑linear look like — all wiggle‑waggle?”

“Not necessarily. Things can vary smoothly along curves that aren’t those classical ones. Newton’s methods are blocked on those but Leibniz’s algebra‑based calculus isn’t. That’s why it won out with people who needed answers. What’s important here is that Newton’s lines can’t describe everything. Mmm… where does a straight line end?”

“Either at a T or never. Same thing for a parabola. Hey, ellipses don’t really end, either.”

“Mm-hm. Newton’s lines either stop abruptly or they continue forever. They don’t grow or peter out exponentially like things in real life do. Suppose something’s velocity changes, for instance.”

“That’s acceleration. I like accelerating.”

“So true, I’ve experienced your driving. But even you don’t accelerate at a constant rate. You go heavy or light or maybe brake, whatever, and our speed goes up or down depending. The only way Newton’s geometry can handle variable acceleration is to break it into mostly‑constant pieces and work one piece at a time. Come to think of it, that may be where he got the idea for his fluxions method for calculus. Fortunately for him, some things like planets and artillery shells move pretty close to what his methods predict. Unfortunately, things like disease epidemics and economies don’t, which is why people are interested in non‑linearity.”

“So what do these hysteresis guys do about it?”

“Mostly algebraic calculus or computer approximations. But there wasn’t just one group of hysteresis guys, there was a bunch of groups, each looking at different phenomena where history makes a difference. Each group had their own method of attack.”

“Like your elephant thing with Anne, lots of notions about entropy.”

Typical hysteresis loop
Red — initial evolution
Blue — subsequent changes

“How’d you find out about that?”

You wrote those posts, Sy, about three years ago.”

“Oh, that’s right. Talk about history. Anyway, it took decades for the ecologists, epidemiologists, civil engineers and several kinds of physicist to realize that they all have systems that behave similarly when driven by a stressor. Starting at some neutral situation, the system evolves in the driver’s direction to some maximum deviation where increased stress has no further effect. When the stress is relieved, the system may stick temporarily at the strained position. When it does evolve away from there, maybe a reverse driver is needed to force a return to the starting situation. In fact, if the forward and reverse drivers are applied repeatedly the system may never get back to the initial unstressed position.”

“Like that iron nail. Not magnetic, then magnetic, then reversed.”

~~ Rich Olcott


<chirp, chirp> “Moire here.”

“Hi, Sy, it’s Vinnie again. Hey, I just heard something on NPR I wanted to check with you on.”

“What’s that?”

“They said that even with the vaccine and all, it’s gonna take years for us to get back to normal ’cause the economy’s hysterical. Does that mean it’s cryin’‑funny or just cryin’? Neither one seems to fit.”

“You’re right about the no‑fit. Hmm… Ah! Could the word have been ‘hysteresis‘?”

“Somethin’ like that. What’s it about?”

“It’s an old Physics word that’s been picked up by other fields. Not misused as badly as ‘quantum,’ thank goodness, but still. The word itself gives you a clue. Do you hear the ‘history‘ in there?”

“Hysteresis, history … cute. So it’s about history?”

“Yup. The classic case is magnetism. Take an iron nail, for instance. The nail might already be magnetized strongly enough to pick up a paper clip. If it can, you can erase the magnetism by heating the nail white‑hot. If the nail’s not magnetic you may be able to magnetize it by giving it a few hammer‑whacks while it’s pointed north‑south, parallel to Earth’s magnetic field. Things get more interesting if we get quantitative. A strong‑enough magnetic field will induce magnetism in that nail no matter what direction it’s pointed. Reverse that field’s direction and the nail stays magnetized, only less so. It takes a stronger reverse field to demagnetize the nail than it took to magnetize it in the first place. See how the history makes a difference?”

“Yeah, for some things.”

“And that’s the point. Some of a system’s properties are as fixed as the nail’s weight or chemical composition. However, it may have other properties we can’t understand without knowing the history. Usually we can’t even predict them without looking at deeper structures. Hysteresis highlights two more gaps in Newton’s Physics. As usual he’s got a good excuse because many history‑dependent phenomena couldn’t even be detected with 17th‑Century technology. We couldn’t produce controllable magnetic fields until the 19th Century, when Oersted and Ampere studied magnetism and electricity. We didn’t understand magnetic hysteresis until the 20th Century.”

“Haw! You’re talking history of history. Anyway, to me it looks like what’s going on is that the strong field gets the magnetic atoms in there to all point the same way and heat undoes that by shaking them up to point random‑like.”

“What about the reversing field?”

“Maybe it points some of the atoms in the other direction and that makes the nail less and less magnetic until the field is strong enough to point everything backwards.”

“Close enough. The real story is that the atoms, iron in this case, are organized in groups called domains. The direction‑switching happens at the domain level — battalions of magnetically aligned atoms — but we had no way to know that until 20th‑Century microscopy came along.”

“So it takes ’em a while to get rearranged, huh?”

“Mmm, that’d be rate-dependent hysteresis, where the difference between forward and backward virtually disappears if you go slow enough. Think about putting your hand slowly into a tub of water versus splashing in there. Slow in, slow out reverses pretty well, but if you splash the water’s in turmoil for quite a long time. Magnetic hysteresis, though, doesn’t care about speed except in the extreme case. It’s purely controlled by the strength of the applied field.”

“I’m thinking about that poor frog.”

‘You would go there, wouldn’t you? Yeah, the legendary frog in slowly heating water would be another history dependency but it’s a different kind. The nail’s magnetism only depends on atoms standing in alignment. A frog is a highly organized system, lots of subsystems that all have to work together. Warming water adds energy that will speed up some subsystems more than others. If Froggy exits the pot before things desynchronize too far then it can recover its original lively state. If it’s trapped in there you’ve got frog soup. By the way, it’s a myth that the frog won’t try to hop out if you warm the water slowly. Frogs move to someplace cool if they get hotter than their personal threshold temperature.”

“Frogs are smarter than legends, huh?”

~~ Rich Olcott

‘Twixt A Rock And A Vortex

A chilly late December walk in the park and there’s Vinnie on a lakeside bench, staring at the geese and looking morose. “Hi, Vinnie, why so down on such a bright day?”

“Hi, Sy. I guess you ain’t heard. Frankie’s got the ‘rona.”

Frankie??!? The guys got the constitution of an ox. I don’t think he’s ever been sick in his life.”

“Probably not. Remember when that bug going around last January had everyone coughing for a week? Passed him right by. This time’s different. Three days after he showed a fever, bang, he’s in the hospital.”

“Wow. How’s Emma?”

“She had it first — a week of headaches and coughing. She’s OK now but worried sick. Hospital won’t let her in to see him, of course, which is a good thing I suppose so she can stay home with the kids and their schoolwork.”

“Bummer. We knew it was coming but…”

“Yeah. Makes a difference when it’s someone you know. Hey, do me a favor — throw some science at me, get my mind off this for a while.”

“That’s a big assignment, considering. Let’s see … patient, pandemic … Ah! E pluribus unum and back again.”

“Come again?”

“One of the gaps that stand between Physics and being an exact science.”

“I thought Physics was exact.”

“Good to fifteen decimal places in a few special experiments, but hardly exact. There’s many a slip ‘twixt theory and practice. One of the slips is the gap between kinematic physics, about how separate objects interact, and continuum physics, where you’re looking at one big thing.”

“This is sounding like that Loschmidt guy again.”

“It’s related but bigger. Newton worked on both sides of this one. On the kinematics side there’s billiard balls and planets and such. Assuming no frictional energy loss, Newton’s Three Laws and his Law of Gravity let us calculate exact predictions for their future trajectories … unless you’ve got more than three objects in play. It’s mathematically impossible to write exact predictions for four or more objects unless they start in one of a few special configurations. Newton didn’t do atoms, no surprise, but his work led to Schrödinger’s equation for an exact description of single electron, single nucleus systems. Anything more complicated, all we can do is approximate.”

“Computers. They do a lot with computers.”

“True, but that’s still approximating. Time‑step by time‑step and you never know what might sneak in or out between steps.”

“What’s ‘continuum‘ about then? Q on Star trek?”

“Hardly, we’re talking predictability here. Q’s thing is unpredictability. A physics continuum is a solid or fluid with no relevant internal structure, just an unbroken mass from one edge to the other. Newton showed how to analyze a continuum’s smooth churning by considering the forces that act on an imaginary isolated packet of stuff at various points in there. He basically invented the idea of viscosity as a way to account for friction between a fluid and the walls of the pipe it’s flowing through.”

“Smooth churning, eh? I see a problem.”

“What’s that?”

“The eddies and whirlpools I see when I row — not smooth.”

“Good point. In fact, that’s the point I was getting to. We can use extensions of Newton’s technique to handle a single well‑behaved whirlpool, but in real life big whirlpools throw off smaller ones and they spawn eddies and mini‑vortices and so on, all the way down to atom level. That turns out to be another intractable calculation, just as impossible as the many‑body particle mechanics problem.”

“Ah‑hah! That’s the gap! Newton just did the simple stuff at both ends, stayed away from the middle where things get complicated.”

“Exactly. To his credit, though, he pointed the way for the rest of us.”

“So how can you handle the middle?”

“The same thing that quantum mechanics does — use statistics. That’s if the math expressions are average‑able which sometimes they’re not, and if statistical numbers are good enough for why you’re doing the calculation. Not good enough for weather prediction, for instance — climate is about averages but weather needs specifics.”

“Yeah, like it’s just started to snow which I wasn’t expecting. I’m heading home. See ya, Sy.”

“See ya, Vinnie. … Frankie. … Geez.

~~ Rich Olcott

❄❅❆Snowflakes ❆❅❄

<chirp, chirp> “Moire here.”

“Uncle Sy! Uncle Sy! It’s snowing again!”

“Yes, Teena, I noticed. I’ll be over to help you build a snowman in a little while.”

“Yay! There’s so much snow coming down. I bet there’s a kazillion snowflakes!”

“Maybe even more. And no two of them are exactly alike.”

“Yeah, that’s what Mommy said. I went outside a while ago and caught a bunch on my coat sleeve like you showed me. All different shapes — stars and pencils and almost-round ones and spiky balls. I can’t remember them all. How do we know that they never match? Did someone look at them with a computer camera?”

“Whoa, that’s too big a job for even a really fast computer with a really good camera. No, it goes back to how snowflakes grow up.”

“Ha-ha, that’s funny! Little baby snowflake grows up to be a big Mommy snowflake!”

“Well, in a way that’s what happens. You know clouds are really made of teeny water droplets, right?”

“Yeah, Mommy says it’s a fog, but way up in the air. But the fluffy ones are pretty.”

“Yes they are, but inside some of the not-fluffy clouds it can be very cold and windy.”

“Danger cold?”

“Very danger cold. Cold enough for some of those teeny droplets to freeze and become ice droplets. When an ice droplet touches a water droplet they merge to make a bigger piece of ice. The winds blow the ice up and down between wet places and cold places inside the cloud over and over again. The piece of ice grows and grows until it gets so heavy it falls down out of the cloud.”

“Like a roller coaster! But wouldn’t that just make round ice? That’s not what I caught on my sleeve.”

“Sometimes it does. Remember that hail storm we had last year?”

“Oooo. Yeah, we got inside just in time. Those hailstones went pitter‑patter all over the sidewalk and the windows.”

“Just be very glad they were only pinkie‑nail‑sized. I was in a storm once where the hail was as bigger than your shooter marble. It made dents on my car.”

“WOW! That would hurt!”

“It certainly would. I hope you’re never in one of those ice storms, just stars‑and‑pencils snow like you saw on your sleeve. Stars‑and‑pencils happens when the winds inside the cloud are gentler and give the teeny ice droplets time to grow a different way.”

“Different how?”

“Want to do an experiment?”

“Over the phone?”

“Sure. Get your bag of marbles and a lid from one of your board game boxes. Say when you’re ready.”

“OK … ready!”

“OK, Put the lid on the floor face‑down but prop it up so one corner is lower than the other three.”

“Umm … ready!”

“Now slowly pour your marbles into the lid so they lie together in one layer. Slowly, we don’t want them going all over the floor.”

“That’d make Mommy mad. Ooo, pretty! They make a honeycomb pattern. I see a lot of hexa–, um…”

“Hexagons. Good girl, you did that just right. That pattern is a lot like how water molecules arrange themselves when they freeze. When a new molecule walks up to some ice, it tries to touch as many other molecules as it can. That automatically makes hexagons.”

“Oh! Teeny hexagons grow up to be snow hexagons! Ha-ha!!”

“Mm-hm, and depending on conditions some rows grow fast to make flat plate snowflakes or a different set of rows might grow quickly to make frilly stars.”

“But why don’t they all grow the same?”

“Because of how messy it is inside that cloud. Winds blowing up and down and sideways, wet places and not‑so‑wet places scattered all over everywhere. Two baby snowflakes starting right next to each other can wind up on opposite sides of the cloud with entirely different stories to tell.”

“But then how can different sides of the same snowflake be the same?”

“They’re on the same flake so they’re always close together as the flake grows. They don’t get a chance for different stories. OK, I just finished up. It’s snowman time.”


Nope, ain’t gonna happen. Not with water, not with anything else.

~~ Rich Olcott

Conjunction Function

Author’s note — This was supposed to have been posted on 13 December, a week before the conjunction, but then Arecibo happened. That topic took precedence and two parts. Please pretend you’re reading this before 21 December.

hi, Sy. taking orders for tonite’s delivery. u want pizza? calzone?

Hi, Eddie. How about a veggie stromboli?

sure, no problem. @ your office about 6:45, OK?

That’ll be good. See you then.

btw, question for you about the jupiter-saturn thing coming up

The conjunction? Sure. We can talk when you get here.

<bah-dap-dap> “C’mon in, Eddie, the door’s open.”

“Hiya, Sy. Here’s your stromboli. Sorry I’m a little late. I figured we’d be talking so I took care of my other customers first. I wrapped it real good, is it still hot enough?”

<tasting pause> “Perfect, Eddie. So what’s your question?”

“OK, I been reading on the internet about how Jupiter and Saturn are gonna collide on December 21 and we’re all gonna die so don’t bother about Christmas. But I also read that this happened before like 800 years ago and we’re still here so the ‘all gonna die‘ part don’t sound right.”

“Good thinking. We’re not going to die, they’re not going to collide, and Great Conjunctions happen way more often than every 800 years. You said you’d be asking about that so I built a couple of diagrams using planet positions I pulled from NASA’s slick Eyes on The Solar System app. OK, let’s start with this south‑facing view of the system as it was a year ago.”

Planetary positions, 15 Dec 2019

“Pretty, kinda, but what’s it mean?”

“That orange dot in the center is the Sun. The circles are planet orbits, and the colored dots show the position of each planet. All the planets and most of their moons go counterclockwise when viewed from Solar north — that’s what the little arrows show.”

“I thought Jupiter was way bigger than Earth.”

“It is. There’s no way you can get planet distances and planet sizes to scale in the same diagram. Distances are too big and even Jupiter’s too small. These distances are about right, but all the dots are just markers.”

“Funny, Sy — you dropped Jupiter half-way between Earth and Saturn.”

“That’s where it is. The distance between each pair of orbits is almost exactly 4½ times the distance between Earth and the Sun. Of course, the distance between the planets themselves depends on where each one is in its orbit and that changes all the time. Earth flies along its path three times faster than Saturn goes. Last December, Earth was 186 million miles further away from Saturn than it was in July.”

“Those dotted lines are sight-lines? That picture says that last December we had a clear view of Saturn but Earth and Jupiter were playing peek-a-boo around the Sun.”

“Exactly, and what a great lead‑in to my second diagram, calculated for next Monday.”

Planetary positions, 21 Dec 2020

“The two sight-lines overlap. They’ll look like just one planet, sorta. So that’s what all the fuss is about? They’re still that huge distance away from each other, not close to us at all.”

“Overlap’s a good word, though the official term is conjunction. The only things close together are images as seen from Earth. That last qualifier is important. What you see depends on where you stand. Our Curiosity rover on Mars won’t see a Great Conjunction like this for another month, on 31 Jan 2021.”

“What makes it a Great Conjunction? Is it brighter or something?”

“In a way. In principle you can have a conjunction of any two visible astronomical bodies. The phrase Great Conjunction only applies to Jupiter‑Saturn events. Of the classical planets Jupiter and Saturn are the slowest‑moving so their conjunction happens least often. They’re also the biggest and reflect more sunlight than Mercury or Mars so, yeah, their conjunctions tend to be especially bright.”

“But you said it happens a lot.”

“About every 20 years. You’re thinking about that 800‑year‑old event. That was the last time the two images were so close, less than a tenth of a degree apart.”

“So anyhow, we’re not all gonna die. Guess I’ll go Christmas shopping after all.”

“You do that, but shop local, OK?”

“That’s my motto now.”

~~ Rich Olcott