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Image courtesy of Ken Libbrecht

The Process

In spirit, these photos began years ago. I was a medical intern, a Californian new to frigid New England, bewildered by the onslaught and persistence of ice and snow and slush everywhere and in all shapes and varieties. I wandered about the place terrified, slipping on the ice and tumbling into the snow, trying mostly in vain to admire and analyze it as a sort of mental self defense against how depressed it made the Westerner in me.

One day, walking through a park after a rain and a freeze, I stepped on a puddle and heard it crunch. Crunch? It didn’t make sense; it seemed cold enough many times over to freeze a puddle (and me) in milliseconds, but apparently it hadn’t. I reached down, pulled out a piece of the frozen plate that was all of the puddle so far frozen, and found that the water below, instead of freezing itself, had soaked into the still soggy soil.

I flipped the thin ice sheet over and was astonished. It was covered, completely, by a hexagonal array of ice spikes, each about ¼ inch long and about the same distance apart, arranged like a too tiny (and too cold) orchard, each row and column at 60 degrees to the others. If that weren’t breathtaking enough, capping each little spike was a flat hexagonal plate of a snowflake, themselves about ¼ inch wide. It occurred to me that they’d condensed out of what must have been a vapor chamber between the icy surface of the puddle and the mud beneath it. And there I was with no camera … ergo, with no credibility when I tried to tell everyone back at the hospital where I was being tormented (I was an intern, remember). I my as well have claimed to have found Bigfoot. What I needed just then was the internet, but it was 1978 and it would have to wait twenty years or so. After a few ill-fated experiments in my freezer, I let the whole thing settle into the back of my mind.

Almost 30 years later some story or photo took me back to the day of the crunch. I still knew nothing whatever to explain the phenomenon, but now I had the internet. I found the wonderful website on snowflakes by Ken Libbrecht, the physicist at Caltech … but alas, no mention of the undersides of puddles. But he did have something intriguingly similar: that if you take a little distilled water, pour it into a plastic ice cube tray a few, sometimes even half of them, will grow little spikes, sometimes as long as two inches.

Ken’s explanation made wonderful sense: that the surface of each cube-to-be froze first, starting at the outside. When there was only a little surface left, the water below bowed upward as it expanded into ice. The outer ring of the resulting bulge froze first, the water bowed upward more and grew into a needle-like spike. The whole enterprise continued until the inside of the resulting upreaching spike froze completely.

It didn’t explain the puddle, but it intriguing. And, being a person of no moderation, I wondered if a larger container would make bigger spikes, maybe with more interesting shapes.

And it worked: in larger containers, larger bulges arched upward and, when I put colored objects and surfaces behind the shapes that grew, all sorts of colors and shapes and trails of bubbles (as the inwardly growing ice squeezed the air out of the ice lattice) gave the damnedest results.

The most gratifying aspect of the process is that the whole thing is self-assembling: the water (exploiting the laws of chemistry and thermodynamics) grow the things by itself. No assembly required (just a camera and the patience to endure an Edisonian march through what I’d at first feared was an endless range of containers, freezers, and physical conditions).

So there it is: hydrodynamic expressionism. The laws of physics pushes up the damndest shapes and I look for moods and forms and ranges of color that say things to me and, I hope, to you.

Copyright 2008 Andrew Abarbanel. All rights reserved. Design by Bill Weinberg