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Ode To Ice


Time now for our Video Pick of the Week. Flora Lichtman, our multimedia editor is here. Hi, Flora.


FLATOW: Good video as always.


LICHTMAN: Yeah. This one is about something that I encounter every day, and I think of it as little more than a beverage cooler or maybe a nuisance on my commute to work. I'm talking about ice. But it turns out that ice was way more interesting than I knew before (unintelligible)...


FLATOW: You got...

LICHTMAN: It's much more than...

FLATOW: You got up close and personal with a bunch of ice...

LICHTMAN: Yeah, I did. So we went to Shintaro Okamoto's ice sculpting studio in Queens, and he is an ice expert for sure. And we also spoke with an ice researcher, the head of Dartmouth's ice research lab. I didn't even know there was such a thing as an ice research lab. But this guy, Erland Schulson, actually founded it and learned about ice's slippery properties. I mean that figuratively too.

FLATOW: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow talking with Flora Lichtman, who's discovering that ice an amazing...

LICHTMAN: It's amazing.

FLATOW: ...an amazing, amazing substance.

LICHTMAN: I heard from both of these ice experts who are experts in these sort of different ways, right? One is an artist...

FLATOW: Right.

LICHTMAN: ...and the other is a scientist. But they both said the thing, that ice is full of these mysterious contradictions. For instance, ice can be cloudy, or it can be crystal clear. Ice can be as soft as a snowflake or as hard as concrete.

FLATOW: Wow. And you went to his - their studio where they have these chainsaws buzzing...


...and cutting up the ice and making ice sculptures, right?

FLATOW: When you're dealing with something as hard as concrete, you have to bring out some serious power tools. And so they said that, actually, 60 to 70 percent of the sculpting work is done with chainsaws, sort of brute work, says Shintaro Okamoto.

SHINTARO OKAMOTO: The process is quite, kind of, root, you know, with these power tools. And the finished product is so much about this kind of fragility and, you know, elegance, and it's kind of funny to see some of these ice sculptors who present themselves as just like these macho guys and they create hearts and swans, you know?

FLATOW: And what did they create for you over there?

LICHTMAN: We saw a couple of things in action, some lions that were headed to the Ritz-Carlton, and then a dragon for Chinese New Year that was going to the Waldorf-Astoria. And it took a couple hours to do the sculpting. And once you start, obviously, you're not - you can't stop, because it's melting as they're sculpting.

FLATOW: And you saw - we see the video there, and then we see the - some commentary about the physics of ice and how it forms.

LICHTMAN: Yeah. One of the most interesting things I learned - did you know this, why ice is cloudy and some ice is clear?

FLATOW: Hey, you noticed that.

LICHTMAN: You see it all the time, but what - I found out the answer. It turns out that it's tiny air bubbles trapped in the ice that makes the difference between cloudy and clear ice. So cloudy ice has these little bubbles trapped and that scatters the light. So for Okamoto, there's ways to make ice - specialty ice with no bubbles. But you know, you learn about as they go.

FLATOW: Yeah. He's making 300-pound slabs (unintelligible).

LICHTMAN: It's not your average IQ.


FLATOW: But one thing on video - I saw a video (unintelligible) covering up the ice, is that he has to let the ice sort of sit for a while, right, the giant block of ice.


FLATOW: You just can't hack at it. It has to, like, cure or something.

LICHTMAN: Acclimate.

FLATOW: Acclimate.

LICHTMAN: Yeah. I like the curing.


FLATOW: It has to acclimate.

LICHTMAN: Yeah. It can't be - because it's all - this is another sort of interesting material science thing. It comes out of the freezer and it's all one temperature, right?

FLATOW: Right.

LICHTMAN: And it's really cold. And even on a day like we were there - it was in the 40s maybe in the studio, which is another thing - but you have to let the ice warm up. And if you cut into it too quickly, it will crack and burst, and that's because as it's warming up, the outer layer is actually warming up faster than the inside. And as it warms up, it expands, and so it creates this strain between the outer skin of the ice and the inner part. And this is apparently what causes cracks on ponds too. That's what Erland Schulson said.

FLATOW: Yeah. So you're learning - when you watch this video, it's up on our website at sciencefriday.com, and as you watch the ice sculpture going on, Flora has magically integrated some wonderful commentary about what the physics of ice and how it all works.

LICHTMAN: I snuck in a tiny bit of science.

FLATOW: There's a lot of it, yeah. Well, it's very - it's beautiful. The stuff that make is absolutely gorgeous. They do it quickly, right?

LICHTMAN: It's really fun to watch them work. It's really fast. Yeah.

FLATOW: And, you know, they're - and they had no goggles on first. The ice is flying all over the place.

LICHTMAN: And chainsaws everywhere. I mean, you said dueling chainsaws in the promotion, and it's totally right. It was scary, like, all the time sort of wielding these power tools.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And so you got a lesson and watched the ice sculpture. At the same time you learned a little bit about how ice is formed, and how you make clear ice and all kinds of good stuff. Thank you, Flora.

LICHTMAN: Thanks, Ira.

FLATOW: It's up there at our website sciencefriday.com. And you can download it on iTunes also, our videos there, and take it along with you on your iPod or iPad, and take along also all kinds of stuff on our website. That's about all the time we have for today. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.