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Super Cool

Tuesday, December 05, 2017 - 06:12 PM

(Jeffer Sandstrom)

When we started reporting a fantastic, surreal story about one very cold night, more than 70 years ago, in northern Russia, we had no idea we'd end up thinking about cosmology. Or dropping toy horses in test tubes of water. Or talking about bacteria. Or arguing, for a year. Walter Murch (aka, the Godfather of The Godfather), joined by a team of scientists, leads us on what felt like the magical mystery tour of super cool science.

Our supercooling demonstration (with a tiny horse):


For more video of our trip to the lab, check out:

Jad grows ice, with one finger (sorta)

A flash freezing, in high-def

And it turns out, our podcast has something to do with this pret-ty big physics discovery, about possibly one of the earliest supercooling events in the universe, moments after the Big Bang.

This piece was produced by Molly Webster and Matt Kielty with help from Amanda Aronczyk.  It originally aired in March of 2014.

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Janna Levin, Walter Murch, Alexander Petroff, Erin Pettit and Virginia Walker

Produced by:

Matt Kielty and Molly Webster


Amanda Aronczyk


More in:

Comments [22]

Boo Radley from Yomommas Crib

Cool story but was kind of ruined for me by an occurrence of one of my WORST pet-peeves... the (mis)pronunciation of NUCLEAR as NUCULAR. In this case it is a SCIENTIST saying NUCULATION instead of NUCLEATION. Surprisingly, this is not the first time I've heard an Actual Scientist say this (though I think it was just one other time, but still)!
Granted, it definitely WAS *NOT* OKAY when the PRESIDENT of our country gave utterance to the despicable NUCULAR, countless times, making him sound like a ridiculous cartoon stereotype of a dumb hick hillbilly who also says stuff like 'MATERS and 'TATERS and VIDDLES. So maybe that particular president fit the bill,
but COME ON! SERIOUSLY, we need to somehow stop letting people go uncorrected on this out of politeness. To not say something is to let them go through life being laughed at behind their backs. I mean, is this phenomenon due in part to just stubbornness... because it's not a legitimate colloquialism from any specific place, and its DEFINITELY NOT valid as just a "choice"... or is it truly straight-up ignorance and just a general lack of awareness so profound that you somehow made it through life without ever making the connection between the NUCLEUS of an atom and NUCLEAR science/ reactions/energy/weapons/whatever? Is that really not obvious? REALLY? Virginia never put it together that to NUCLEATE super-cooled water was to seed it with a NUCLEUS like an atom?
I don't know, I'm really not a word-police type, or even someone who cares how anyone pronounces anything. EXCEPT NUCULAR. WHEN YOU'RE A SCIENTIST. OR A US PRESIDENT.
there's an episode of The Simpeons that came out in the first year of the W.administration where Homer tries to correct a scientist by slowly sounding it out for him, saying "Actually, it's pronounced NUE-CUE-LER"

Feb. 15 2018 04:05 AM
Gustavo A. Cardozo from Norwalk, Connecticut

Referring to different types of bacteria causing ice/snow to form, could this be the reason why different snow flakes have different shapes and forms when looked more closely?

Jan. 09 2018 01:21 PM
Jessica from Washington, DC

How hot do forest fires get? Isn't it more straightforward to pose that the fire was hot enough to melt the edge of the lake enough so that when the horses ran to the lake they fell through or waded in? Then when the fire subsided the lake froze again around the horses who were now moving so slowly from hypothermia they were stuck.

Jan. 03 2018 09:30 AM
Edward Eigerman from New York, NY

A fun and interesting episode but I'm disappointed that you came up with a single possible explanation, pursued it, and when it didn't turn out to be likely you decided the whole story was a fiction (which it may certainly have been.) There is another, more compelling, scientific explanation that presents itself and it centers not on the horse victims, who may have just been in the wrong place at the wrong time, but on the firestorm that you mention, but don't really discuss. I would always want to examine the firestorm, since that's an unusual circumstance, while swimming horses is not.

As someone mentions above, when you cool a bottle of seltzer and then open it it will sometimes instantly freeze. That's not because of dust, but because of a sudden drop in pressure inside the bottle. Water freezes at a higher temperature in lower pressures. Inside the bottle, where trapped CO2 has increased the pressure the water could be very cool, but stay a liquid.

Now imagine a lake where the water is hovering right around 0 degrees Celsius. It's liquid because it's at sea level and it has to drop all the way to 0 at sea level to freeze. Suddenly there is a literal firestorm around it. Everything around it is on fire. That heats the air rapidly, causing an updraft, which reduces the air pressure around the lake. And the air pressure drops enough to raise the temperature at which the lake will freeze very slightly. The lake stays the same temperature but it freezes solid.

The effect of pressure on the freezing point of water is much less dramatic than the effect on the boiling point, but it is operative.

Dec. 20 2017 03:29 PM
Bay from iRAN

Hey "Supercool" was super cool episode. just one question in my mind remained without answer. When you said Pure water molecules need an solid or external molecules to reform into ice, why they don't follow molecules of TUBE or CONTAINER that they're in???!!! they are solid and they've structure!
i'll be thankful if someone answer this.

Radiolab is supported by WE and ME :)

Dec. 19 2017 12:17 AM
Haverholm from Sweden

It's a little disturbing that there wasn't more thorough fact checking in the beginning of reporting in this story. Although the result is a very interesting digression, a quick source check in the historical accuracy of Malaparte's writings would have stopped investigations cold (pun intended) before they started:

The book "Kaputt" from which the horse story is taken is by no means a veracious account of WWII, but a fiction based upon the author's experiences of the time – often relying on symbolism to emphasize the cruelties of man and of war. Malaparte himself called the book a novel while others choose to see it as "semi-fiction". Either way, the implausible flash freeze described here must be considered one of his inventions.

Dec. 17 2017 09:25 AM
Jana M from MN

I have had the same experience as others, seeing a water bottle freeze instantly when it is moved. The science claims that the water freezes when exposed to dust or bacteria, but that is not the case in many of the personal experiences shared above. A physical disturbance to super cooled water is what starts the freeze. They never talked about how movement can cause instant freezing or how things like a dogs water bowl (definitely not free of dust and bacteria) or beer can instantly freeze. A friend of mine once forgot a bottle of Diet Pepsi in the freezer. She opened it, thinking it was liquid, and it instantly froze, but it exploded from the bottle, possibly related to the pressure of the carbonation. Frozen Diet Pepsi mist hit the ceiling and all the walls! I am calling BS on the scientists, their theory has too many holes in it.

Dec. 14 2017 10:50 AM
Scott Marsh from WNY

I've seen this happen several times in my car here in upstate New York. If I have left a new bottle of water in the center console overnight and then pick it up to take a drink in the morning after a particularly cold night (depending on how cold it was), the water will freeze in a flash. It's spectacular to see first hand.

Dec. 14 2017 06:39 AM
D. Paul Fonseca from San Diego, CA

On there's a short video called "My Winnipeg." ( The footage is supposedly from 1929, but it illustrates the frozen horse visual well. Do not watch if you are sensitive to dead animals. It's pretty vivid. They are frozen solid and look anguished. :^(

I wonder how often this kind of thing has actually happened? Anyone?


Dec. 13 2017 01:43 PM
Youssef from Vancouver, BC

Fantastic episode!

Dec. 11 2017 01:12 PM

Why is radiolab constantly repeating episodes with just little tweaks or "updates".

Dec. 11 2017 05:40 AM
Caro from the void

is this episode a repeat???

Dec. 09 2017 10:07 PM
Annie Stratton from Somewhere in Vermont

What a fun show! Thoroughly enjoyed it. But was baffled by the claim that this kind of freezing couldn't happen, or that it needed pure water under specific conditions. I lived for a while high in the Colorado Rockies, and witnessed this kind of thing often. Caught my thumb in my dog's water dish one morning when I reached down to move it from under my truck. Bingo, just like that, the water froze around my thumb. Thawed it out with water warming for tea. Several times saw ponds and small lakes freeze shore to shore instantly from a breeze blowing across their still surface. The sudden freezing even caught the ripples the breeze caused-- in detail. We used to play with this, dropping pebbles in buckets left out overnight. The pebbles never reached bottom, and were caught in the cone of fall. Fascinating. No idea if a herd of horses could be caught in a flash-freezing super-cooled lake large enough to hold them all, but ducks and other water birds are caught all the time.

Dec. 09 2017 07:53 PM
Chris Smith from Sacramento, CA

At a previous job there was a small minifridge with one of those tiny metal freezer boxes in the top. I could create supercooled water about half the time by filling up a styrofoam cup with water from the water cooler, and and leaving it in that freezer box for a set amount of time, and I'd take it out and shake the cup a little and instant slushie. The ice was very soft, like softserve icecream, and could be eaten with a spoon.

That was my first experience with supercooling, and I didn't even know there was a term for it back then.

Dec. 09 2017 03:13 PM
David K from London, UK

Very pure, very cold water freezes instantly when subjected to shock. There's a video example of this on YouTube at:

I've witnessed this happening a couple of times in the absolute depths of winter in small lakes in the Scottish Highlands and in Sweden. The lakes were so still they looked like glass and when given a single very hard smack at the shallow margins with the flat of a wide oar, instantly started solidifying into ice. When I first encountered the Lake Ladoga story, it seemed entirely possible to me that the sudden slap of even a single hoof onto the surface of the water might have started a chain reaction which saw the terrified horses running into water that was already starting to entomb them.

Dec. 09 2017 11:50 AM
Mark Hacker from Cherry Creek, Colorado

I've seen demonstrations of super cooled liquids but never in nature and especially a whole lake. Great historical story. However, seeing the your cover photo of the frozen fox makes me sad. That poor unfortunate fox. That is not cool, just sad.

Dec. 08 2017 03:27 PM
Kelly from Calgary, AB

Hey Radiolab! Really enjoyed this episode. In case you weren't aware of this, Canadian film director Guy Madin featured this exact scenario of horses escaping from a fire to run into a body of water and freeze in his film "My Winnipeg" released in 2007. Listening to this episode, I immediately thought back to this film! Here's a link to the part of the film featuring the frozen horses:

Dec. 07 2017 07:18 PM
Daniel from Brooklyn, NY

Thanks for the amazing podcast
I have had this happen with soda, Specifically Coca-Cola.
I leave a bottle in the freezer, and remove it several hours later
when I remove it, the liquid instead is still unfrozen, however when I open the bottle the whole thing slowly freezes in a few seconds.
I think it may have something to do with the pressure of the gas dropping and causing the whole mixture to cool (like the principal behind refrigeration)
Similar in practice, but different in principal.
thanks again for the show

Dec. 06 2017 11:52 PM
Marshal from Las Vegas

How about a scenario where the lake was already partially frozen to allow the horses to break through the ice and froth the water, which can refreeze into a slush around the horses slowing them and then trapping them in the act of swimming? My metaphorical experiment is when I have a warm soda and pour it into a cup of ice it makes a frozen foam and all the ice sticks together?
If there was strong wind, possibly generated by the massive fire, the air could be cooling the lake very quickly. Not an instant freeze but a scene that could spark a number of tall tales.

Dec. 06 2017 05:37 PM
Phil Are Go

The very pedantic scientist who didn't approve of Jad's "memory" analogy for supercooled water molecules didn't seem very picky about how she herself mispronounces "nuculator".

Dec. 06 2017 03:28 PM
Joey from Spokane, WA

The super cool podcast got me thinking about this. I used to be under the impression that super heated water only happened with purified or distilled water heated in the microwave in a clean vessel. I once had a pot of tap water heating on the stove explode in my face when my hip bumped the stove. The water had many impurities in it (tap water) the pot had impurities (soap residue, dust, etc.), yet it still super heated to the point that when it popped, it flipped the pot upside down and threw water 10ft across my kitchen. My hypothesis for the only reason I wasn't severely burned is that the water expanded into steam so fast that it cooled enough to not destroy me. You can also put a Corona in the freezer and pull it out to find it's still liquid. Shake it gently and watch it freeze. My point being, water doesn't necessarily have to be completely free from impurities to super cool or super heat.

Dec. 06 2017 12:05 PM
Leigh Roberts from Pasadena, CA

I am so, so glad you did this particular episode. I witnessed this exact kind of event about 12 years ago when I was living in Westchester county, but never knew of this phenomenon and it perplexed me for years. I got into my car one frigid and still February morning. In my cup holder was a bottle of water, it had been opened and I guess I had drank a few sips. I had closed the cap. Once in the car I noticed the water was STILL liquid (not frozen), even though it was WELL below freezing outside and even colder overnight. Perplexed, I picked up the bottle and gave it a little shake. And then....WHAMO - like magic and impossibly the water instantly froze solid. I thought I was seeing things and lamented that no one was with me to witness it. I recounted the story to many people but no one had a clue how something like this could happen. So, thank you for giving me closure! I am a long time fan of Radiolab and a monthly supporter. :)

Dec. 06 2017 01:42 AM

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