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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.

Support Radiolab today at Radiolab.org/donate.

Guests:

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

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Comments [17]

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 Youtube.com there's a short video called "My Winnipeg." (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LfDyPHw3NSc) 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?

Dan

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

Fantastic episode!

Dec. 11 2017 01:12 PM
Alex

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: https://youtu.be/iHqNh8QqIrU

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: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AjnpTg85wqY

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
-Daniel

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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