Monday, October 12, 2009

"Water Ice" has been discovered

Water Ice
by Curt Tricarico

Finally! Water ice has been discovered on Mars. And last week NASA just bombed the Moon looking for water ice. But…. what the ?!?!?! is "water ice"? Is there such a thing? Years ago astronomical literature began referring to this new substance I never heard of before. They talked about the race to discover it on other worlds so we could easily colonize them. But, what is it? Is it liquid ice? Is it a slushy? Is it a margarita? Is that why Mars is often referred to as the Red Planet? A Mars covered in strawberry margarita would certainly make colonization more tantalizing to the tax payers.

(a Hubble image)

Do you know what water ice is? I don’t. I was born in America, I was taught to speak American English, and now I speak Spanish, but I have never heard of this substance called "water ice". To the best of my knowledge, "ice" is frozen H2O, "water" is liquid H2O, and "steam" is gaseous H2O. In fact, my college thermodynamics textbook assumes you believe that steam is gaseous H2O, and there is no need to refer to the "steam tables" in the back of the book as "water steam tables".

Not so for astronomers. In one small step the astronomical community has made an astronomical change to American English. It has taken the term "water" and changed its definition from "liquid H20" to simply "H2O". Additionally, "ice" no longer means "frozen H2O", but simply means "frozen". Because almost everyone on Earth speaks English, this small step on a typewriter is a giant leap for mankind. We must now qualify the term "ice" with the term "water" to make sure we know just what the heck we are talking about.

Thankfully, this frees up the term "ice" to be used throughout astronomy in phrases such as "ammonia ice" or "methane ice", which are so much easier to write than "frozen ammonia" or "frozen methane". If you write “ice” instead of “frozen” it will save 50% in ink, and during the next millenium these savings will nearly pay for an entire ink cartridge (about the same as the cost of a Space Shuttle). Unless, of course, we write the term "water liquid" more often, thus doubling our ink usage. I have a feeling we will, because people no longer know what the heck "water" is. (They think they know, but they are wrong.)

This whole mess started in 1925 when the DryIce Corporation of America was the first to market a product called “dry ice”. That was much easier to say than "frozen carbon dioxide". Some trademark THAT turned out to be! It was accepted by the scientific community so deeply that we forgot what "ice" used to mean. Evolution takes us places we would not dare tread on our own.

The 1980’s brought us Ice T and Ice Cube. These are 2 terms that both mean the same thing: "frozen rapper". I don’t mean “wrapper”, but rather a hip hop music sensation. Very unlike another 1980’s band, "Vanilla Ice".

Now that astronomers have evolved English, we can confidently stroll into a restaurant and ask for a cup of water, yet not know what we'll get. Will it be "water steam"? Will it be "water ice"? Neither, it will be "ice water"! (Even in Winter.)

Now here's a complicated term. According to astronomers, "ice water" would have to consist of chunks of "water ice" floating in a container of "water liquid". Try ordering a “container of water ice water liquid” and see what happens.

And when did it become common for people to ask for a cup of water? Was it the good ol’ days when water was unclean, and you didn't dare drink more than a half pint? It was probably safer to drink 100 proof whisky. But, when you ordered that you would say “whisky on the rocks”. Apparently, some people just don’t like the term ice at all, and refuse to acknowledge it. No wonder our culture parted ways with it so readily.

These days people can buy a 64 ounce soft drink, which is equal to two quarts. In the future will the term "cup", meaning a container used for drinking fluids, be replaced by the term "tookort"? If that day ever comes, I'll use the Spanish word "vaso", which means "vessel", which is what English speaking people used to drink from.

But, back to water ice. Have astronomers found any of that on Earth? I hope that no scientist ever finds water ice here. The day one does will be a sad day indeed. I will have to burn my thermodynamics text, not because the science is wrong, but because it will have been surpassed by the evolution of language. If I ever read it again I won't know what the heck it is talking about (not that I ever did).

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