Geek Trivia: The ice is right

How many different types of water ice crystal are known to exist?

Remember the old days when science only expected you to know about three states of matter: Solid, liquid, and gas? Then they started in with the fourth state -- plasma -- which looks suspiciously like a gas except that the electrons are misbehaving under the guise of ionization. The majority of known matter in the universe is plasma, so we were willing to put up with the change, but those pesky physicists are really getting out of hand now.

Bose-Einstein condensates? String-net liquid? Electron-degenerate matter? There are roughly 20 known or theorized states of matter in the lexicon these days, and most of them display mind-boggling characteristics and occur only under extraordinary conditions -- like, say, in the heart of a neutron star.

This, of course, makes no mention of phases of matter, which are different than (but not unrelated to) states of matter. Phases are in some respects subsets of states, and the proverbial example of this relationship is the difference between diamond and graphite.

Both diamond and graphite are pure carbon -- solid crystalline carbon, in fact -- but they are different phases of the same element. Diamonds and graphite have different crystalline structures -- each boasting significantly different physical characteristics -- but both are still the same state of carbon.

Now, if you think the difference between phases and states of matter is no concern to the average Joe, let me introduce you to the late Kurt Vonnegut's novel Cat's Cradle, which supposes a new form of water called Ice Nine. Ice Nine, you see, is solid at room temperature and forces all other water to align to its crystalline structure on contact. Drop it in the ocean, and it's adios life on Earth.

Thankfully, the real ninth type of dihydrogen monoxide crystal (i.e., water ice) isn't quite so grey gooey, but it's a little different than the everyday ice that coats the inside of your household freezer. Moreover, there are more than just nine known kinds of ice crystal out there, though none of them quite match up to Vonnegut's lethal phase of water crystal.


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By Jay Garmon

Jay Garmon has a vast and terrifying knowledge of all things obscure, obtuse, and irrelevant. One day, he hopes to write science fiction, but for now he'll settle for something stranger -- amusing and abusing IT pros. Read his full profile. You can a...