The Quantum Electrodynamics of Snowflakes, Ice skating, Exobiology and other such matters

The surface of ice exhibits the same richness of phase-transition phenomena common to all materials. As such it acts as an ideal test bed of both theory and experiment; it is readily available, transparent, optically birefringent, and probing it in the laboratory does not require cryogenics or ultrahigh vacuum apparatus. Systematic study reveals the range of critical phenomena, equilibrium and nonequilibrium phase-transitions, and, most relevant to this talk, premelting, that are traditionally studied in more simply bound solids. Moreover, along with helium, it is the only other condensed matter system that demonstrates Casimir behavior. Thus, while this makes investigation of ice as a material appealing from the perspective of the physicist, its ubiquity and importance in the natural environment also make ice compelling to a broad range of disciplines in the Earth and planetary sciences. In this talk the physics of premelting of ice is described and a number of the many tendrils of the basic phenomena as they play out on land, in the oceans, and throughout the atmosphere and biosphere are developed.


Slides (PDF)