The Ice Tower

The aim of WMBW is to explore wrongness – ways of being wrong, reasons for being wrong, reasons we persist in wrongness, etc.  But ultimately, wrongness isn’t the only reason we should be humble.  Simple ignorance is another.

As children, we’re used to not knowing all the answers.  When a teacher or parent first tells us that bees make honey or that the moon revolves around the earth, we accept such revelations easily, because we haven’t already formed contrary opinions.  But as we get older, learning more and more about the things that comprise our daily lives, we start to learn new things less often.  That experience, I think, leads us to form a very false impression that we already know most of what there is to know. 

I mean, sure, maybe we don’t know about astrophysics and quarks, maybe not about the history of medieval Bulgaria or the tonal qualities of Mandarin. We acknowledge there are some things we don’t know.  But our daily lives don’t require us to know about quarks or the history of medieval Bulgaria.  What we do encounter, day in and day out, holds few surprises. I already know how ladders work, and traffic lights, and can openers, and flush toilets, and the hinges on doors. I already know my wife’s name, and what time we usually eat dinner, and where the trash can is, and – well, pretty much everything I encounter in my day to day life.

This adult “state of knowing answers” gradually comes to replace the childhood “state of ignorance.”  Especially if we’re parents, or teachers, we get used to informing our children or students about the way things are.  It’s the very definition, perhaps, of being an adult, that we know what we need to know about the world around us. 

Lately, I’ve enjoyed asking myself this question: “Of all the things in the universe that might be known, how much of it do I actually know?”  If I’d started asking myself that question at the age of six, I think my answer then might have been around 5%. If I’d kept on asking it, I think my answer might have risen to about 40 or 50% in my late teens. These days, I’d wonder how many scores of zeroes there ought to be between the decimal point and whatever nanogram of real knowledge I might have acquired about the world as a whole..

But helpful as it might be, the problem with that exercise is that it’s like standing on a beach,  looking across the ocean, and trying to estimate how big the ocean is, based on what we can see.  It’s hard enough to estimate the size of what we can see, as far as the horizon, but more fundamentally, it’s simply not possible to estimate the size of what we can’t see, beyond the horizon.  So the abstract question, “How much do I know of all there is to know?” is really of limited value.   We can’t estimate the size of what we don’t know.

Meanwhile, as I get older, my daily life encounters include fewer and fewer things that I don’t know anything about.  So inevitably, I think, I’m seduced into the false impression that I mostly understand the world. 

So, perhaps more valuable than pondering the scope of what we don’t know are those occasions in life when something falls from the sky, lands in our lap or smacks us in the face that we simply can’t explain. My recent confrontation with the ice tower was one of those things.

Karen and I love to watch the cardinals, chickadees, titmice and wrens that our back yard bird feeder and bird bath attract. The bird bath is an enameled metal dish, about two or three inches deep and about twenty four inches across.  It sits on a stand about three feet off the ground.  We clean the water of debris from time to time, changing it so the birds will have clean water to  drink and bathe in.  But when winter brings cold spells, the water freezes into a solid block of ice. 

In ten winters of looking at that bird bath, I’d often seen it freeze over, but I’d never seen anything like what I saw a few days ago.  Something was sticking up, vertically, close to the outside rim – maybe eight or ten inches higher than the rest of the ice.  My first thought was that it was a bird, light in color – like a dove or a mocking bird, perhaps – but it seemed whiter than white – almost clear, like an icicle.   And as I watched from the kitchen window, it didn’t move. Surely, no bird could have fallen asleep at the water’s edge and become frozen solid. 

Curiosity getting the better of me, I went outside for a closer look. What I found I couldn’t explain.  The birdbath was frozen, as I expected.  The surface of the ice block that now occupied the bath was a flat horizontal plane, as it had always been in the past, like a miniature skating rink – except for the vertical protrusion I’d mistaken for a white bird.  Closer inspection revealed that it was, in fact, a little cylindrical tower of ice, about an inch and a half or two inches in diameter, that projected vertically eight or ten inches above the horizontal surface.  A little ice sculpture model of the leaning tower of Pisa? 

I touched it to confirm that it was, indeed, ice.  I wondered what had caused the little tower to form, rising so high above the surface.  I took some pictures of it.

There were no trees, roofs or other overhangs above the birdbath, so I concluded the tower had not been formed from anything dripping from above, like stalagmites are formed. There were no cracks in the ice or other signs of fracture that would suggest the frozen tower had landed in the horizontal ice, sticking like a javelin in the ground.  There was nothing beneath the tower that would suggest it was rooted in anything but the ice block itself.  It wasn’t like separate pieces had become stuck together the way ice cubes might stick together in your freezer or in a bag of ice bought at the Quickie Mart.  Every surface was smooth. This little tower seemed at one with the block of ice from which it protruded, as if they’d been formed together.

But even if a waterfall can freeze solid in the midst of its descent, how could this water have frozen solid, in the tower shape it now held?  I called the grandchildren over, challenging them to explain the phenomenon we all could see, promising a prize for whoever could come up with a plausible theory.  In the process, we noticed what seemed at first glance like a feather in the middle of the tower, captured like some prehistoric bug in a piece of amber.  I took another photo, trying to capture the appearance of the “feather.”

Jacob theorized that the tower had been formed when a bird who’d come to bathe had gotten a wing stuck in the frozen ice.  When it pulled itself free, it had left that single feather stuck in the ice.  But the “feather,” I pointed out, did not appear to be arranged in a flat plane, like any normal feather.  Its parts radiated in all directions from the center, like the bristles of a bottle brush.  That, and the inherent implausibility of Jacob’s explanation, prevented me from awarding him the prize right way.  Doubting his “stuck bird” theory, I did wonder if an actual feather had landed in the freezing water, had remained upright, and had somehow been made to radiate like the bristles of a bottle brush as it got encased in the tower of ice.  After a couple of days, though, the whole feather theory melted away with the ice. There was no feather left behind when the ice departed.

So there we have it.  As of this writing, the tower remains a mystery to me.  My vague partial theory is that some sort of gas in the water (or from the enameled metal bottom of the bird bath) had started to rise in that particular spot just as the water froze.  That the gas kept on rising while the ice was still “semi-frozen” enough to be malleable.  The bristles of the bottle brush did look like paths taken by gas bubbles radiating from a central trunk, like the branches of a Christmas tree. But whether the “rising gas” theory makes any sense is beyond my understanding of what happens when ice forms, and why I’d never seen such a tower before, and what sort of gas might have formed bubbles in a bottle brush formation, and more.

Among the small but learned group of scholars and philosophers who read this blog, there’s probably a natural philosopher among you who can explain the appearance of the ice tower.  I am tempted to offer a prize, like I did with my grandkids, for the most plausible explanation. If you are as ignorant of such things as I am, I’m sure I’d be amazed at your creativity.  So please tell me what you think! 

Meanwhile, I’m not sure I really want to know the truth.  I mean, what good will it do me? Satisfy my craving for knowledge? Preserve my self-image as someone who knows what’s really going on in the world he inhabits? Perhaps the best explanation for my ice tower is that it came from the fairy world, a gift from some wise creature who figured I’ve gotten too old, that I already think I know too much.  Perhaps I should just hang the pictures above my desk as a reminder of the many things out there I can never hope to understand, even just outside my kitchen window. 

– Joe