Ice Rules

By Peter Halstead

Graupel on the windowpanes—
Before as pure as summer glass—
Now etched with diamond lanes
Through which flooded futures pass,

Skies pasted in from former snows,
Where the frozen hands of time
Cut across our watchlike windows
With interstices of rime,

As if the lattices of frost
Were crystal paths down which
The weather is embossed,
Whose crystal needles stitch

The world together in their mazes,
From where we oversee
The softness of its distant faces
Cast in winter’s hard geometry.

San Francisco
October 5th and 6th, 2013

May Day, 2016


This is a poem about the hard path from childhood into maturity. The rigid designs imposed unexpectedly on the clear future we expect in our youth force us into directions that we might not have chosen, but which are nonetheless part of the universe, woven into the strands of a cosmic pattern.
This is also a poem about quick ice or snap freezing, also called glassy water, which freezes instantly into ice. This phenomenon is an energy exchange or phase transformation. It’s how matter can move across the universe faster than light. The frost on interstellar dust is quick ice.
The physics of such miracles involves an intensely poetic vocabulary, invoking lattice dynamics, Dirac string dynamics, Ising spins, the Mpemba effect, Pauling’s model for proton disorder, Coulombic interaction, quantum tunneling processes, the crystal field barrier, the diffusion of unconfined particles, the Ewald summation method, the Metropolis Monte Carlo algorithm, a vestige of the Kasteleyn transition unique to topologically constrained systems, Zeeman energy, the dual diamond lattice, closed-circuit geometry, and the Bernal-Fowler ice rules.
But what these concepts allow is even more metaphoric and literary than their language suggests.
Although nothing can officially go faster than the speed of light (which is also the speed of gravity), in fact there are forces outside the laws of relativity that alter the multiverse simultaneously, with no respect for time or space.
One such force is inflation, through which the entire multiverse (stars, planets, dark matter, time, space, gravity) was expanded in less than a second, formed out of an already-present lattice of microwave energy, which continues to provide an invisible net for seemingly empty space. So existence went from an invisible grid to 400 billion galaxies in a matter of seconds, vastly beyond any speed conceivable to science a few decades ago. Cosmologists have theorized that we’ll eventually return to that simple invisible energy grid, at which time there may be another cataclysmic expansion.
Another force is that of twin particles in quantum theory. Any change to one particle is reflected instantly in its twin, even if the twin is at the other end of the universe, an energy exchange unaffected by the limits Einstein predicted for the speed of light.
A third force is that of a thermodynamic phase transition, where, say, an ocean of supercooled water turns instantly to ice, known as a homogenous nucleation, the way a windowpane can suddenly turn into a lattice of ice crystals. An example of this in literature can be found in Jules Verne’s Off on a Comet, where a child throws a rock into flat-calm sea, causing it to freeze up. Here is the passage:

Notwithstanding the increasing cold, the sea, unruffled as it was by a breath of wind, still retained its liquid state. It is an established fact that water, under this condition of absolute stillness, will remain uncongealed at a temperature several degrees below zero, whilst experiment, at the same time, shows that a very slight shock will often be sufficient to convert it into solid ice. It had occurred to Servadac that if some communication could be opened with Gourbi Island, there would be a fine scope for hunting expeditions. Having this ultimate object in view, he assembled his little colony upon a projecting rock at the extremity of the promontory, and having called Nina and Pablo out to him in front, he said: "Now, Nina, do you think you could throw something into the sea?"
"I think I could," replied the child, "but I am sure that Pablo would throw it a great deal further than I can."
"Never mind, you shall try first."
Putting a fragment of ice into Nina's hand, he addressed himself to Pablo:
"Look out, Pablo; you shall see what a nice little fairy Nina is! Throw, Nina, throw, as hard as you can."
Nina balanced the piece of ice two or three times in her hand, and threw it forward with all her strength.
A sudden thrill seemed to vibrate across the motionless waters to the distant horizon, and the Gallian Sea had become a solid sheet of ice!

Anything faster than light is, according to Einstein, going backwards in time; it also will have infinite mass. A variant of this is called Tolman’s paradox, wherein you can telephone into the past and change the future. To quote Yogi Berra, the future ain’t what it used to be. It is more recently called the butterfly effect, where going back in time and stepping on a butterfly will change everything that happens in the future.
One quantum explanation for how special relativity tolerates such exceptions (of which Einstein was aware) comes from Max Planck’s quantum mechanics, which posits that there are parallel universes, where separate scenarios can function without affecting one another. The glimmers of information traded between these worlds are precognitions, flash-forwards or flash-backwards, anticipations or recollections, which we all feel viscerally now and then. Some entertaining side effects of these causality paradoxes can be found in the Wikipedia entry on the grandfather paradox.