February 2004

Vapor Caper

A cold night and a hot pot make for sublime song


Photograph courtesy of Flickr user liz west

On a crushingly cold New Year’s Eve a few years ago, I made the only New Year’s resolution I ever honored, doubtless be­cause it required nothing more than staying awake a few more hours until the temperature fell to minus thirty de­grees, at which threshold, a learned friend assured me, we could experience the sublime. How could I resist?

My wife and I had abandoned our car late that afternoon when the en­gine simply stopped running on Adi­rondak Loj Road, in North Elba, figuring, correctly, that the mi­nus-fifteen-degree temperature had done in the timing belt. Felicitously, the car following us contained two other couples visiting for the holiday, and after moving our skis and stuff into their car we squeezed into what struck me as a textbook example of an egregiously overloaded vehicle. The driver commented on the stunning loss of pickup when he accelerated, and then put the heater fan on high to com­pensate for all the cold we let in during our colossally clumsy at­tempt to accommodate the skis, poles and humans.

The noise of the heater eliminated all conversation, so we shivered in silence until the driver shouted an expletive as his car bottomed out on the bedrock that protrudes through my gravel driveway. Four of us got out and walked the hundred yards to the house, which had dropped from seventy to fifty degrees during the five hours we spent skiing. Everyone walked immediately to the stove and huddled around it, as though in an exaggerated attempt to mimic how we had squashed ourselves into the car.

I turned on the overhead fan, the better to blow down the hot air trapped in the peak of the ceiling, and fed the wood stove, keeping it at 750 degrees. We took showers, had wine and snacks, a fabulous dinner and, at midnight, a Champagne toast to the New Year and our collective lack of resolutions, followed by some spontaneous dancing.

Even as we danced, the enormous high-pressure system over Quebec continued to move down and cover the Adirondacks with extremely dry, still, cold air. The temperature stead­ily dropped. The sky was so dark and the stars so legion it looked like a parody of Van Gogh’s Starry Night. Each time I ventured onto the porch to get wood for the stove the starlight cast shadows of my movements. The temperature by two a.m. had fallen to minus twenty-seven degrees, and my wife and all of our guests except my learned friend had dropped into the deepest of sleeps.

Extremely intellectually oriented, my friend, the extra-terrestrial consultant to Barnes & Noble Books, mentioned that in reading a seminal paper on fluidics he had discovered that at a certain threshold of temperature below zero, water vapor would immediately sublime—go from a gaseous to a solid state without transitioning as a liquid, with the result that this instantaneous metamorphosis produces a sound that even the most staid of scientists described as molecular singing.

I poured us each another glass of Cabernet and asked, matter-of-factly, if we might reach such a threshold tonight, or rather this morning, it being a little before three a.m. and so bright and clear the Milky Way looked like a long thin cloud lit up by lunatic starlight. My polymath friend nodded that it might well be a morning to test the hypothesis of molecular song.

I went out to get a few logs for the fire and a wedge of gelid air filled half the room with condensation, making it look as if the Milky Way had decided to drop by for a New Year’s nightcap. I had to bang one log against an­other be­cause they had frozen together. My breath shot out in front of me as though my astral being were fleeing my gross corporeal form, and the bite of the cold felt downright scary.

My intellectual friend and I broke out a couple of fancy cigars from the Dominican Republic and started de­signing our experiment, figuring it was foolish not to test the sublimation of water vapor to ice, and the concomitant song of the transition, given that optimal conditions prevailed and all the sensible people likely to veto our agenda had passed out hours ago. By way of strengthening our re­solve, my friend observed that in ad­dition to the vapor we would create by boiling water, the water itself would also, if not sublime, turn in­stantly to ice and produce a sound we should perhaps record. Mercifully, I didn’t have a tape recorder handy.

So we pulled out all manner of pots and pans (making considerable noise but not enough to drown out the snores issuing from three directions), the better to figure out which one would best serve our purpose. I suggested a good old two-quart saucepan with a long handle with which I felt confident I could fling a quart of boiling water and its attendant vapor high into the air, imagining that a lofty arc of boiling water and vapor would fare better than a higgledy-piggledy waist-level splash of the same.

When the water came to a boil, I lifted the saucepan as though it were a tennis racket and stood poised as a player waiting to return a serve. My friend opened the door and scooted onto my front porch. The whole bottom half of the room filled with vapor. A chill hit my ankles and in nanoseconds had submerged me to my waist. I ran outside, stopped and flung the boiling water and vapor as high as I could.

It sang like a giant choir cut off as soon as it started, groaned for an in­stant like someone taking a punch in the solar plexus, and then plinked onto the icy ground like a fallen crystal wind chime. My mustache froze as my friend and I leapt up with glee at the results of our experiment, hugged each other mightily and raced back into the house, slamming the door loudly behind us. I heard my wife stirring in another room at the moment I realized my hands were frozen to the saucepan and the runnels from my melting mustache were making my chin itch something awful.

I raced to the sink and rinsed my saucepan handle/hand under hot wa­ter, which, with much tingling, separated them reassuringly quickly, at the very mo­ment my wife appeared in the living room wondering aloud what we were doing. Giggling, we confessed what we were up to, poured her a glass of Cabernet and put another quart of water on to boil.

The second experiment worked even better than the first, what with my deploying a two-handed baseball swing to arc the boiling water and vapor into the air. The singing sounded like a phonograph needle bouncing onto and immediately off of an old LP of the Westminster Boys’ Choir hitting a high note. The guttural groan was right out of a heavyweight boxing match, the falling pieces of ice a gentle, ethereal tinkle.

The night sparkled so brightly we could see the numerous little ice shards we had made reflecting like a bunch of smashed glasses on the surface of the snow, which looked like a vast and undulating field of marzipan littered with black spruces, white pines and balsam firs, framed by a black sky running riot with stars.

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