Posted February 24, 2006
A little known secret is quickly growing into a worldwide scandal of unimaginable size and intensity: scientists do not know why ice is slippery. I am sure that many among you remember the textbook e planation that the pressure of the ice skate melts the ice and the skate slides on the water which then freezes. But now, the dedicated reporters of the New York Times have uncovered the scandal which is growing into what some claim to be the Waterloo for the Melting Ice Theory (MIT).
A public outrage is spreading across continents over how science books have misrepresented why ice is slippery while scientists knew that the explanation was erroneous. What motives are guiding the 'MIT' lobby to surpress the truth about why ice is slippery?
In a hard hitting article in the New York Times Kenneth Chang is showing how the scandal is slowly unraveling and how the ivory tower of science has been dealing with it.
Some scientists, despite facing the inevitable backlash from their colleagues are no longer staying quiet. Although persistent rumors of scientists having lost their funding for spring break ski trips are spreading, the veracity of these rumors has yet to be determined.
Ice, said Robert M. Rosenberg, an emeritus professor of chemistry at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wis., and a visiting scholar at Northwestern University, "is a very mysterious solid."
Dr. Rosenberg wrote an article looking at the slipperiness of ice in the December issue of Physics Today, because he kept coming across the wrong explanation for it, one that dates back more than a century.
For more than a century, scientist and science textbooks have been promoting the slippery slope explanation while dogmatically surpressing those who tried to assail the leading theory of 'slippery ice'. Who is trying to hide this mystery from science and worse from public scrutiny?
According to the frequently cited -- if incorrect -- explanation of why ice is slippery under an ice skate, the pressure exerted along the blade lowers the melting temperature of the top layer of ice, the ice melts and the blade glides on a thin layer of water that refreezes to ice as soon as the blade passes.
"People will still say that when you ask them," Dr. Rosenberg said. "Textbooks are full of it."
But the explanation fails, he said, because the pressure-melting effect is small. A 150-pound person standing on ice wearing a pair of ice skates exerts a pressure of only 50 pounds per square inch on the ice. (A typical blade edge, which is not razor sharp, is about one-eighth of an inch wide and about 12 inches long, yielding a surface area of 1.5 square inches each or 3 square inches for two blades.) That amount of pressure lowers the melting temperature only a small amount, from 32 degrees to 31.97 degrees. Yet ice skaters can easily slip and fall at temperatures much colder.
While alternative explanation have been proposed, they have so far failed to present the details necessary for such theories to be accepted. Some critics of the MIT theory have assailed these explanations as 'just so stories' and 'pathetically lacking in detail'. They argue the existence of a specified and complex process shows that it is time for science to accept that the slippery of ice may be best explained by Intelligent Design.