The display had drawn a crowd—and it was easy to see why. In the wondrously interactive learning arcade at the Science Museum in London, the entire universe seemed to have come alive beneath the glass top of a simple black table. Pamelia and I stood at the edge of the table, looking down at what appeared to be spiral galaxies, supernovas and comets, all moving as if in a super-high-speed astronomy film—a film that, in reality, would have taken billions of years to shoot.
The mesmerizing, living artwork was in fact a display of chemistry and physics. The table was covered with a thin layer of water onto which pieces of dry ice—frozen carbon dioxide, temperature minus-109.3 degrees Fahrenheit—were being automatically dropped at regular intervals. As soon as the dry ice hit the water, it would start swirling and shooting across the surface while emitting a whitish fog. We were watching a solid object turn directly to gas in a process scientists call sublimation. Water speeds up the sublimation of dry ice. Those of you with platform shoes and love beads in your closet may recall seeing the fog of dry ice sublimation created by disco smoke machines.
Dare I label the images on the tabletop as art? Sure I do. It's not exactly the pure art of nature in the sense that cloud formations and sunsets are. Oh, wait, did someone say that human pollution helps makes sunsets spectacular? Scratch that example. Oh, and jet contrails sometimes contribute to the gorgeous skyscapes we see? Hmmm...let's see, flowers...no, those are often human-created hybrids...wave patterns...maybe, if they're not created by speedboats...um, the multi-hued geological layers of canyon walls?...O.K., those will do, since they predate us and our meddling hands.
Anyway, my point is, somebody built the Science Museum display; it didn't sprout naturally in a field. So it certainly is a planned, creative piece, even if its beauty and depth come from a natural process (dry ice turning to gas) that is out of the hands of the display-builder. But since when do artists always control everything they're creating? Doesn't art often emerge spontaneously, unpredictably, as materials and colors blend in unforeseen ways, as the subjective human eye and the unsteady human hand and the unfettered human brain spin concepts and textures and emotions into something previously unimagined?
Now here's another twist: Dry ice does not occur in nature on planet Earth. It can be found on Mars, and no doubt on other frigid planets in the cosmos, but here it is an artificial creation used mostly to preserve food and wow kids in science class. In fact, I might argue that it is but one sub-zero piece of the most world-changing artificial technology ever devised: refrigeration. Think of how the face of the Earth would be different—where humans would be living (and in what numbers), what they would be eating, what their buildings would look like—if nothing could be air conditioned, and few foods could be shipped long distances or kept from spoiling. The all-important automobile might not have created the same United Sprawl of America if, for example, huge swaths of the Sun Belt were too hot for office buildings and daily living.
But I digress. The visual expression of carbon dioxide—at least as seen in the piece masquerading as an educational exhibit at the Science Museum—is a lovely addition to the oeuvre of nature-linked and naturally revealing art. That is, it's truly cool.
We've had a late fall here in Maine. At our house, the leaves held on a few weeks longer than normal. This week, oddly, many of the trees went bare on the same morning. I looked out the window and saw leaves raining down from our Japanese maple, our many oaks and our brilliant yellow rugosa rose bushes. What was up with all these leaves going down?
I'm guessing that some rain the night before had started the process, and a touch of morning breeze was finishing the job. But the true cause could only be seen with a microscope. As days grow shorter and colder, trees start forming tiny "abscission" cells at the points where leaf stems connect to branches. The trees in effect start cutting their own dead leaves off by building a wall of cells that breaks the leaves' connection to the trees.
Chemistry and physics are part of that process too, of course. And perhaps a touch of Shakespearean tragedy. If disloyal Brutus's stabbing of Julius Caesar was "the most unkindest cut of all," as the Bard wrote, then the oak's callous shedding of its steadfast photosynthsizers must be the most unkindest cut of fall.
As previously mentioned, we've decided to open The Naturalist's Notebook for some holiday fun and shopping. Below are the days and hours. Hope we see you!
Friday, Nov. 25 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Saturday, Nov. 26 from 9 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.
Saturday, Dec. 3 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Saturday, Dec. 10, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.