The science reality behind science fiction. [Credit: Niko McCarty | CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]
“Some say the world will end in fire/Some say in ice,” wrote Robert Frost in 1920. Kurt Vonnegut’s 1963 masterpiece Cat’s Cradle is about the latter.
Is Vonnegut’s world-ending ice based on actual science? In a word, somewhat.
In Cat’s Cradle, life on Earth is destroyed when a substance called ice-nine falls into the ocean. Vonnegut’s ice-nine is a form of water that remains solid at room temperature; it won’t melt until it reaches at least 114.4 degrees Fahrenheit. It also has the unfortunate property of snapping any water molecules it touches into the ice-nine configuration. Once introduced to the biosphere, it sparks an unstoppable chain reaction that turns all liquid water in the world into ice-nine.
Vonnegut was likely inspired by a mix of real-world events, including his older brother’s research with cloud seeding, the Cuban missile crisis and the creation of the atomic bomb.
Time for the cool reveal: ice-nine exists, and so does ice that stays solid at room temperature. But they aren’t the same thing… and they (thankfully) don’t operate quite how Vonnegut described.
In real life, ice IX, as it’s stylized, is a special configuration of solid water that forms at supercool temperatures — between -85 degrees Fahrenheit and -162 degrees Fahrenheit — and super high pressures — between 200 and 400 times Earth’s standard atmosphere. Unlike regular ice, which is arranged in six-sided crystals, its crystals are rectangular.
Ice IX was discovered in 1968, five years after Cat’s Cradle was published, but probably wasn’t named for its fictional counterpart. Its assigned number just happened to be next on the list of what is now seventeen known laboratory-created ice derivatives.
So what about that room temperature ice? Creating it has become somewhat of a grail quest for physicists. At this point, a few methods have been successful, though none have proven especially practical. One technique confines water molecules to nano-sized spaces, which causes the molecules to become “spontaneously ordered” (i.e., solid).
Another approach applies enormous pressure to liquid water and then electrifies it, á la Frankenstein. While none of these unusual forms of ice occur naturally on Earth, scientists speculate that they might be possible under exotic conditions found in space.
Though not synonymous, ice-nine and room temperature ice do exist, albeit under very specific conditions. However, given how difficult they are to create, Vonnegut’s ice-pocalypse doesn’t seem likely to happen anytime soon.