Sciency Words: (proper noun) a special series here on Planet Pailly focusing on the definitions and etymologies of science or science-related terms. Today on Sciency Words, we’re talking about:
I have a friend who teases me whenever I use the word ice. This is because, depending on what we’re talking about, I can’t just say “ice.” As soon as the conversation turns to space stuff (as it often does when I’m around, for some reason), I feel the need to say “water ice.” I feel the need—no, the compulsion to specify that I mean the frozen form of water, as opposed to the frozen form of something else.
In more normal, down-to-earth sorts of conversation, I don’t feel that same compulsion. Water ice is the only kind of ice we’re likely to encounter here on Earth. On rare occasions, if you’re at a science fair, or maybe a Halloween party, you might encounter carbon dioxide ice (a.k.a. dry ice). But that’s a very rare special case.
However, as soon as we start talking about other planets and moons, or comets and asteroids, the word ice takes on a much broader meaning. In these more cosmic conversations, you really do need to be specific about which ice you’re talking about. To quote from a recent issue of The Planetary Report:
In the strictest definition, ice is the solid form of water. However, planetary astronomers often use “ice” to refer to the solid form of any condensable molecule.
Beyond Earth, and especially in the outer Solar System, we find all sorts of crazy ices, like ammonia ice, methane ice, or nitrogen ice. Along with the water ice and CO2 ice we Earthlings are more familiar with, these ices make up the hard crusts of many planetary bodies, like Titan or Pluto.
We also find ice crystals (of various types) forming in the clouds of planets like Uranus and Neptune. In fact, Uranus and Neptune are often called “ice giants” in large part because of all those weird ices found in their atmospheres.
Starting next week, I’m planning to take a much closer look at those ice giant planets. I expect my research to turn up plenty of questions, but very few answers. Uranus and Neptune are, at this point, the least well explored planets in the Solar System.
So stay tuned!
P.S.: I want to start referring to all forms of igneous rock as “magma ice.” After all, what is igneous rock but frozen magma? I can’t think of any good reason why the term “magma ice” shouldn’t apply.