Sunday, February 2, 2014

Watching Icicles: A MidWinter Meditation on H20 (2 February 2014)

     It is Brighidmas (Imblog, Candlemas); the old marker indicating we are halfway through the winter.  This morning in meditation I imagined sitting beneath the rock-overhang at a local overlook. To keep warm I lit a small, iconic fire in which I saw a symbolic representation of the origin of the universe. The cosmos began in ‘fire.’ The Big Bang was hotter than anything we can imagine, based as our experiences are in the current phase of cosmological expansion where the background radiation is close to absolute zero. It will end in ice and darkness; if current projections are ultimately correct.

       Before me, suspended in stalactite attitude from the rough edges of the sandstone rock-face that sheltered me from the elements, were a group of icicles that had formed during the recent melt-freeze-melt-freeze pattern of weather we’ve been having. Some were quite large; others we smaller. The arrangement of the icicles reminded me of upside down organ pipes or perhaps pan-pipes, descending in size from the left to the right along the rock-face edge.

     As I meditated on the icicles, I imagined seeing their internal structure, with crystals arranged in an ordered, hexagonal lattice. I imagined the 60° rotations about particular axes that characterize the internal structure of ice.

     It was a severe day; the temperature had not risen above - 5° C all day and, as I lit my little symbolic fire, there was not a sign of liquid water on the icicles. However, as my fire began to take hold and burn more brightly, it also grew in heat. Soon, there were small droplets of water forming on some of those icicles hanging suspended nearest to the fire. These droplets then began to run as the heat intensified; I then imagined the fixed state of the molecules in the icicles being undermined by the increased energy affecting them! As the ice melted, the crystalline lattice previously predominant in the ice ‘let go’ and the molecules began to slide, as they picked up enough heat from the radiation from my fire! In the running water droplets I imagined a jumble of molecules in a more or less uniform arrangement; responding over all to the force of gravity, now drawing them down the side of the transforming icicles; heading for the ground.

     The first water droplet, having beaded at the end of its stalactite, now fell—descending to the rock floor on which I was sitting. As one after another droplets fell, I imagined the inner symmetry of the watery little pool that formed in a trough on the floor of the rock shelter.

    It amazed me to think of the water as more symmetric than the ice; as the water molecules can be subjected to more transformations – through rotations around axes – while its appearance remains the same. In water, the side of each hydrogen molecule is packed in against the 2 oxygen atoms of its neighbor. This is what gives water its viscous, liquid texture.

     I watched this transformation go on for some time, until the icicles were almost raining drops of water down into the little trough at the edge of the rock shelter.

    Then, water droplets running back along the underside of the rock shelter began slipping off the rough sandstone and falling into fire, being transformed immediately into vapor! Here was another phase transition! I imagined molecules in the water droplets suddenly gaining enough energy from the fire that they let go of their partners and flew off in random directions into the air. As more water droplets began to fall into the fire or near it, the rock shelter began to fill up with steam. I imagined that in this gas there was no longer any pattern to the orientations of the H2O molecules. Thus, rotating them would produce no change in the overall appearance of the gas; the water vapor was more symmetric than the water had been!

     I was suspended in a quiet state for minutes and then what seemed like hours, meditating on this transformation and, while in this state, the fire died out and guttered! Then, as if in a dream, I saw the icicles – what remained of them – becoming less and less prone to releasing bundles of molecules and sending them, as water, to the ground. I saw the water falling near the dwindling fire remaining in a watery state. I imagined that, if I stayed there long enough, I would witness the falling droplets of water re-freezing on the ground, becoming ice on the dirty sandstone floor. I imagined that, as evening came and the temperature of the air fell further, that everything would return to ice.

     As these phase transitions took place before my eyes and in my imagination’s vision, I began to meditate on the nature of the universe as a whole. I reflected on the idea that the universe had undergone a series of phase transitions of its own, starting at a state of very high symmetry and moving to a state of much lower symmetry. I imagined the very early universe as like the cloud of steam in the rock shelter, and then the early formation of stars and galaxies being what happened as steam reconverted to water. (Whether this actually happened in the rock shelter around me is beside the point. I imagined it happening!)

      At this stage, the universe had less symmetry than it had just after the Big Bang. The Big Bang is said to have been a moment of the highest possible symmetry. As the universe has continued cooling from this earliest, water-like phase to where we are now—an ice phase to be sure; with the universe more or less ‘frozen’ to the point where it has solid matter as a constant constituent—symmetry has continued to decrease. This process is mirrored in the return of steam to water to ice in the rock shelter around me.

     As I reflect on this imaginative experience I see myself getting up and hiking home, in a state of natural contemplative ek-stasis, before I too begin to freeze! For, like everything else in the universe, if you cool a living body down far enough it will die; and everything liquid in it will freeze.

[A meditation inspired by a passage in Brian Greene’s The Fabric of the Cosmos, 2004; pp. 252-254]

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